When Andy Reid became coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999, he made two personnel decisions that would shape the NFL franchise for the next decade and beyond.
To run his offense, he drafted quarterback Donovan McNabb.
To run his defense, he hired coordinator Jim Johnson.
And while McNabb has had his good and bad moments over the years, Johnson has been remarkably consistent.
In fact, despite all the publicity given to the Eagles’ West Coast offense and Pro Bowl players such as McNabb, running back Brian Westbrook and, briefly, wide receiver Terrell Owens, it’s been Johnson’s defense that has been the foundation of a team that has advanced to the NFC Championship game five times in 10 years and made it all the way to the Super Bowl in 2004.
Now, that foundation has been rocked by the news that the 67-year-old Johnson will take an undetermined leave of absence while he continues to fight his battle with cancer—what started out as skin cancer has metastasized to his spine and now there’s a fear that it has spread even further.
Johnson had been in a motorized wheelchair during the team’s recent mini-camp, but now he’ll leave the team while he continues his treatment. And nobody knows when he’ll be back or even if he’ll be back.
During Johnson’s tenure, the Eagles have seen some great defensive players come and go, including defensive end Hugh Douglas, cornerbacks Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, and Lito Sheppard, linebacker Jeremiah Trotter and, most recently, safety Brian Dawkins.
And the Eagles have remained one of the best defensive teams in the NFL because even though players left, the coach remained. Jim Johnson was the constant and he might have done his best coaching job last year, when the young Eagles finished third in the NFL in total defense.
It’s not just the Xs and Os that have separated Johnson from the rest of the coaching pack, although he’s certainly been a master of that.
His multi-faceted blitz packages have been copied by just about every NFL team and it’s not a coincidence that two of his protégés, Leslie Frazier and Ron Rivera, are currently NFL defensive coordinators with Minnesota and San Diego, respectively, and one of them, Steve Spagnuolo, is head coach of the St. Louis Rams. They all learned at the feet of the master.
But what has really made Johnson special is the respect his players have for him and the confidence they have in him. When he makes a defensive call, the players believe it’s the right one at the right time and that faith in their coach has a lot to do with the Eagles success on the field.
Plus, despite his easy-going demeanor, Johnson is a strict disciplinarian who will bark at his stars as well as his subs when they fail to play up to his expectations. He brings out the best in his players and they know and respect that.
Of course, Johnson is much more than just a football coach. He’s also a husband and father and brother and friend. This is a human story, not a football story. It doesn’t matter if he ever coaches again as long as he wins this battle with cancer.
And as somebody who covered the Eagles on a daily basis for eight of Johnson’s 10 years with the club, I know that he’s also a coach with whom the media loves to deal. And that’s because Johnson is down to earth and, even more importantly, honest.
While other coaches give a daily spin to issues, Johnson tells it like it is. He doesn’t show one face in public and another in private.
Ask him a direct question and you get a direct answer. Plus he has a low-keyed sense of humor that’s a delight to be around—he’s the kind of guy with whom you’d enjoy swapping stories over a couple of cold ones.
That’s why everyone hopes that Jim Johnson will be back on the sideline when the Eagles open training camp at Lehigh University in late July—they like him as a coach and they love him as a person.