Bob Ford: Even with Spagnuolo as DC, Eagles will have challenges on defense

Hiring Steve Spagnuolo appears to be the safest and most likely course for Andy Reid and the Eagles. (Don Wright/AP file photo)

If the Eagles are able to hire Steve Spagnuolo as their defensive coordinator, which appears the safest and most likely course for Andy Reid and the organization, that move alone won't be the magic button to fix all the problems on that side of the ball.

Getting Spagnuolo hired is no sure thing, either, despite the apparent logic of his return to Reid's staff. He threw out the idea that he might take a year off and regroup after being fired as St. Louis head coach, and there are also some other opportunities available, any of which might be more attractive.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Spagnuolo is among the targets for the Falcons' coordinator job, and the Vikings are expected to replace incumbent coordinator Fred Pagac. It could be, as has been widely speculated, that Minnesota head coach Leslie Frazier would take Juan Castillo off the hands of the Eagles in this year's version of Sean McDermott's being placed with Carolina, but Frazier worked with Spagnuolo, too, and might prefer the known to the unknown.

There are some other moving pieces in play as well. Jeff Fisher is reportedly about to replace Spagnuolo as head coach in St. Louis, and there is the predictable speculation that the former Tennessee Titans coach would like to put his coaching band back together, including defensive line coach Jim Washburn.

We know that it took a good while for Washburn's infatuation with the wide-nine alignment to coexist with whatever scheme Castillo was trying to construct, and whether the crusty line coach has had a bellyful here is one of those organizational secrets that only becomes apparent in retrospect.

We also know that Spagnuolo's defensive mind-set is taken directly from the book of former Eagles coordinator Jim Johnson. He has a deep affection for blitzes from the cornerbacks and safeties and a substantial mix of zone blitz responsibility, with the defensive ends dropping into coverage. Washburn hates that stuff wicked.

During Johnson's 11 seasons as coordinator, the defensive backs averaged 5.5 sacks per season. That number is an indication of how often pressure came from the backfield.

Last season, the defensive backfield had one lonely sack, and it was a freak. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was credited with a sack against Arizona when quarterback John Skelton scrambled out of bounds short of the line of scrimmage and Rodgers-Cromartie happened to be in the same area code.

That lack of unexpected pressure from the outside is such a dramatic departure from Johnson's philosophy that it's hard to quantify. Washburn would probably tell you that the wide set of the defensive ends partially replicates those protection challenges for an offense, but that's a stretch.

It is a combination platter of issues now, and the largest portion on the tray is the one that Spagnuolo would be hard-pressed to resolve quickly, even if all the schemes magically mesh. The problem is with the nature of the personnel, and if Spagnuolo goes somewhere else or nowhere else, that would probably be part of the reason. (Not that the Atlanta Falcons are any bargain on defense.)

He might also want a new challenge in a new organization and not want to walk old corridors on the rebound. Spagnuolo was the defensive coordinator of the Frankfurt Galaxy when Reid hired him for his first staff. He stayed eight seasons as a defensive position coach before being hired as coordinator by the Giants.

With New York, he had the good fortune to have players like Sam Madison, Antonio Pierce, Justin Tuck, Aaron Ross, Corey Webster, Osi Umenyiora, and Mathias Kiwanuka to work with, and it never hurts anyone's job prospects to be part of a Super Bowl winner. After two years in New York, Spags was head coach in St. Louis, and, three years and 10-38 later, he's on the market again.

If he comes back to the Eagles, the task of rebuilding a Jim Johnson-style defense will be daunting. Good luck getting blitz pressure from Asante Samuel, Rodgers-Cromartie, and Nnamdi Asomugha. They are talented in their own ways, but not in that way, and the safeties aren't very fast or blessed with the seek-and-destroy attitude that Johnson got from a Brian Dawkins. Spagnuolo was the Eagles linebackers coach for three seasons, so he really knows the deal with that position here, which is in its usual disarray.

Adding to the uncertainty of the defense's direction, it could be that Reid decided on his annual fishing trip that he's going to stick with Castillo come hell or high tide. We'll probably find out this week, which would be nice, if only to change the conversation.

Regardless, someone is going to run the defense next season, and he will find the same challenges that were apparent in 2011. Players play and coaches think. It's nice when the two happen together, but given a choice, it's always better to outplay the other team than to outthink it.


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