THE LATE Jim Johnson was a sports writer’s dream. If you asked him a question, he almost always gave you an honest, unvarnished answer. “I’ve got to do a better job,’’ and “I need to put my players in better position to make plays’’ wasn’t his style.
Johnson wasn’t above occasionally using the media to send messages to his players, whether it was tooting the horn of a rookie backup to light a fire under a veteran or suggesting, as he did once about cornerback Lito Sheppard, that the guy couldn’t play unless he was completely healthy.
Andy Reid borrowed a page from his former defensive coordinator’s playbook late last month during a postdraft chat in a NovaCare Complex hallway with a handful of writers.
Asked about the disappointing rookie season of safety Jaiquawn Jarrett and whether he thought the 2011, second-round pick would benefit from having a full offseason to master the defense, Reid gave a lukewarm response that clearly was meant for Jarrett to read.
“We’ll see,’’ Reid said. “Last year, he was doing too much thinking and not enough playing. That’s going to slow you down. He’s not the fastest guy in the world as it is, but he’s fast enough.
“You didn’t see the big hits that you saw out of him at the college level. He’s a big hitter. Once he gets comfortable with everything, and it looked like he was picking up things as the year went on, I expect him to do good things.’’
In case anything got lost in the translation with that message, Reid sent Jarrett another one 2 weeks ago when he announced that Kurt Coleman and not Jarrett would head into the team’s offseason camps as the No. 1 strong safety, alongside starting free safety Nate Allen.
Jarrett said Wednesday he’s “not surprised’’ that he’s running behind Coleman, a 2010 seventh-round pick who had his own problems in 13 erratic starts last season. “He started the season out last year as the starter,’’ Jarrett said. “This year, I know where he’s at right now. This is the NFL. You’ve got to go out there and compete every day.’’
The jury still is very much out on Jarrett. Even with the 4 1/2-month lockout, the Eagles had hoped the Temple product might be able to step right in and start as a rookie, or at least make a significant contribution. But Jarrett struggled all season to get comfortable with Juan Castillo’s defense. His uncertainty with the defense caused him to be tentative. Safeties who run 4.6 forties can’t afford to be tentative.
“I knew what I needed to do to get out there,’’ Jarrett said. “It was all about not being hesitant and playing fast. They could see I wasn’t playing as fast as I’m capable of playing.
“You can’t be hesitant out there. There’s just a split-second difference between a touchdown and an interception.’’
Jarrett played just 254 of 982 defensive snaps last season. One hundred fifty of those 254 came in his only two starts — an ugly, 21-17 home loss to the Cardinals on Nov. 13 when he replaced the injured Allen and gave up a 37-yard reception to Larry Fitzgerald that set up Arizona’s game-winning touchdown, and the Eagles’ meaningless, season-ending 34-10 win over the Redskins.
The pass he gave up to Fitzgerald wasn’t entirely Jarrett’s fault. It was a badly conceived coverage by Castillo, and was badly executed by cornerback Asante Samuel, who blew his assignment and left Jarrett high and dry to cover Fitzgerald by himself. But the play pretty much underscored Jarrett’s first pro season.
“Larry Fitzgerald is a great receiver,’’ Jarrett said. “He made a play and I didn’t make a play. I learned from it. It’s a learning experience and I know when I’m out there I need to make a play. Because if I don’t, the next man [replacing him] will.’’
“When you’re a safety, especially a guy like him whose biggest thing is seeing and going and making an explosive play, if you have to think, you take a step back,’’ said Eagles general manager Howie Roseman. “Having an offseason and getting in the playbook and getting much more comfortable with everything will help him.’’
Jarrett has been working hard to put 2011 behind and play much more like the big hitter the Eagles thought they drafted last year. He has added about 5 pounds of muscle to his nearly six-foot frame. He reported to the team’s first round of OTAs this week weighing 203 pounds.
The key, though, will be mastering Castillo’s defense. Because of the lockout, he didn’t get his first peek at the defensive playbook until the day before the Eagles’ first training-camp practice.
“It’s always tough to learn on the run like that,’’ he said. “You’ve got to learn it inside and out and then go out there and execute and make plays. When you’re hesitant, you’re not going to be able to play as fast as you want. This year, I’m going to play fast.’’
Jarrett said there is a night-and-day difference in his comfort level with the defense now compared to last summer when he reported to Lehigh. It’s hard to really tell if that’s the case from watching two OTA practices. But it stands to reason that a full offseason of classroom work and on-field repetitions should do him a world of good.
After that, it will come down to ability. After that, it will come down to whether the Eagles were right or wrong when they took him in the second round last year.
“I’m motivated by pride,’’ he said. “I have a chip on my shoulder every day to be the best. I want to show the people that support me that I am going to help this defense.’’ n
Contact Paul Domowitch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Pdomo. Read the Daily News Eagles blog at www.eagletarian.com.