Don’t blame the scheme. Blame the coach. But which one?
In a slew of dramatic moves over the past 22 or so months, Andy Reid has overseen sweeping changes with the Eagles that appeared to start with Juan Castillo as his defensive coordinator.
Many point to that as the tipping point for a franchise that is now in serious demise and almost certainly will undergo more sweeping changes — including shuffling Reid and his staff out of town.
But dig deeper and you remember that Castillo was not Reid’s first addition to the defensive staff that offseason. No, that was DL coach Jim Washburn — proponent of the now-reviled wide-9 technique that was a relative success in Tennessee, where Washburn previously coached, but is considered to be an abject failure in Philadelphia.
It’s not totally correct. The wide-9 alignment, despite allowing gaping running lanes early in the 2011 season and not helping spur the pass rush this season, hasn’t been the source of the Eagles’ problem.
It has become the fans’ emblem for anger, but you can’t place blame for a team losing 19 of its past 33 games on a defensive end lining up outside the tight end. You can, however, blame Reid and Washburn for their parts in leading this ship to sink.
Reid hired Washburn before promoting Castillo. Reid’s thinking was that Washburn’s work with a talented defensive line — they’d add Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins and others to a group that had talent already — and Reid’s involvement on defense would be enough to compensate for Castillo’s inexperience. Washburn, who is a unitasker, took that as an empowerment for a role he never should have owned.
Like Castillo, Washburn never had run a defense before. But he acted as if he was the defense's chief. According to sources in the building, he overstepped his bounds, and it created awkward tension. Reid tried to step in late last season to guide the defense, and the temporary Band-Aid resulted in four consecutive wins at the end of last season. But it was not meant to last. It was a faulty plan from the get-go.
And what Reid couldn’t have known is that Washburn would assert his personality in a way that would be divisive. Washburn had a sideline spat with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg during a November game last year and reportedly has created an us-versus-them bunker mentality with his DL meeting room, essentially seceding from the rest of the team in some ways.
It hasn’t helped the chemistry one bit. More than Castillo, more than Michael Vick's extension, more than the Nnamdi Asomugha signing, more than Joe Banner stepping down … the move that has the most to do with the Eagles' struggles the past two seasons is the Washburn hiring. That's a grand statement. It's also the truth.
Despite that, the team’s leadership remains unchecked in its desire to finish the right way.
“We are all in this together” is how one staff member responded by text when asked if Washburn was a divisive force and source of tension in the locker room. That’s taking the high road, folks.
Another person with the club responded to a similar text with: “Not sure what you mean.”
The first source wrote back later, unprompted, with this assessment: “We will get a little better if we stop getting injured …”
Extreme credit goes to Reid and his staff for their pride and commitment. And this is not to say that Washburn isn’t included in this assessment. By all indications, he remains hard at work with his DL unit — one that does not include Babin after he was released Tuesday — to improve down the stretch.
Coaches are coaches: They seldom throw in the towel. They might gripe privately or assign blame (not this group, but other staffs), but they tend to keep fighting until they are handed a pink slip.
However, the message also is clear: Reid is silently making Babin and Washburn culprits with this carefully calculated move. If GM Howie Roseman, who by all accounts stands to survive the expected razing, didn’t agree with the move, he might have tried to veto it and go upstairs to owner Jeffrey Lurie to try to block Reid from doing something unconstructive to the team on his way out of town.
But that’s not what this was about. You have to think this was a direct shot from Reid across Washburn's bow, cutting Babin. This was his guy, the wide-9-iest of the wide-9ers. The player who Washburn convinced Eagles brass was the missing ingredient for his scheme, what he needed to make it all hum. For a while, Washburn's influence ran deep. That's not so much the case anymore.
Washburn could have been whacked yesterday or today, the way Castillo was last month — and truthfully, Washburn probably should have been the one to go — but making that move now would wreak of desperation and vindictiveness. Reid might be desperate to turn this thing around now, but he’s not about to commit career suicide either.
Remember, it was Washburn who told the media this July that if the Eagles’ defensive line was not markedly better that he should be fired. It hasn’t been. Washburn is too stubborn to quit. The Eagles are too backed into a corner to fire him. Reid is coaching like this thing is salvageable. It’s not. The whole thing is sad.
"My responsibility is to get this team to play better and we have not done that here to this point," Reid said. “There's a way to get through (to the players), and I'm not doing that right now."
The defensive players alternately have had to answer to Reid, Castillo, Washburn and Todd Bowles, the latest patsy for the mess on that side of the ball. No wonder the message is confused. If there’s a bright side of this whole mess it’s that Castillo suddenly doesn’t look so bad now, and really, he shouldn’t. It has been a running joke on Twitter, with Eagles fans asking to #firejuancastillo when that deed was done weeks ago in a bye-week overreaction and, of course, things have gotten worse since.
Castillo, a good man, should find work again in the league. As an offensive line coach — the role he always should have been in.
Blame Reid for this mess. Blame Washburn. Blame the players who visibly have quit on their coaches. Don’t blame a concept. Don’t blame Babin. It’s just misguided. Mercifully, it all will be over soon. Someone else will be asked to clean up the mess left in wake.