Most Interesting Man of The Week: Juan Castillo.
Tonight, Castillo, the defensive coordinator of the 3-4 Eagles, will try to shut down Matt Forte and get pressure on Jay Cutler. The former is very hard (Forte's averaging 156 rushing/receiving yards per game), the latter not so much (only two quarterbacks through eight weeks had been sacked more than Cutler).
Castillo and Andy Reid were marked men in Philadelphia's 1-4 start. Reid mostly because his offense was sputtering, and because he'd named a longtime offensive line coach, Castillo, as his defensive coordinator before the season. Castillo was a college safety and linebacker in college, and he played two seasons at linebacker in the USFL in the mid-80s. But the last time he'd been a defensive coordinator -- in fact, the last time he'd been a defensive coach of any kind -- was at Kingsville (Texas) High in 1989.
Reid's decision, controversial then and now, came because he'd seen long sessions between Castillo and the late defensive coordinator of the Eagles, Jim Johnson, with Castillo not only talking about protections against Johnson's assorted blitzes, but also with Castillo talking blitzes, and what he thought would work against certain offensive fronts.
The great Castillo experiment flopped early, obviously. The Eagles had no offseason program, got their two big cornerback acquisitions late (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha), started 1-4, allowed 30 points per game in those four losses, and the hounds were at the door. The simple reason for the slow start? The adjustment period for five new starters on the defense, and for the coach, and for a secondary with two new cornerbacks learning new roles. Castillo's hidden way to bring a unit of talented players performing in a dysfunctional way together?
"I could feel in the summer there was something missing in our unit,'' Castillo told me the other day. "I didn't feel the camaraderie. Where does everybody fit? What's the real pull for these guys to play together?''
So Castillo, with the defense struggling, decided to bring one defensive player per day in front of the defensive team meeting. "We needed to get to know each other so we'd feel comfortable fighting for each other,'' Castillo said. "Everyone has endured some sort of hardship in their lives to get to this point, and I wanted every player to understand every other player in the room, to get to know them so they'd want to fight for them. The attitude was everyone's overcome something, and we'll overcome this to become a great defense.''
Cullen Jenkins told the group he'd been cut by Green Bay and didn't know if he'd have a football career. Others talked about personal hardships growing up ... as Asomugha did. "I thought this was really important for Nnamdi,'' said Castillo. "He looks like a professor. Looks uppity. He's rich. Everyone in the room thought he came from a well-to-do family, but the guys in the room found out he came up just like most of them. He had to earn everything he got. And I think it all worked out. We're playing together much better now.''
In the last two weeks, the Eagles have held the Redskins and Cowboys to 20 total points and an average of 277 yards per game. Asomugha has similarly stepped up his game, with an interception and being mixed in different coverages by Castillo. "We email back and forth during the week,'' said Castillo. "I'll say, 'I'm thinking about putting you on the tight end some first and second downs. And maybe putting you in different coverages on third down, depending on the situation.' He's good that way. He likes that. Like last week, he played some on [tight end] Jason Witten, some on the slot receiver, some on [outside receiver Dez] Bryant.''
The Eagles' real hope to climb out of their early-season hole is for Castillo, Asomugha and the rest of the defense to have more shutdown games. The offense will score, but as has been shown in the past year, sometimes a high-risk offense like Philly's turns the ball over and forces the defense to come up big. To catch the Giants in the NFC East, the defense will have to be as good as the offense.
Rex is a big movie star.
Last summer, I got a call from a movie publicist friend of mine who asked if I'd like to come onto the set of an interesting movie being filmed in a suburb of Boston. "Rex Ryan's in it,'' he said. "I think you'd like it.'' There was a catch: Writing about the movie would be embargoed until the week of the second Jets-Patriots game this season. I would be the print guy on hand, and ESPN would be there and cable nets that served the Jets and Patriots markets. Made sense to me. So I went over to the Lynn, Mass., site where the movie "I Hate You, Dad'' was being filmed.
The first thing I saw:
Rex Ryan, in a chair behind a shabby desk in a shabby office, with a $69 suit and clown shoes.
The second and third things I saw:
A Bill Belichick bobblehead doll on the desk. A Tom Brady MVP poster on the wall.
"Look at this little guy,'' Ryan told me, picking up Belichick off his desk and making the head bobble. "He's a sturdy dude."
The idea of the movie is that Adam Sandler's a former child star who's blown all his money. Rex is a seedy lawyer -- his name is Jim Nance -- with Sandler his client, and Ryan's job in his scene is to tell Sandler he hasn't been paying taxes, and now he owes the IRS $43,000.
Ryan's face is on billboards in town (1 800 LAW GUY ... Your Number for Toll Free Justice!), and on the day I'm there, he clearly can't quite believe his good fortune.
"You kidding me?'' he said. "A movie with Adam Sandler? When they called, I thought someone was messing with me. I just thought, 'Well, you're gonna be dead a long time. Might as well have fun when you're alive.' ''
I said: "What's Belichick going to think of this, you with this cute Belichick bobblehead on the desk and the Brady poster on the wall?''
"Oh, he's gonna laugh. He won't let anybody know he thinks it's funny, but you know Bill. He's not all business. I think he'll appreciate the fun of it.''
An hour or so later, I watch the scene with Ryan telling Sandler he owes the IRS the dough. Sandler is furious. He kicks the desk, knocking the bobblehead awry.
"DON'T MESS WITH THE GENIUS!'' Ryan yells, setting the doll back in its place.
Sandler fumes and throws something at the wall, nearly hitting the Brady poster. "Don't screw up my poster!'' Ryan says. "He looks so heroic in that shot.''
All in all, a fun day. Absurd seeing Ryan in this setting, of course, but you only live once. I watched Ryan do a couple of takes of a couple of scenes, and he wasn't bad. Knew his lines -- and he had a few -- and had the proper back-and-forth with Sandler in the scenes. Sandler's a movie machine, obviously (he's got one, "Jack and Jill'' out this week, with this movie slated for release sometime next year), and he saw the benefit of getting a marquee guy he liked like Ryan involved.
"It's been fun, lots of fun,'' Ryan said at the end of the day. "I think I'm still employed by the Jets, but maybe not after this performance.''
As I was leaving, I saw Sandler and told him what his next movie should include. "Belichick and Brady, playing big Jets fans in Manhattan,'' I said. "Now that would draw an audience.''
"I'll give it some thought,'' Sandler said.
Probably not much.
Living History: The Ryan Leaf story.
A couple of weeks ago, I asked if I should do more looking-back-at-history items with some perspective after the entry about what a tremendous draftsman Bill Walsh must have been to overcome the handicap of losing nine high draft choices in the horrible Jim Plunkett and O.J. Simpson trades that preceded his 49er stewardship. In email and Twitter responses, the answer was an overwhelming yes. So when I have something that I think merits the interest, I'll write about history.
I interviewed Ryan Leaf for my podcast the other day (iTunes or SI.com), and it brought back lots of memories about the 1998 draft, when Peyton Manning was the first pick, by Indianapolis, and Leaf the second, by San Diego. And you know the rest. Manning's had a Hall of Fame career, and Leaf was a major bust in five seasons with San Diego, Tampa Bay and Dallas.
I got this reaction from a few of you about the Leaf Podcast: Who cares? He's irrelevant.
Not really. It's one of the most fascinating stories in recent football history, and with the fervor over the potential star-studded 2012 quarterback draft class, I thought I would take you back to the month before the 1998 draft. That May, I took a VHS tape of 30 plays from Manning's 1997 season with Tennessee and 30 plays from Leaf's last season with Washington State. I sat down with six men, independent of each other, and showed them the 60 plays, and asked each who they would pick.
The six: brilliant offensive innovator Sid Gillman (since deceased), coach Mike Shanahan, analyst and former quarterback Phil Simms, then-Tampa Bay personnel czar Jerry Angelo, former 49er coach Bill Walsh and UCLA coach Bob Toledo, who had faced both quarterbacks in their college careers.
Now people look back and wonder, How could the Colts have had a second thought about who to pick? It had to be Manning, all the way. In spring 1998, the new ESPN The Magazine had a big story about which quarterback would turn out better in the NFL and said about Leaf: "He possesses an 'I don't give a crap' attitude that has proven essential to Super Bowl quarterbacks from Stabler to McMahon to Favre. Come 2018, Ryan Leaf, not Manning, will be strutting up to a podium in Canton.' '' It's easy to shake your head at that now, but there was a real debate.
Points from my SI story the week before the 1998 draft that I find interesting today:
* Sid Gillman, 86, watching tape of Manning throwing a look-one-way-throw-the-other screen against Mississippi: "Now this is a pro quarterback. Is that a beautiful throw, or is that a beautiful throw? I'd draft this kid in a second."
* Walsh said he wouldn't take either player with the first pick, though he favored Manning ... and said he had a better arm than Johnny Unitas. "I don't see Favre or Elway. I see those guys on the next level. But Manning seems to be more pro-ready than Leaf ... I'd pick another top player, and then I'd take [Michigan quarterback] Brian Griese in the second round. I think he could have the tools to be special."
* Simms was incredulous when the question about Manning's questionable arm strength was posed. "His arm's plenty good. You know how many times Drew Bledsoe really aired it out last year? I mean, 50, 60 yards in the air? Five. Ten, maybe. In the NFL, you make your living throwing the intermediate pass, and look at how many good intermediate throws we're seeing Peyton make."
* The same red off-the-field flags the Colts saw about Leaf, Angelo saw as Leaf's weight ballooned to 261 at the NFL Scouting Combine. "I was at the combine for the weigh-in," said Angelo, "and it really surprised me. Here's what could be the biggest day of your life, the day you're going to expose yourself to your future employers for the first time, and you show up out of shape and overweight. To me, that's a signal. The quarterback has to be the CEO of your team. You have to trust him. I'd have some hard questions if that happened and we were going to pick him."
* Gillman on Leaf's pass drop and release: "He's way too slow. This is the age of the blitzer in the NFL. He'd better get coached out of that in a hurry."
* Angelo on Manning, sounding eerily prescient: "He'll handle the inferno of going to a 3-13 team. He's a sure player."
Interesting note from Leaf on the podcast: He regularly texts Manning, and he says Manning has been a big supporter of his through some of his worst times. Leaf had a golf-ball-sized tumor removed from the base of his brain in May, and later this month he'll begin six weeks of radiation to neutralize what couldn't be surgically removed. The tumor was benign.
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