Since the day Johnson announced his sabbatical – and now-permanent replacement Sean McDermott was named interim coordinator – the big non-health question Eagles fans have been asking is “what does this mean for the defense?”
Prior to Tuesday, the task of taking over the Eagles’ defense was going to be hard enough for McDermott as it was. If his defense struggled, if he tweaked too much…really, if it didn’t run like the well-oiled machine that carried the Birds to the NFC Championship Game last year, he would be second-guessed to no end.
“Maybe he should listen to Jim,” fans might say, or the similar “maybe he should run Jim’s defense as is.” Or better yet, the old “maybe Jim will come back soon!” mantra would carry them – us, as I have to count myself as a fan – through the interim.
Let me let you in on a sad fact of life, Eagles fans: Jim Johnson was never coming back. The day he “stepped down” was always going to be his last hurrah. Of course no one knew (or wanted to admit) that, as the seriousness of Johnson’s cancer was left publicly unsaid for reasons I’m sure I don’t have to describe.
And let me tell you something else: That’s why they picked McDermott as his successor.
It would be crazy for McDermott to run the defense exactly as Johnson had. Really, even if he was the “interim” coordinator, Sean would be dumb not to add his own little tweaks. Whether they work or not, there are obviously things he sees that no one else does. It’s human nature.
But if there’s anyone who can do it with almost 100% precision, it’s McDermott.
He’s coached both the secondary and the linebackers in his five years as an Eagles assistant. In his one year as LB coach, they were the most productive that unit has been in recent memory. Brian Dawkins aside, he’s helped turn Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard into Pro Bowlers, developed Quentin Mikell to the point that the Birds felt they could let Dawkins walk and managed a secondary as well as you can.
McDermott knows the defense. And he knows how to “bring the pain” the way Johnson did, if you will.
So he’s going to…because he wouldn’t have it any other way.
"There is one thing I know, and that is that this system, it works," McDermott said in his introductory press conference. "Jim (Johnson) has spent a considerable amount of time in his coaching career researching and finding things that work and finding things that didn't work, quite frankly, and I'm going to respect that and we're going to build on that. From there, we'll add wrinkles."
Now, those wrinkles will be added in memory of Johnson, not just in place of him.
But again, McDermott knows what he’s doing.
“What haven't I learned from Jim? I don't think it would be fair to Jim, in this setting, to try and limit in one statement, one press conference, the effect that Jim has had on my life."
That’s more of a tribute to Jim Johnson the man, the football coach and the genius than any scribe could pump out in 500 words.
Soon, we’ll learn from McDermott. The student always becomes the teacher eventually, just not always under these circumstances.
But that’s just more motivation for the Birds’ defense…and God help the rest of the league because of it.