Making the case: Castillo vs. Spagnuolo

Steve Spagnuolo earned a Super Bowl ring as defensive coordinator of the Giants. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

As we sit and wait to hear from Andy Reid, the issue of whether Juan Castillo will return as defensive coordinator continues to garner its fair share of attention.

Others have noted (the Inquirer's Jonathan Tamari does a good job here) that if Castillo were definitely coming back, it would make sense for Reid to just come out and say that.

But perhaps Reid is checking on some other options. If they come through, he'll make a change. If they fall through, maybe Castillo is returns in the same role.

That makes this as good a time as any to take a look at Castillo's performance in 2011, Steve Spagnuolo's resume and what a change could mean for the Eagles. Let's go it topic-by-topic.


At times this season, it appeared Castillo was completely overmatched, just completely in over his head.

But at other times, he showed growth and potential. And the Eagles' defense did some positive things. Many are pointing to the final four games, saying the Eagles didn't beat anyone of note: the Dolphins, the Jets (who were falling apart), the Cowboys (without Tony Romo) and the Redskins.

That's fair. But the defense also had a couple very good performances earlier in the season when there was actually something on the line. In the first win against the Cowboys, Romo had what turned out to be probably he his worst game of the season, completing 51.4 percent of his passes and averaging just 5.8 yards per attempt in a 34-7 Eagles victory.

Against the Giants the second time around, the Eagles limited Eli Manning and company to 10 points, which matched their lowest output of the season. That was after Manning completely picked the Eagles apart in the first meeting. Doesn't Castillo get some credit for making adjustments before the second meeting?

Don't get me wrong. There were plenty of bad moments. Names like Michael Turner, Alex Smith, John Skelton, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Marshawn Lynch come to mind. But it's important to look at the whole body of work.

Statistically, the Eagles ranked 10th in scoring defense, allowing 20.5 points per game. Football Outsiders had them 12th in overall defense. In other words, by most accounts, this was a mediocre defense that turned in some very good performances and some awful ones.

I went back and compared the 2011 defense to the other 12 during the Reid era. From 1999-2010, on average, the Eagles ranked 11.2 in the league in scoring defense. During the Jim Johnson era, they averaged a 9.4 ranking. From 2000-2004, the Eagles had an amazing run, with four finishes in the top-five. But from 2005-2010, the Eagles ranked in the top-10 just twice in six and the top-five just once.

Under Johnson, the Eagles were in the top-10 on scoring defense seven times in 10 seasons.

The other metric I looked at was Football Outsiders' overall defensive ranking. In the previous 12 seasons before Castillo, the Eagles had an average finish of about 8.6 (12th in 2011). Under Johnson, that number was about 8.3.

Considering Castillo had a shortened offseason, was working with a defensive line coach (and his system) who was already in place, and had never been a defensive coordinator before, this was far from the worst performance of all-time.

Don't forget he was also dealing with an offense that turned the ball over 38 times, second-most in the league. And a roster of linebackers and safeties who clearly struggled to play off Jim Washburn's scheme.

Then again, Castillo still had a lot of talent, with at least six Pro Bowl-caliber players (Asante Samuel, Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Trent Cole, Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins).

As I've mentioned many times, the blame first goes on Reid for thinking that Castillo could be successful, given the circumstances. Howie Roseman can share some of it with Reid for assembling this group of linebackers, knowing they would have increased responsibilities in the wide-nine. Castillo must take responsibility, but as I've said multiple times, we must remember that his failure is Reid's failure.


Below is a table that looks at Spagnuolo's last five seasons as a coach - two as defensive coordinator with the Giants and three as head coach of the Rams. It includes where those five teams ranked in terms of scoring defense and overall defense (Football Outsiders' rankings).

  Scoring Defense Rank Football Outsiders Rank
2007 (Giants) 17th 14th
2008 (Giants) 5th 8th
2009 (Rams) 31st 31st
2010 (Rams) 12th 20th
2011 (Rams) 26th 22nd

There is one great season in there: 2008, the year after the Giants won the Super Bowl.

Now, it's a lot more complicated than just the numbers. As always, personnel plays a huge role. In St. Louis, Spagnuolo had a lot more on his plate as the head coach than just directing the defense. And injuries must be factored in also.

The point is this: Spagnuolo has a great reputation and a Super Bowl ring as a defensive coordinator. But he is not a miracle-worker. The right pieces must be in place for him to be successful.


Given the information above, does it make sense for the Eagles to aggressively pursue Spagnuolo?


By all accounts, the Eagles plan on making a realistic run at the Super Bowl next season, which could be Reid's final year as head coach. That means competing with the big boys - Green Bay, New Orleans, New England, etc. That means names like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady. That means coming up with a game-plan that can limit the effectiveness of quarterbacks who are playing at a level which this league has never seen before.

Spagnuolo has a background in doing just that. Castillo is an unknown. And of course, there is the possibility that Spagnuolo and Castillo could work together in some capacity.

In the Giants' Super Bowl season, no opposing offense scored more than 20 points against Spagnuolo's D in four postseason games. The record-setting Patriots offense scored just two touchdowns. The Packers scored 20 in the NFC championship. And the Cowboys and Bucs scored 17 and 14, respectively.

That's the kind of run that has to make adding Spagnuolo appealing to Reid.

And this could also be the kind of situation that is appealing to Spagnuolo. There is talent on the defensive line and at cornerback. Maybe the Eagles add a play-making linebacker in the offseason. Maybe Nate Allen develops. Maybe Spagnuolo turns this from a mediocre defense into a top-five defense. If that happens, maybe he gets head-coaching looks after just one season as a coordinator.

Yes, I'm dealing in hypotheticals here. And we have to wait and see what his other options are. But on the surface, it seems like a partnership that could benefit both sides.

Finally, there's the matter of the Eagles' system and Jim Washburn. When creating a list of Eagles players that reached or exceeded their potential this season, you'd have to start with defensive linemen: Babin, Cole, Jenkins and Mike Patterson. Yet there have been rumors that Spagnuolo and Washburn might not be a good fit together.

I'm working on getting some additional data, but some numbers that might be of interest from Spagnuolo's last season as the Giants defensive coordinator, courtesy of the Football Outsiders Almanac. In 2008, the Giants ranked second in percentage of pass plays sending 6+ rushers at opposing quarterbacks, and third in sending 7+. In other words, they were a heavy blitzing team.

Last year, the Rams ranked second in sending 6+ rushers. They were also the third biggest zone blitz team in the league.

In other words, these are concepts that were not used much last season by the Eagles, who rarely dropped linemen into coverage, even though they did call on the blitz more later in the season.

Advancing deep into the playoffs in the NFC will require pressuring some of the best quarterbacks in the game, like Brees and Rodgers. The best coaches make the most out of their personnel and utilize their players in a scheme that makes sense, so I'm not ready to write off the possibility of Washburn and Spagnuolo co-existing.

But it's another factor to keep in mind as Reid makes his decision.

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