Late Thursday night I was catching up on some Eagles news. I went over to the team's site and decided to watch Juan Castillo's press conference. I took them in regularly last year and it was painful. Castillo just didn't deal well with the media. I was hoping he would do a better job or at the least the press conference would be less painful to watch.
That would be...no.
Watching Castillo take questions and then try to answer them can only be summed up in the word "painful". Awkward isn't strong enough. You can't call them bad because that can have so much meaning. Castillo can give a good answer, but still do it so poorly that it ends up being painful to watch. Other times the answer is as bad or even worse than the delivery. Just painful.
The reporters who attend and take part in the press conferences don't know what to make of Castillo. Fans who watch them come away hiding their eyes, covering their ears, and praying for help. How can Castillo lead a defense if he can't even handle a press conference? Some fans wonder if he in fact can do that.
The bottom line is that being media savvy isn't a good way to judge coaches. I love listening to coaches talk. I listen to college coaches on their weekly radio shows. I listen to pro coaches in various settings. You can get conned pretty easily.
Look at the Atlanta Falcons for a second. Jim Mora was great with the media during his tenure there. He could give good football answers. He could be funny. He actually got in big trouble for making a joke about wanting to coach is alma mater, the University of Washington. Mora felt safe enough to let his guard down and speak off the cuff. Contrast that with current coach Mike Smith. He has very little personality. He seems like he should be running the local mom and pop hardware store, not coaching the Falcons. Smith has enjoyed far more success and is the better coach. He's not even close to being as good with the media.
Castillo might not be able to answer questions smoothly or tell good stories, but that doesn't mean that he can't coach. Let's take a look at the numbers. Currently the defense is 5th in fewest yards allowed and 14th in fewest points allowed. The points stat is greatly affected by offensive mistakes. Vick had one interception returned for a score and several others that set the opponent up in field goal range. Last year the defense was 8th in yards and 10th in points. Those are both excellent numbers.
Trying to judge how much credit Castillo gets for that success is tricky. The Eagles don't do much in the way of complex scheming. If you are looking for an X's and O's guru, Castillo isn't going to be high on your list. That stuff can be overrated, though. Monte Kiffin is a defensive legend, but runs a fairly simple scheme. He believes in execution over trickery. His Tampa defenses were amazingly good and very consistent.
Bill Belichick has done great things by being an innovator. His defense seems to be new every year. I can't recall any other coach who switched from 3-4 to 4-3 to 3-4 so much. Belichick is a defensive genius and does amazing things. Many guys who have worked for him have tried to take these ideas and make them work elsewhere. They often find that the concepts don't work without Belichick there to teach them and make adjustments. Eric Mangini, Rob Ryan, and Romeo Crennel have put out many more bad defenses than anyone would have imagined from Belichick pupils.
There is no question that Mangini, Ryan, and Crennel all have infinitely better defensive backgrounds than Castillo. They have tons of experience. Yet, his defensive numbers are better. The argument then becomes that Castillo is simply benefiting from having good players.
There is some definite truth to this idea, but it also misses an obvious point. Most top coaches had top flight players when they built their reputations. Belichick became a guru when Lawrence Taylor played for him. Buddy Ryan was a guru when Mike Singletary was on the field for him. Bud Carson became a guru with Mean Joe Green, Jack Lambert, and Mel Blount playing for him. A coach's job is to get his players to play up to their potential. The coach must take advantage of the talent he's given and deliver results.
Look at Steve Spagnuolo. He became a hot name in coaching after his stint with the Giants. Think about the guys that he coached there: Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Matthias Kiwanuka, Antonio Pierce, and Fred Robbins. That is a lot of front seven talent. Spagnuolo then went to the Rams as head coach. His defenses in St. Louis finished 29th, 19th, and 22nd in yards allowed. This year he's in New Orleans. The Saints are dead last in yards allowed and 30th in points allowed. Is it now fair to question how good a coach Steve Spagnuolo is? How much of his reputation is strictly due to the great players he had in New York? I'm not suggesting that Castillo is a better defensive coach than Spagnuolo, but those numbers are troubling.
Castillo has done a good job with player development this season. Rookies Fletcher Cox, Michael Kendricks, and Brandon Boykin have all made key plays and looked terrific at times. This is the best trio of rookie defenders in a long time. Vinny Curry might not be all that far behind, but he's caught in a numbers game and has to wait for a chance to play.
Last year Castillo did not fare well with young players. Casey Matthews, Curtis Marsh, and Jaiquawn Jarrett failed to offer much help to the defense. Marsh has gotten a lot better this year, but is stuck on the bench due to depth at his spot. Matthews remains a total mystery. Jarrett is already gone.
There are other young players (non-rookies) who are doing some good things. Cedric Thornton just had his best NFL game last week. Brandon Graham is making great strides on his comeback from the ACL injury. Kurt Coleman leads the team in tackles. Jamar Chaney will start on Sunday night. We'll have to wait and see how that goes.
Veterans Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and DeMeco Ryans have fit in quite nicely this year. Rodgers-Cromartie was here last season, but wasn't a full time starter. He is the left cornerback this year and is having a great season. Ryans didn't blow people away in the summer, but he's getting the job done in a big way so far this season.
Last year the defense had all kinds of problems. I don't know if there were more missed tackles or blown assignments. Players were confused. To be blunt, there were times when the defense didn't look very coordinated.
This year the players seem to be on the same page. Guys know the scheme, their roles within the scheme, and they are getting the job done. There is no freelancing. The defense is playing as a unit. The players are having individual success, but also functioning well as one. The sack totals are down, but overall pass defense is arguably the best in the league (first in lowest opposing QB rating and completion percentage, third in passing yards). The guys up front are getting pressure and the guys on the back end are covering well. That's good team defense.
Castillo should be getting some credit, but his press conferences really kill him. He isn't comfortable answering questions. He's too guarded with information. He doesn't tell good stories. Castillo can't get his general ideas to come across well. We do hear about hard work, fundamentals, and being fast and physical over and over. Those seem less like the founding principles of a defense and more like annoying coachspeak 101. That might work if Castillo could sell the ideas well. He can't. He might be the world's worst salesman.
Too much is going right for Castillo to be the bumbling fool that some people believe him to be. I wish NFL Films could capture him in a football setting. I genuinely believe that Castillo is two different people. Put him in a football environment and he's at ease. That feels right to him. Put him in front of the media and he's completely lost. The lack of media savvy means that Castillo has zero chance at ever becoming a head coach. He makes Andy Reid seem like David Letterman.
Bad press conferences do not mean that Castillo is a bad coach. They do make him look bad and undermine his credibility. It is still too early to make definitive judgments on him and his defense, but a lot more has gone right than wrong in 2012. We are seeing progress. By the end of the year we'll find out if that's enough progress for Castillo to keep his job and the Eagles to get where they want to go - deep into the postseason.