Potential Hang-ups in Spags to Birds

Potential Hang-ups in Spags to Birds

Now that speculation over last week's report suggesting Steve Spagnuolo was set to join the Philadelphia Eagles as their new defensive coordinator (which is not really what the report said) has quieted down some, let's look at why you might want to consider tapping the breaks on that theory. Yes, there is evidence these two are not exactly a match made in heaven.

Bare in mind, we're not saying Spags won't ultimately land with the Birds. After all, the former Jim Johnson disciple will listen to what Andy Reid has to say, and vice versa, if for no other reason than due diligence. However, the recently-terminated head coach will have plenty of options on the table, and there are reasons to believe Juan Castillo's demotion or dismissal is not a given.

Performance
We know what kind of coach Spagnuolo can be. His Giants defense led the charge for New York's 07-08 Super Bowl run, ranking seventh in the NFL, then holding one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history to 14 points in the championship game. NY also ranked fifth the following season.

That hasn't translated into recent success though. As a head coach, his Rams ranked 22nd overall this season, and second-to-last against the run. They were never better than 19th overall during his three-year tenure.

Meanwhile, in his first season coaching defense in decades, Juan Castillo's unit ranked eighth. It seems odd you would replace a coach who has a top 10 defense with somebody who hasn't coached a good defense since he was employed by another team -- which is exactly the kind of thinking that could justify returning Juan next season.

Fit with Washburn
Only a year ago, the Eagles made the unusual decision to hire a defensive line coach before settling on a defensive coordinator. That seems to be the biggest reason behind why the club couldn't find somebody more experienced than Castillo to take the job, but it made one thing perfectly clear: Andy Reid was a fan of Jim Washburn's wide-nine front.

But as Sheil Kapadia demonstrated the other day on Moving the Chains, Washburn's philosphies probably don't mesh with Spagnuolo's. This season, the Eagles rarely dropped their linemen into coverage, which was in stark contrast to the Rams, who did so with great frequency. By extension, Castillo blitzed very rarely, yet the Birds tied for the league-lead in sacks.

It's no secret that Spags, as his mentor did, loves to blitz. But by choosing Washburn, Reid indicated a desire to get away from that approach. If the two philosophies can't co-exist -- and it appears they couldn't -- the Eagles would have to scrap a scheme they previously were desperate to employ in favor of one they wanted to shift away from.

Stability
One of the underlying themes in 2011 is how all the changes made in the offseason may have impacted the Eagles' performance, particularly in the early goings. Much has been made about the way this defense gelled as the year progressed, and how that momentum could carry over into next season.

Replacing Juan Castillo would erase all of that. The players would be working in their third defensive system in as many years, which makes it challenging to build any cohesion from one season to the next. Plus, some of them might not fit in the new schemes -- notably Jason Babin, who seems to be tailor-made for the wide-nine, or likely starting cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who have three career sacks between them.

Granted, some of that talk about change having a role in their struggles was in part based around having a shortened offseason due to the lockout. That being said, there is something to be said for not making major overhauls in back-to-back offseasons.

Loyalty
A noted observation about how he conducts his business, Reid will rarely throw one of his guys under the bus. Even if he keeps Castillo on staff as a position coach, Reid would be doing the man a tremendous disservice by replacing him at defensive coordinator.

If he's fired or even demoted, Castillo could gain a negative reputation around the league. Who is going to give him another try at coordinator in the future if he was "so terrible" at his job, he couldn't even be entrusted with a second chance? Even if they find him a coordinator job on another team, he would almost definitely be on a shorter leash than most coaches.

The truth is, Castillo hasn't been given the rightful opportunity to prove himself yet, and Andy knows that. Worse things could happen than being shuffled to linebackers coach or some other, lesser role. Reid has great admiration for Castillo though, and if he's truly interested in helping him succeed, he's not going to chop the man's legs out from under him.

A Better Job Out There?
There sure are a lot of hoops for Spagnuolo to jump through here, no? To become defensive coordinator, it seems likely he'll have to keep Castillo on his staff, not to mention the issue with Washburn running a conflicting scheme. Spags might be willing to keep an open mind, but most guys want to bring in their own staff.

Previously, we examined the possibility he could return as the defensive backs coach instead. As unlikely as it sounds, he may do it for one year to help Castillo, or if he feels he could be part of something special here.

But it seems as if, either way, there will be a better job available for a coach of Spagnuolo's caliber. Here, it doesn't appear he would have complete control, and that's if the top job is even available. Elsewhere, larger shake-ups are in order, and he would be able to build his own program.

We'll see. We know a lot of folks are convinced it's happening, but Steve Spagnuolo's path back to the Birds is not as clear cut as people are making it out to be.

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”