The Eagles' longtime defensive coordinator Jim Johnson died Tuesday afternoon after a six-month battle with cancer, the team announced.
Mr. Johnson 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 released by the team. "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 coached the Eagles defense through January's NFC title game. On Saturday, coach Andy Reid announced - with Johnson's blessing, he said - that Sean McDermott was replacing Johnson while he battled cancer.
When somebody writes an updated history of the Eagles a century from now, former Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent said, he knows how the start of the team's 21st century should be chronicled.
"In that chapter of Eagles history, there can be no argument that you look at the defensive coordinator and you look at No. 5," said Vincent. "Jim Johnson and Donovan McNabb are the staples to Andy Reid's success."
During his 10 seasons as the Eagles' defensive coordinator, the team played in five NFC championship games and one Super Bowl, and won five NFC East titles. Mr. Johnson's zone blitz packages became one of the team's trademarks of success.
"Think about what you'd hear from Troy Aikman every time you'd turn on an Eagles game," Vincent said before going into an impersonation of the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and current Fox color analyst. " 'You better believe this defensive coordinator is going to bring the heat. This quarterback will see pressure. This young quarterback will be tested and if shows any signs of weakness he will be in trouble against this Jim Johnson defense.' "
The Eagles were an awful team with a no-pressure defense when Reid became the head coach and hired Mr. Johnson as his defensive coordinator in 1999. They remained an awful team that season, winning just five games, but the defense sprung to life. After forcing a league-low 17 turnovers in 1998, Ray Rhodes' final season as head coach, the Eagles led the league with 48 takeaways, including 28 interceptions, during Mr. Johnson's first season as defensive coordinator.
By 2001, when the Eagles went to their first of four straight NFC championship games, the defense was ranked among the best in the NFL in almost every category. With few exceptions, the Eagles' defense remained an elite unit, including last season, when the team had the NFC's top-ranked defense.
"As a defense, we knew we could play," former Eagles linebacker Ike Reese said. "What we needed was direction and structure. We needed somebody to tap into our potential. He was old-school to the core. He had his beliefs about how the game should be played with toughness. The first three or four years Andy was here, that was Jim's message. He'd walk past you in the training room down in the dungeon at the Vet and he'd start talking about downhill, aggressive football. That's what he wanted from his linebackers and safeties."
The Eagles' defense had 26 Pro Bowl selections during Mr. Johnson's tenure, including seven by safety Brian Dawkins.
"He changed the way safeties played in this league by the way he used Brian Dawkins," Reese said. "When you look at Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed and how people use guys at the safety position, that's because of the way Jim Johnson used Brian Dawkins."
All five of Vincent's Pro Bowls came during his years with Mr. Johnson as the defensive coordinator.
"I still remember that first meeting, and talking to him about his philosophies," Vincent said. "Jim's enthusiasm and attack style was a culture change. He just brought a sense of 'This is who we are.' It was the first time I had been introduced to a zone-pressure defensive philosophy. He allowed me to flourish. His scheme and his belief in me allowed me to take my game to the next level."
Hugh Douglas also emerged as a star under Mr. Johnson, although the Eagles' two-time Pro Bowl defensive end used to test his coach's sanity.
"Hugh used to drive him crazy," Vincent said.
Douglas pleaded guilty to that charge.
"I'll never forget, we were putting in a defense and I messed it up," Douglas said. "I messed it up every practice. He kept cursing me: 'Damn it, Douglas, we're going to run this defense until Hugh Douglas gets it right.' So we'd run it again, and I'd still (mess) it up.
"Jim says, 'All right, we're going to put this wing stunt in right here because it works better for the defensive end.' Everybody knew what he was doing. They were all saying, 'Yeah, Hugh keeps (messing) up the defense and that's why Jim put it in.' I was the founder of the wing stunt because I kept messing up the defense. He knew I did some things unorthodox, so he made up things for me to be free when I played."
Vincent said compliments from the defensive coordinator were cherished, but often indirect.
"I think that was his personality," Vincent said. "We weren't buddy, buddy and that always kept me on edge. It always kept me thinking what I did wasn't enough. I remember Leslie Frazier would come to me and he'd want me to do something and I'd say, 'Show me somebody who can do that on tape because I can't do that.' Leslie would say, 'I can't show you any tape, but Jim says you can do it.' That was the confidence and belief he had in me. That told me what he thought about me."
Frazier was one of three defensive assistants that went on to become a defensive coordinator elsewhere after working under Mr. Johnson. The other two were Ron Rivera and Steve Spagnuolo. Spagnuolo is now the head coach of the St. Louis Rams and John Harbaugh, who also worked under Mr. Johnson, is the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.
Born in 1941 in Maywood, Ill., Mr. Johnson played quarterback for coach Dan Devine at the University of Missouri.
"I remember recruiting him," Devine told The Inquirer in a 1999 interview. "We were really after his neighbor, who was one of the top players in the country. When they visited, we paid all the attention to the other kid and kind of neglected Jim. As it turned out, Jim was one of our best players. After being a defensive halfback his junior year, he was our starting quarterback his senior year."
After a two-year stint as a tight end with the Buffalo Bills in the American Football League, Mr. Johnson turned to coaching in 1967 when he was hired as the head coach by Missouri Southern College. His two-year stint there would be his last as a head coach. From that point on, it was his defensive mind that attracted suitors.
He moved to Drake University and then to Indiana University, then reunited with Devine in 1977 when he took the job as defensive coordinator at the University of Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish, with Joe Montana at quarterback, won the national championship that year. When Devine stepped down a few years later, he said he suggested Mr. Johnson as his replacement, but Gerry Faust got the job instead.
Mr. Johnson first coached professionally in the U.S. Football League before landing a job with the Phoenix Cardinals as a defensive line and defensive backs coach in 1986. He moved from there to the Indianapolis Colts in 1994, which is where he caught the eye of a young quarterbacks coach from the Green Bay Packers during a 1997 game.
"We sacked the quarterback quite a bit in that game and we got some touchdowns off blitzes," Mr. Johnson said. "When Andy got the head job here, he called me. I didn't know him that well. But Andy called me for an interview."
That interview led to one of the finest decades of defensive football in the Eagles' history, and when the chapter about the top of the 21st century is written about this football team, the name of Jim Johnson will be mentioned prominently.
Mr. Johnson is survived by his wife, Vicky, two children, Scott and Michelle, and four grandchildren, Katie, Justin, Brandon, and Jax.