Suddenly, there is uncertainty surrounding both the Eagles offensive and defensive coordinator jobs.
As if Andy Reid needed more to worry about heading into what should be a make-or-break season for his future in Philadelphia.
While much of the attention since the end of the Eagles season has been on what, if anything, the team will do with defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, Reid might face a more vexing problem if he loses Marty Mornhinweg to a head coaching opportunity.
Before we get too far, a couple caveats: just because Mornhinweg is interviewing in Oakland doesn’t mean he’ll get the job; there are other attractive candidates in play there. And while it makes sense that Indianapolis and new GM Ryan Grigson would reach out to Mornhinweg, there’s no indication yet that that has happened. So as of today, there’s a good chance Marty is back on the Eagles sidelines next year. But he’s been coaching football since 1985 and his only time as a head man were those two disastrous years in Detroit. There’s no question that Mornhinweg would love to get another chance to be the man in charge and to amend his coaching legacy in a place with more stability and a competent front office. Oakland might not fit that bill, but Marty might not have many more chances, so if he gets an opportunity, you would expect he would jump on it (and not because he’s fleeing a sinking ship, as some have hinted at on Twitter, but because it’s a chance for professional advancement).
Which would leave Reid with a significant hole to fill. For all the criticism of the Eagles offense, here is where the team has ranked in scoring in the past four years: eighth, third, fifth, sixth. That is production and Mornhinweg has had a lot to do with it. Yes, Reid still has a big hand in the offense, but in Mornhinweg the coach has a like-minded thinker who he can trust innately. The two coaches talk alike and seem to think alike, so much so that when something goes right or wrong on offense, it's hard to figure out where to assign credit or blame between the two.
I’m reminded of a scene from training camp. It was the second part of the light two-a-days, the part that, under the NFL’s new CBA, is pretty much a less-glorified walk-through. Mornhinweg, standing in his trade-mark wrap around sunglasses, silently watched Mike Vick, Vince Young and Mike Kafka go through a series of drop backs. Sometimes they turned right, sometimes left, sometimes faking a hand-off, sometimes three steps, other times more. It was all about footwork. Mornhinweg watched and offered occasional adjustments. Reid was off observing another part of the team, able to give Mornhinweg total trust in his handling of the most important part of the squad, the quarterbacks.
Reid would no doubt be happy for Mornhinweg if his colleague got a job elsewhere, but I’d be surprised if the coach could find a replacement he would have such a strong rapport with.
I know, there’s an argument that maybe Reid needs someone from the outside, someone to bring him new ideas, and there’s merit there. But the offense has largely worked under Mornhinweg, and his departure would likely mean an overhaul on not one but two coordinator posts.
Because there’s every reason to think change is coming on D. Why would Reid leave his coordinator dangling if his only intention is to bring Castillo back as the man in charge? Even if the Eagles don’t make a change, at this point they have created the impression that they are trying to. If Castillo retains control of the defense, the assumption will be that the Eagles struck out looking for replacements.
The defense is going to be a question mark no matter what. If Castillo is back, we will be left to wonder if the D really turned a corner at the end of last season, or if those last four games were a mirage. If there is a new coordinator, we will wonder how he will use the team’s personnel and if he can mesh with defensive line coach Jim Washburn. No matter what, the defense’s standing will be unclear.
Offense, on the other hand, should be a more sure bet. At least 9 of the 11 starters are coming back. There is a significant question surrounding DeSean Jackson’s future, and an important decision to be made on guard Evan Mathis (due to hit free agency). But LeSean McCoy, Mike Vick, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek and at least four of the offensive line starters are due back. With Mornhinweg back in charge, it’s reasonable to expect plenty of scoring.
Yes, the offense had a huge turnover issue, and it was one of the two biggest problems that derailed the Eagles season (along with fourth-quarter defensive meltdowns). But it’s an identifiable concern, a “known-known” as Donald Rumsfeld might say, something easily targeted to work on.
But if you had to bring in a new offensive coach, would he get the same results? And how would Reid do with new faces leading his offense and defense? Yes, the 49ers have shown that you can have success even with great turnover, but it’s certainly not the ideal situation, not for a head coach who must win in 2012.
What are they doing?
While we’re talking coaching (or, more accurately, while I'm rambling about coaching), the big question seems to be what are the Eagles doing while Steve Spagnuolo seemingly interviews all over the place?
The answer is that no one knows for sure because the team keeps things like this tightly under wraps. Leaks pop up from other cities, often fueled by dubious sources trying to prop up their own interests (i.e. an agent stirring up a market for a client-coach). But the Eagles’ small circle of decision-makers is in lock-down mode, just as they were before hiring Castillo last year, just as they were before free agency this summer. In both cases, they had moves in the works.
No one had any clue Castillo would be hired until the last minute. No one had any sense that the Eagles would land Nnamdi Asomugha until moments before it was officially announced. That’s how the Eagles like it, and they’re good at keeping things that way.
Which is why even though there is no noise coming from NovaCare, there's little reason to think that they're doing nothing. If there’s one thing the Eagles do, it’s plan for possibilities. Their plans might not always be the best ones, they might not always work out like they hoped, but the Eagles always have a road map.
The team went through a similarly quiet period last year after firing Sean McDermott. We know now that they were checking out coaching possibilities. Their plan didn’t work – that’s why they had to fall back on Castillo – but they had ideas that they were pursuing, even if we didn’t know about it publicly. (Howard Mudd and Jim Washburn were obviously big parts of that plan, too, parts that worked out great; again, those moves were totally under the radar until they were announced).
Same with free agency. It’s hard to remember now, but for the first two days or so after free agency began, the Eagles were actually quiet and as players signed elsewhere, some reporters and fans wondered what the heck the Birds were waiting for. Then they hit the market with a well-executed blitz. You can argue over some of the signing decisions, but you can’t say that the Eagles didn’t have a plan. They had targets and they got them.
It doesn’t make sense to think now that a team that so often plans ahead is suddenly sitting on its hands oblivious to its own needs. Even if the Eagles want Spagnuolo and tried to hire him today, the coach would be smart to weigh all his options, and the Birds would still be left waiting.
It may not work out. Spagnuolo may go elsewhere. The Eagles may be pursuing someone else or might make a bad hire. But I highly doubt the Eagles are just sitting out the game while Spags interviews elsewhere. If last year’s coaching search and free agency moves tell us anything, it’s that there can be plenty of activity below the surface, even if it doesn’t become public.