Coaching in the NFL is easily one of the biggest question marks in the game. Successful coordinators and position coaches are hired as head coaches every season, and yet so few of them pan out. Steve Spagnuolo is the most recent example - guiding the Giants' defense to a Super Bowl win in 2007 and then having a miserable head coaching campaign with the Rams.
In spite of his critics, Andy Reid remains to be one of those coaches that can be considered a successful hire. After all, he took a perennial loser and within two years turned them into perennial contenders. He is now the victim of his own accomplishments, having set the standard so high early in his career that he's been unable to attain recently.
And that poses an interesting question that hasn't been asked. Why? Why hasn't Andy Reid been able to keep the Eagles as a team that went deep into the playoffs every season? He went to four consecutive conference championship games from 2001-2004 and hadn't lost his first playoff game until 2009, a decade into his tenure. Since then, he's lost both initial playoff appearances and didn't even get to play in a postseason game last year. Of course, the roster is always changing, but it is arguable that the level of talent is roughly the same. You could even make the case that the talent on the team now is greater than what it had from 2001-2004. Yes, there are a few holes - notably the ones at safety left by Brian Dawkins, Michael Lewis, and eventually Quintin Mikell - but football is truly a team sport that cannot be made or broken with a few players. So why hasn't there been similar results?
For this, we look to assistant coaching. In contrast to the steady level of talent on the roster, the coaching staff has been through several makeovers during Andy Reid's tenure. The plausibility of the changing staff having a negative impact on the team is there - after all, the Browns go through coaches faster than a self-conscious middle-school girl goes through a tube of Proactiv, and they are an embarrassment to the NFL. After the jump, we'll dissect the Eagles' complex coaching tree for some insight.
In review of coaching, we'll keep things simple by looking only at the offensive and defensive coordinators. While a good position coach like Howard Mudd can have a large impact on a team's performance, the coordinators are responsible for each of their respective units as a whole.
Head Coach: Andy Reid (1999-present)
Reid's previous professional coaching stint was as an assistant with Mike Holmgren's Packers from 1992-1999. Holmgren started his coaching careers as an assistant for the San Francisco 49ers (1986-1991). At that time, the team was still run by Bill Walsh, who fathered the West Coast Offense. As a result, Holmgren brought the system with him to Green Bay. In turn, Andy Reid took the West Coast Offense with him when he got hired to be the Eagles' coach in 1999.
Offensive Coordinators: Rod Dowhower (1999-2001), Brad Childress (2002-2005), Marty Mornhinweg (2006-present)
Rod Dowhower isn't exactly the most relevant name in the NFL. He served as the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts from 1985-1986. From there, he bounced around a bunch of NFL and college teams (including the Redskins when they won Super Bowl XXVI). He doesn't have the same roots as the other coaches so far - he mostly got started with college teams - and his track record as a head coach was simply awful.
Childress' only previous NFL experience was as the quarterbacks coach of the Indianapolis Colts in 1985. He was brought in with Rod Dowhower to coach quarterbacks in 1999, but was promoted to offensive coordinator after Dowhower's departure in 2002. He coached the offense for three years (including their Super Bowl trip in 2004) and was hired by the Minnesota Vikings following the 2005 season to be their head coach. However, Andy Reid called the plays on offense during his tenure.
Marty Mornhinweg began his NFL coaching career with the Green Bay Packers in 1995 as an offensive assistant under Mike Holmgren. For three years (1997-2000) he was the offensive coordinator for Steve Mariucci's 49ers, who also began his professional coaching career with the Packers as their quarterbacks coach in 1992. After a brief and disastrous stint as the Lions' head coach from 2001-20002, he was named the Eagles' assistant head coach, a position he held until Brad Childress left in 2005. Morninwheg then took over the offensive coordinator duties in 2006 and was given playcalling duties later that season.
Defensive Coordinators: Jim Johnson (1999-2008), Sean McDermott (2009-2010), Juan Castillo (2011-present)
Jim Johnson is really the only man listed here that doesn't need an introduction. I would be shocked if he's not inducted into Canton when he is eligible. His talent for defense was recognized early as his resume is much larger than the other coaches mentioned so far. Johnson bounced around coaching in college from 1967-1984 and then spent two years with the now-defunct USFL. His first NFL coaching job was with the Cardinals, where he spent eight years coaching the defensive line and secondary. He then spent two years as the linebackers coach of the Indianapolis Colts before being named their defensive coordinator in 1996. His predecessor, Vince Tobin, got his NFL start as a disciple of Buddy Ryan and his famous 46 defense with the Chicago Bears. Johnson's coordinator job lasted only two years, as head coach Ted Marchibroda and his staff were fired after the 1997 season. While his gig with the Colts lasted only four years, it had the largest influence on his famous pressure-heavy defensive scheme. In 1998, the last season before joining the Eagles' staff, he was the linebackers coach of the Seattle Seahawks under defensive coordinator Greg McMackin. Afterwards, he was hired to be the defensive coordinator of the Eagles in 1999 and remained in that position until his death in 2009.
Sean McDermott had spent his entire professional football career as an assistant with the Eagles. After being hired as a scouting coordinator in 1998, he moved up the ranks and was shuffled around position coaching, most notably coaching the defensive backs and linebackers. Having only served under Jim Johnson, it is safe to say that Johnson was the biggest contributor to his defensive style when he replaced the late coordinator in 2009. Unfortunately, there were growing pains for McDermott and he was fired after his defenses did not achieve anything above mediocrity from 2009-2010.
Juan Castillo probably does not need a short biography, as it has been highly publicized since he was hired. While he is notorious for being an offensive-line-coach-turned-defensive-coordinator, to his credit he started his coaching career as a defensive assistant for Texas A&M. Before he left the university, however, he had already moved to coach the offensive line. He was hired as an offensive assistant with the Eagles all the way back in 1995. He was promoted to tight ends coach in 1997 and then served as the offensive line coach for thirteen years, from 1998-2010. He was promoted to defensive coordinator following the dismissal of Sean McDermott.
Before moving on to some analysis, we'll throw in some statistics for fun. As a believer that ranking units by yardage is a waste of time, I'll show how the Eagles ranked in scoring offense and defense since Andy Reid's hire:
YEAR - OFFENSIVE RANK (COORDINATOR) - DEFENSIVE RANK (COORDINATOR)
1999 - 25 (Dowhower) - 22 (Johnson)
2000 - 12 (Dowhower) - 4 (Johnson)
2001 - 9 (Dowhower) - 2 (Johnson)
2002 - 4 (Childress) - 2 (Johnson)
2003 - 11 (Childress) - 7 (Johnson)
2004 - 8 (Childress) - 2 (Johnson)
2005 - 18 (Childress) - 27 (Johnson)
2006 - 6 (Mornhinweg) - 15 (Johnson)
2007 - 17 (Mornhinweg) - 9 (Johnson)
2008 - 6 (Mornhinweg) - 4 (Johnson)
2009 - 5 (Mornhinweg) - 19 (McDermott)
2010 - 3 (Mornhinweg) - 21 (McDermott)
2011 - 8 (Mornhinweg) - 10 (Castillo)
[Side note: if you needed any more validation on how awesome Jim Johnson was, it's right there. Second in scoring defense in three out of four years? Incredible.]
A couple things now that all the facts are out there. The first thing that pops out is the deep connections to Mike Holmgren at the top of the offensive staff. So, by extension, the roots of the Eagles offense is seamlessly tied to Bill Walsh and the West Coast Offense. This isn't exactly news, but I'm not sure if the extent of the connection to Walsh was as apparent. But the offense isn't the story here. The story is with the defense.
Let's take a look at Johnson. Andy Reid brought Jim in as soon as he was hired. Johnson had been coaching since Andy Reid was nine years old, still years away from winning punt, pass, and kick contests at his high school. Andy Reid respected Johnson as a coach who knew much more about his job than Andy would probably ever know. So he left Johnson alone to do his work - in spectacular fashion - and focused on molding Donovan McNabb into a pro quarterback in the West Coast Offense. The pure virtue of giving Johnson complete command over the defense changed the entire chemistry of the team. By conceding any say in defensive schemes, Reid had to work the offense into a compatible partner for Johnson's pressure-heavy philosophy. This was something he did extremely well, and on a regular basis - the Eagles were contenders, for the most part, right up until their fifth NFC Championship appearance in Johnson's last season. This is mostly because the West Coast Offense fit perfectly into Johnson's bend-but-don't-break defense. Once upon a time, the Eagles had an unparalleled red zone defense that would allow perhaps three or four scoring drives but give up only sixteen points or so. However, this meant that the defense was on the field a lot, so they needed an offense that could score relatively quickly. A West Coast Offense is perfect for this, and it made the Eagles very successful for the better part of a decade.
But then (rest in peace), Jim Johnson passed away in 2009, leading Andy to make a critical decision that would be the most dominant factor in their recent struggles. He promoted Sean McDermott to defensive coordinator instead of hiring an experienced coach from outside the team. This isn't a knock on McDermott - while his red zone defense was horrible, I absolutely loved how he was able to force turnovers. No, Reid's decision completely ruined the successful, balanced coaching dynamic he had with Johnson and replaced it with an ugly case of groupthink.
What is groupthink? Well, in my last post, I stole a word from high school biology; this time it comes from freshman psychology. Lifting the definition right from the Wikipedia page I linked, groupthink is what happens when "the desire for harmony in a decision-making group overrides a realistic appraisal of alternatives." In other words, the desire for everyone to be happy with a choice sometimes prevents them from making the right choice.
With Johnson, this was easily avoided because of his oversight of the defense. While Reid was forming his take on the West Coast Offense, he always had to keep in mind whatever Jim might want to do on defense. But when Andy promoted a less-experienced coach who had spent his entire career with the Eagles, he used his seniority to expand his offense. No longer would he have to consider what the defense was doing - he could ask the defensive coordinator to adjust the scheme to complement whatever Reid wanted to do on offense. Some people recognized this as the defense being "Andy-fied." I disagree on the contention that he did not necessarily take a swing at defensive football, but I do think that he influenced it with his offensive gameplan. This new dynamic that rose after the passing of Johnson was one where all of the coaches answered to Reid as a superior rather than a colleague. The amount of influence Andy had over the coaching staff rendered the circumstances very vulnerable to groupthink.
Juan Castillo is my poster child for this. Even though the defense finished well under him, make no mistake; he was probably one of the least-qualified men for the job. The Eagles were smart by surrounding him with talent and good position coaches that eventually began to click when the chemistry formed. But he was hired because Andy saw a new toy to develop with Michael Vick and knew that he needed a "yes-man" on the defensive side who would give him lots of room to play with. Castillo, who has so much respect for Andy that he would take a bullet for him, would try and do whatever was asked to appease him and fulfilled this purpose perfectly. Then, in 2011, the offense sputtered out of the gate and everything backfired and... well, you know the rest.
This brings everything back to the original question: Why have the Eagles struggled recently? If my speculations have any merit to them, the culprit is the groupthink among the coaching staff cultivated by Reid. When Johnson passed away, Reid opted to not retain the balance Johnson brought to the table by hiring an experienced coach but instead promoted a much more untested assistant who would grant Reid the leeway to try and remake the balance in his own way. Of course, that balance is still lost, because Andy generated an environment which chose to ignore possible room for improvement.
Finally, we look ahead to the 2012 season. Is there any hope for change? The answer is yes, courtesy of Jeffrey Lurie. The owner did a very blunt job of expressing his displeasure with Reid, and the coach took notice. I look at the offseason moves the Eagles made - the trade for Ryans, the drafting of Cox and Kendricks, the signing of Atogwe for support - and see a coaching staff humbled by last season who has admitted their mistakes. Castillo started this early by finally letting Nnamdi play man near the end of the season, but now the entire staff seems committed to righting some wrongs they were willing to ignore the past three seasons in an attempt to achieve a stable coaching dynamic.
Of course, as I mentioned above, this could all be utter garbage. I could be entirely wrong about the relationship between Reid and his coaching staff, or I could be wrong about how they've learned for 2012, or I could be wrong about both. I looked at the facts and made a judgment, but you might make an entirely different one. Which is completely fine, of course - after all, we're trying to avoid groupthink here.
Credits for coaching biographies go to Wikipedia. Statistics on the Eagles' scoring offense and defense go to NFL.com.