Former Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has died from cancer. He was 68.
“For ten years, Jim Johnson was an exceptional coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, but more importantly, he was an outstanding human being,” Eagles chairman Jeffrey Lurie said in a statement. “As an integral part of the Eagles family, Jim epitomized the traits of what a great coach should be – a teacher, a leader, and a winner. He positively touched the lives of so many people in and out of the Eagles organization. It was easy to feel close to him. Our hearts go out to his wife, Vicky and his wonderful family. We will miss him greatly.”
Johnson, who overcame melanoma in 2001, experienced back problems late last season and went for tests that revealed the metastasized tumor on his spine, just after the Birds' second-round playoff victory at the Giants. The MRI results were confirmed just after the 32-25 loss to Arizona in the NFC Championship Game. The Eagles announced Johnson had cancer during Super Bowl week.
Johnson returned for some of the Eagles' spring minicamps and was riding a motorized scooter on the practice field.
The Eagles announced May 18 that Johnson would take a leave of absence and did not announce a return date. The team named Sean McDermott the defensive coordinator on Saturday.
At an evening news conference at Lehigh, Eagles coach Andy Reid and team president Joe Banner addressed the media.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to Vicky and both his son and daughter and grandkids," Reid said. "The whole Eagle/Andy Reid regime that has taken place would not have been possible without Jim. I think we all realize that. I think the players understand that ... [He has] the ultimate respect you will find throughout the league. I’m not sure that there is a person that I’ve met, surely not anybody that has communicated today, is not a Jim Johnson fan. He represented everything this city is about, his toughness and grit. At this time, it’s important that we do think of the good times that Jim brought us.”
Said Banner: "It’s been an amazing run with Jim. He’s been a great friend and partner. His legacy is the words from the people that know him best. they know what a special guy he was ... Really an amazing man."
Reid said he and Banner visited Johnson on Monday night, although Johnson could not communicate. He said he and Johnson last talked over the weekend and that Johnson had the "starting date for training camp on his mind."
Here is a statement from the Eagles:
The Philadelphia Eagles are saddened to announce Jim Johnson has passed away this afternoon at the age of 68 after a courageous battle with cancer.
A veteran of 22 years as an NFL assistant, Johnson is regarded as one of the top defensive masterminds in National Football League history. Over the last decade, he gained a great deal of notoriety as the orchestrator of the renowned Eagles defense. His aggressive style kept Philadelphia at or near the top of the NFL in nearly every major defensive category since joining Andy Reid’s staff on January 22, 1999.
From 2000-08, Johnson's units ranked 2nd in the NFL in sacks (390), 3rd down efficiency (34.0%) and red zone touchdown percentage (43.9%), and fourth in fewest points allowed (17.7 per game). During his 10-year tenure in Philadelphia, the Eagles earned seven playoff berths, five trips to the NFC Championship game and one Super Bowl appearance (following the 2004 season).
As the Eagles defensive chief, Johnson's defense has produced 26 Pro Bowl selections: Brian Dawkins (7), Troy Vincent (5), Jeremiah Trotter (4), Hugh Douglas (3), Lito Sheppard (2), Asante Samuel (1), Trent Cole (1), Michael Lewis (1), Corey Simon (1), and Bobby Taylor (1).
Four of his defensive assistants have gone on to successful careers with other NFL franchises: Steve Spagnuolo (head coach of the St. Louis Rams), John Harbaugh (head coach of the Baltimore Ravens), Ron Rivera (defensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers) and Leslie Frazier (defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings).
Prior to his tenure in Philadelphia, Johnson served as the linebackers coach with Seattle in 1998. That year, Johnson helped the Seahawks register 10 touchdowns on defense, including eight interceptions returned for scores, 2nd most in NFL history. He arrived in Seattle after a four-year stint in Indianapolis, the last two as defensive coordinator. While with the Colts, Johnson helped them secure a berth in the AFC Championship game at Pittsburgh in 1995.
Johnson spent eight seasons with the Arizona Cardinals (1986-93). After overseeing the Cards defensive line for four seasons, Johnson excelled as their secondary coach, helping Aeneas Williams become the first rookie cornerback to lead the league in interceptions (6) since 1981.
Johnson began his coaching career as head coach at Missouri Southern (1967-68), before serving four-year tenures at Drake and Indiana. From 1977-83, Johnson served as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at Notre Dame, a stint that included a national championship in 1977.
An all-conference quarterback himself at Missouri (where he played in the same backfield with long-time NFL executive Bill Tobin), Johnson went on to spend two seasons with Buffalo as a tight end (1963-64).
A native of Maywood, IL, Johnson (born 5/26/41) earned a bachelor's degree in education and a master's degree in physical education from Missouri.
Johnson is survived by his wife, Vicky, two children, Scott and Michelle, and four grandchildren, Katie, Justin, Brandon, and Jax.
Reaction from around the league is beginning to land:
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh: “I loved Jim Johnson. This is a sad day for so many people who were touched by this great man. Ingrid and I, the Harbaugh family, and the Ravens have Jim’s wife, Vicky, and the Johnson family in our thoughts and prayers. Jim was a tremendous teacher of football and life. He had a special ability to bring out the best in people while getting you to see the best in yourself. He saw potential and developed it. He made me believe I could coach at this level. In football, he was a pioneering and brilliant strategist, changing the way defense is played in the NFL. For me, he was a father-type mentor, and above all, a cherished friend. He belongs in the Hall of Fame. I will miss him so much.”
Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin: “It is a sad, very sad, day. I talked recently to (Eagles video director) Mike Dougherty and asked him to let Jim know that I was thinking about him, and I had dropped Jim a note to let him know as well. Forget about what kind of coach he was…he was an excellent, excellent defensive coach, and he trained others to be the same. We know what Steve Spagnuolo meant to us. We had great respect for Jim, and he had great respect for us. I didn’t know Jim personally, but we would always talk to each other, mostly about the NFC East and what a great, competitive division it is. It was a respectful critique about what great players, coaches and organizations there are within the division. In talking with people who worked with Jim, you sense what a class act Jim was. He was great to work with and for, and he had his priorities in order. His players loved to play for him and his coaches loved to coach with him. It is a sad day for the National Football League to lose somebody the quality of Jim Johnson. It is a sad note on which to start the season. He coached right up to the very end.”
Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo: “My wife Maria and I are deeply saddened to hear of Jim’s passing. He was a dear friend and a special person. Our prayers and thoughts go out to his wife Vicki and their family. Jim meant the world to me, both personally and professionally. I am very blessed to have had the privilege to work for him and with him. The NFL has lost a good man.”