December 3, 2012, 8:00 pm
Just before he walked away from the podium to abruptly signal the end of his own press conference, Eagles head coach Andy Reid made a stunning admission that he had fired the wrong assistant coach.
Reid shouldn’t have fired defensive coordinator Juan Castillo on Oct. 16 when he sought ways to improve his foundering 3-3 team, which had just blown a 10-point lead to Detroit in the fourth quarter and lost 26-23 in overtime.
He should have retained his longtime and loyal assistant and parted ways with defensive line coach Jim Washburn, who had become an unpopular and divisive figure inside the NovaCare Complex, according to several team sources and other sources familiar with the situation.
Reid, who fired Washburn early Monday morning, went out of his way in his press conference to praise Castillo in his final remark to the media after also expressing disappointment in Washburn’s short stint with the team.
“Listen, it’s not how you draw it up,” Reid said when asked how the team could recover from losing its defensive coordinator, defensive line coach and Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Babin -- a Washburn disciple who was released last week -- all within an eight-week span.
“I’ll end it with I think Juan Castillo is a great person and a fine football coach. Juan will have a long career in the National Football League, and rightly so.”
Those remarks, according to a high-ranking team official, were intended to be a salute to Castillo, who coached under Reid for nearly 14 years and spent almost 17 seasons with the Eagles, and also a parting shot at Washburn, who was fired just six games after Castillo was and replaced by veteran line coach Tommy Brasher.
Reid refused to elaborate on his reasons for dismissing Washburn but acknowledged that the move wasn’t exclusively football-related.
“I’m not going to get into all that stuff,” Reid said. “I will tell you there were just things that I was disappointed in and, as time went on, that I knew. I just thought [firing him] was the right thing to do right now for this football team.”
Washburn’s trademark wide-nine scheme not only helped the Eagles share the NFL lead in sacks in 2011 and build Babin into a quarterback assassin who rung up 18 sacks last year but also masqueraded the friction growing between the veteran line coach and Castillo that carried over into this season.
Washburn presided solely over his defensive linemen and did little to assist in the other areas of the defense, even after Castillo was fired and replaced by secondary coach Todd Bowles and as the Eagles’ season was spiraling downward because of a defense plagued by communication problems and dysfunction from top to bottom.
Shortly after Castillo’s firing, friction brewed between Reid and Washburn that made for an uncomfortable environment at the NovaCare Complex. A team source confirmed a report that during the bye week, Reid had ordered the removal of a coffee maker and refrigerator that Washburn had long ago installed in the defensive line classroom. No other position meeting room had such appliances, the source said.
Reid admitted he had considered firing Washburn earlier this season and that Sunday’s loss 38-33 to Dallas, the team’s eighth straight defeat, didn’t factor into the decision.
“It wasn’t all about this game. That’s not what it was,” Reid said. “It was just something that I had been pondering and working through and I just thought it was the right time now.”
The boiling point came last week, when Reid outright waived Babin -- who had also become polarizing and unpopular in the clubhouse -- to get more snaps for third-year defensive end Brandon Graham and rookie defensive end Vinny Curry, a second-round pick who was inactive for the first 10 games.
Washburn was largely credited for turning Babin from a first-round bust into an elite pass rusher during their 2010 season together in Tennessee, and Babin followed Washburn to Philadelphia before the 2011 season as free agents.
They maintained a very close-knit relationship, which is why several sources said Washburn was incensed when Reid cut Babin, who was claimed one day later by the Jaguars.
Those close to Washburn knew of the coach’s anger over the sudden release and several sources said Washburn was close to leaving the team on his own. Reid has said several times -- and repeated again Wednesday -- that Washburn never complained to him about the decision.
“What he told me, he was fine with it,” Reid said. “He was fine there.”
The Eagles will now adjust back to a conventional read-and-react defensive line scheme under Brasher and will occasionally spread out their defensive ends on certain pass-rushing downs.
Bowles will have complete and total control over the defense, which neither he nor Castillo ever had with Washburn controlling the defensive line scheme and rotations.
Reid’s biggest mistake after he cleaned house on the defensive staff after the 2010 season was hiring Washburn while his coordinator position was still vacant (see story). Several candidates to succeed the fired Sean McDermott turned down an opportunity to discuss the job with Reid because Washburn was already in place, the high-ranking team official said.
“It sucks that Coach Washburn had to go because I was really starting to get his scheme and everything,” Graham, who had 1½ sacks Sunday night against Dallas, said. “But we’re just going to move on and keep going.”
Second-year defensive tackle Cedric Thornton also showed support for his fired position coach, saying he was “confused right now” and would “just try to learn from what he taught me and what the next coach will teach me and take advantage of the opportunity.”
Others weren’t as supportive. Several team sources said Washburn, a down-home Southerner with North Carolina roots, often pushed the envelope with motivational tactics, chiding his linemen about their backgrounds, upbringings or other personal hardships.
Washburn was known for being brutally harsh and unfiltered but also trying to soften the blow of his diatribes with his own tales of a rough upbringing and time spent in prison going back to his steroid-distribution scandal at the University of South Carolina in the 1980s.
Washburn also lost the respect of some of his players when he continued to coddle Babin, sources said, even as the Pro Bowl defensive end had struggled to get sacks and had bothered his teammates by playing more as an individual than a teammate dedicated to overall improvement.
Washburn was not made available to the media after his firing. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
The Eagles will unveil their new defensive scheme Sunday in Tampa Bay against the Buccaneers and hope that their defense can function as one unit instead of the fractured mess it has become.
“If it’s going to help the back end, I’m with it,” Thornton said. “I’m with everything that they’re doing here. They’re trying to win.”
E-mail Geoff Mosher at firstname.lastname@example.org.