Funny, Juan Castillo was the least talked-about man at the NovaCare facilities this week. While Marty Mornhinweg and Andy Reid and Michael Vick were taking arrows, and DeMeco Ryans and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie were being praised, Castillo quietly slipped into the backdrop.
He offers so little at his press conferences, terrified of giving away anything that could help the opposition, that some reporters have given up on the exercise altogether, opting instead to visit the locker room in search of a more willing dance partner. So Castillo sits on stage in front of a modest gathering, speaks about exactly nothing for a few minutes, and then makes his way out of the auditorium and back behind the scenes.
After a year of public struggles and endless criticism, this is undoubtedly the preferred existence. A down effort against the Ravens will bring some of the heat back, but internally there is a sense that the situation has stabilized. The players have noticed a different Juan Castillo in Year Two, and it has had a ripple effect.
“He seems really calm compared to last year,” said Nnamdi Asomugha, who has not always come off as the biggest Castillo backer. “There’s a confidence that he knows what he’s doing. He’s got the right people around him — the right players, the right coaches helping.”
“His confidence in his calls and his demeanor and the way he goes about his business,” said Jason Babin, when asked to describe the differences in the second-year defensive coordinator. “There’s always a learning curve switching from offense to defense, and the small nuances to deal with — the personalities are obviously different — and the calls and the games. Now you can tell his feet are settled in, he’s home and he’s lighting it on fire.”
It was a rough entry into a foreign world for Castillo, no matter how you slice it. The experiment was as far fetched as it sounded, at least in terms of achieving early success. Skeptical eyes watched as a disjointed defense sputtered and stalled. Players intimated that they had to coach Castillo at times instead of the other way around. It was not a good breeding ground for trust.
Signs of progress over the last quarter of the season, though, helped win over some of the veterans.
“By the time that we got to the point where we understood what we were doing, we were already out of the playoff picture,” said Darryl Tapp. “Those last four games were great to get our confidence together, but we really didn’t get the hang of it until the last four games of the season.”
We know the circumstances: new coach, new players, new scheme, lockout-shortened offseason. Castillo really had no shot.
“The thing that was important that we didn’t get a chance to do the first year, that probably took half the year, was teach the concept,” said Castillo. “Every coverage has a strength and every coverage has a weakness. And to teach the players, ‘OK, when I’m calling this coverage, I’m calling it to take the high-low concept away. I’m calling it to take this out cut away. I’m calling it to take a horizontal stretch away.’ We didn’t have that kind of time because we barely had time to install the coverages.
“Now I think the guys know, when I call a coverage, they know why I’m calling it, so we’re on the same page together.”
While it is important not to get carried away with a Week 1 performance against a rookie quarterback, it does mean something when Asomugha racks his brain and can’t think of a mistake that the secondary made in coverage. It means something to hold any professional quarterback to a 5.1 QB rating, or a highly-touted back to 2.1 yards per carry. It at least offers hope that this formula might work in the second year.
Part of the key for Castillo is that he is delegating more now.
“The first year we went straight into practices from the lockout and it was like, ‘I’ve got to get my stuff in, and I’ve got to make sure my players understand it.’ He had to coach everybody up — even his coaches,” said Asomugha. “This year, everybody knows the defense. Juan has just been back and basically playing defensive coordinator. He’s doing the overall placement of it while the other guys are doing the little stuff.”
Asomugha said that he is allowing Todd Bowles to really handle the corners when it comes to technique and positioning, and the early results speak for themselves. Pollling players at each of the positions, the sentiment seems to be the same. He’s letting Jim Washburn manage the defensive line, Mike Caldwell the linebackers, Mike Zordich the safeties and Bowles the corners, and tries to make it all fit together.
“Sometimes you get a coach that wants to do everything, but the good thing about Juan is he hasn’t been that way. He lets the coaches below him coach their position,” said Asomugha.
For at least one week, Castillo has the No. 1 defense in the league both overall (210 yards) and against the pass (111). While it is not enough to convince anyone that he is the right man for the job, it has at least temporarily quelled the talk that he is absolutely the wrong man for the job. He was left out of the conversation altogether this week. And that’s a start.