In watching the Philadelphia Eagles 2012 season unfold, I sometimes get the feeling that I’ve seen this narrative play out before. A just-past-his-prime quarterback formerly known for his mobility and never praised for his accuracy or durability leads his team to a respectable though somewhat disappointing record in the first half of the season. The wins have been close. The losses have been closer. And the quarterback has been a turnover machine since day one.
Though blame is squared on the head coach and the quarterback, the defense is at times a stalwart wall and at others a sieve. The running game has all the potential for being the best in the league but never seems to kick into gear at the right moments. There are terrific receivers on the wings, but somehow, they never all work in concert together.
Everyone is under scrutiny. After a few seasons of high-profile acquisitions and big spending on a variety of fronts, nothing seems to be panning out. Coaches ask for patience and then vent frustration. Players claim responsibility but little seems to change. There are injuries to manage and vacancies to fill.
And always, in the distance, or perhaps far back down the road in history, is the incoming light from the window to win it all. It won’t be open for long. And, whether the players know it or not, that window might have already closed.
Welcome to the NFC East, where every team is currently running through this set of motions in one fashion or another. Coaches of all statures have come and gone. Veterans have been put to pasture. Promising rookies have come to light as duds.
We saw this with the 2010 Redskins. We saw this with all of the Cowboys teams of the last ten years. And until Eli Manning became a two-time Super Bowl winner, the Giants looked like they were just about to work the revolving door.
There is a process to the changes these teams have all undergone and a natural progression of hirings and firings as well. In any competitive organization, people come and go. And if a system is in place to ensure a progress-oriented culture, the people can come and go with some smoothness and fluidity. We see this in New England and, in the past two seasons, in San Francisco. And at one time, happily enough, we saw as much in Philadelphia, a team that was regularly forecast to win it all, and often came within a hair’s breadth of making it to the promised land.
At the moment, the Eagles organization seems to be scrambling. There is frustration among the fanbase, which in Philadelphia, always translates to an acknowledgement of difficulties on the field, difficulties among the coaching staff, and the clockwork regularity of Andy Reid saying that it starts with him and he needs to improve.
For the first time in a long time, the Eagles have made a major transitional coaching move midseason. They fired Juan Castillo, the Defensive Coordinator, and former offensive line coach for the decade or so prior. It was both an expected and unusual move on all levels, though one that makes sense for reasons only somewhat related to the man’s performance as a defensive coordinator.
Everyone else’s job seems safe, though given Michael Vick’s propensity for fumbling and hurling interceptions (almost twenty total turnovers in the last six games), his job might be on the line soon enough. As will the quarterback's coaches. And perhaps the Offensive Coordinator’s position is on the line. And, as always seems to be the case from year to year, Andy Reid’s as well.
For now, though, let’s stick with recent history: Juan Castillo has been removed as the Defensive Coordinator. On some levels, it was to be expected. Everyone—fans, sports analysts, Eagles critics—complained about him, from last season into this one. He didn’t seem like a particularly good fit for the job either, given his work history and specialization. He was an offensive line coach for over a decade prior to being installed as the Defensive Coordinator. In 2011, it looked like a strange move. By 2012, no one had much faith, though Andy famously sticks by his selected few. Even after fielding a much-improved defensive front this year, he
My sense is that Castillo was never going to be looked at as a premier defensive coach. But I also get the impression that Reid—whose coaching tree is extensive and ever-present within the league—knew what he was doing in putting Castillo in the position. Given that the Eagles have a routinely superb offensive roster, the defense should have been able to hold it together last season and this, even as the team adjusted and adapted to a new system. Most importantly, if the Eagles had held on in only two instances—against the Lions and the Steelers, two teams that have propulsive offenses and stingy defenses—they would be 5-1 and we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.
Which is to say that the small differences in games—literally a total of 3 points was the difference between the Eagles being mediocre at 3-3 and best in their division at 5-1—have been magnified by the way we count wins and losses. Ultimately, even though Castillo was hardly at fault for the few defensive lapses in those two close losses, he bears the responsibility for the outcome. What is unusual is that Castillo isn’t even the only—or the worst—problem on the team. He was simply one cog in the system that could be replaced because, for better or for worse, he didn’t seem to fit. Even though his defense held opposing teams to the same offensive outcomes that the Eagles themselves generated.
The problem is that firing Juan Castillo wasn’t really the answer. A team that is 3-3 and is still in the mix within its own division is not really in free fall. And the Eagles—going up against the foible-hampered Cowboys, the nearly-great Redskins, and the maddening Giants—are hardly locked out of the postseason. The Eagles defense was ranked 12th in the league through seven weeks of NFL play and the team was blown out once in what increasingly seems like a fluke out in Arizona. In fact, the defense has roughly kept pace with an offense that has literally handed the ball to the other team eighteen times in six games. Which is to say that the Eagles defense has had to make up for every error the offense makes, and then some.
To my memory, Reid has never fired any of his coordinators in the midst of a season, and my sense is that the Eagles head coach is feeling the heat at the moment, more so than he has previously.
The firing of Juan Castillo wasn’t just a poor move for a team with a still emergent defensive squad. It was a poor move in terms of the team’s own management and the relationship the front office maintains with fans in the city.
Philadelphia Eagles devotees verge among the most overly affected demographic groups on the planet. And though firing Juan Castillo panders to the masses, it does not actually solve any of the Eagles problems.
To be sure, Castillo’s hiring as the Eagles’ Defensive Coordinator always seemed suspect, given that the guy was an offensive line coach for the entirety of his tenure under Reid. But Castillo seemed to have the hang of things heading into this year. Other teams that are in similar situations—the Patriots, the Broncos, the Steelers, the 49ers—don’t seem to be clamoring to let go of their defensive coordinators, all in spite of losing close games to near rivals.
But Philadelphia is an angry city with a massive echo chamber for a local media base. Every critique is magnified a thousand-fold and made out to harken the coming of the apocalypse. The wins are appreciated only until the next loss. And every loss begets a riotous, city-wide complaint that one would more befit the reaction to a public hate crime. And unfortunately, Philadelphia’s fans and the local sports-talkers are a population that is too loud to ignore and all-too-often acknowledged.
If you’re on a ship that’s lost its course, you don’t fire one of the officers. You turn the wheel. Or you start questioning the captain’s methods and find alternate solutions to the directional problems at hand. For the Eagles, the captain of the ship has been Andy Reid for the last 14 years. And while I support Andy and continue to marvel at the consistency with which the Eagles perform from year to year, he is acknowledged as both the source of and solution to all of the problems that are extant in the Eagles game-to-game and season-to-season management.
Andy Reid has been a staple of Philadelphia sports since the last millennium, which in sports terms, is an epoch-long timetable, given that he’s been with one team since 1998 and has directed its on-field operations ever since. There are no other coaches in football—and relatively few other coaches or managers in any sport—who have continuously been with their team since that year.
My sense is that the sole problem with the Eagles is not Andy Reid. Reid has had an unprecedented tenure with Philadelphia in the best and worst ways. He took his team to the Super Bowl within only a few years of having turned the Eagles around from a laughing stock to a legitimate year-to-year contender. He brought his team to the NFC Championship Game more times than any other team from 2000 to 2010. He’s accrued more wins as the Eagles Head Coach than almost any other coach in the league.
But he’s also witnessed his team come up short year to year, his best players lost to injury or disappointment. He had to endure the public arrests of both of his sons and then the death of his eldest earlier this year.
In short, Andy Reid’s fourteen years in Philadelphia have been a sine curve of great joys and great sorrows, both professional and personal (and the latter far greater than the former).
The solution, however, isn’t firing Reid either.
Philadelphia has something of a silver-spoon problem. In order to transition to the next phase of the team’s existence—one in which, ideally, the Eagles would win a Super Bowl—the present-day staff and organization will likely need to be replaced. Logically, if the team’s plan for success hasn’t panned out over the last fourteen seasons, then one might conclude that it is time to clean house and move on.
But, by the same token, Philadelphia doesn’t want to give up what prestige and standing within the league the team does have. Why lay waste to a team’s coaching staff and primary players when, in the last twelve years, the team has only had one losing season? When the team has won 129 games and lost 84 (and tied, infamously, once), there’s no reason to clean house. Evidently, something Reid and his staff are doing is working well.
In the last ten years, almost all of the Super Bowls have been won by teams with quarterbacks named Manning, Brady, or Roethlesberger. The exceptions include those won by Rodgers and Brees, and the exception to the exceptions is Trent Dilfer, who is the only one to be retired. All, except Dilfer, are certainly future Hall of Famers. And all will continue playing at a high level in the near future, barring some unforeseen circumstance. The problem with the Eagles isn’t necessarily with the Eagles: it’s that the 2000-2012 Eagles were born and bred in the same timespan as the Peyton Manning Colts and the Tom Brady Patriots and the Ben Roethlesberger Steelers and the Drew Brees Saints. In fact, whether anyone told the Eagles this or not, they peaked roughly eight years ago just enough to get shaken off by the Patriots in the 2005 Super Bowl, and they’ve been clawing their way back into the limelight ever since.
But the problem remains. Andy Reid has made Philadelphia relevant, a legitimate powerhouse such that we’re not this decade’s Cleveland Browns or the Oakland Raiders of the East Coast. And the question is, can Andy Reid take the Eagles to the next level on his own judgment and that of his chosen cast of colleagues?
History doesn’t seem to support his plans. My long-time (and frankly, biased) sense is that the solution wasn’t firing Donovan McNabb in 2010. Since releasing Super-Five, the Eagles haven’t won a playoff game and their next hundred-million-dollar quarterback has developed such a strong penchant for handing the ball to opponents that it’s a wonder he hasn’t been accused of treason.
Would the Eagles be better off if a 36-year-old McNabb were still at the helm? Probably not. Are they better off with Vick at the moment? Not at all. Could they have done better with Kafka last season or Foles this season? That remains unclear, though given that Kafka has since been released and Foles is still riding the second string, Reid apparently thinks we’re in our best position to win with Vick.
And this is a problem. The Eagles threw away big money by offering Vick a long-term contract, even if that contract can be voided and rescinded relatively soon. We’re going to need to draft a quarterback next year—which will be the third consecutive year during which we do so—in order to find our next franchise leader. We’re going to need to revamp our defense because, hell, we just fired our defensive coordinator and the men waiting in the wings aren’t exactly known for their prowess. We’re likely going to have to start finding a set of new tight ends because ours are getting older and our receivers are more banged up from year to year.
In short, whether Philadelphians want it or not, the Eagles are going to rebuild next year. And the process will be long and arduous: the Redskins are looking like the team the Eagles wished they were, with a mobile quarterback that can pass and run; the Cowboys, like the Eagles, have all the weapons to be solid even if they can never seem to achieve greatness; and the Giants have won enough championships in the last five years that they can coast if they so choose, though it seems like they still want to return to the land of milk and honey one more time.
So, while we’re all watching the Eagles come under fire and perhaps lead us into the nether regions of disappointment one last time, appreciate it while you can: this is the last year we’re going to be even mediocre for a while.