TAMPA - During the Eagles' playoff run, cornerback Sheldon Brown kidded that hobbled defensive coordinator Jim Johnson should just continue coaching from the press box, which kept players safe from the lash of Johnson's temper. Last night, though, Brown was cherishing those sideline blowups, and fervently hoping there would be more to come, in the wake of yesterday's very bad news.
The "back problem" that forced Johnson to ride a motorized scooter around the NovaCare Complex late in the Eagles' season, and led him to coach the final two playoff games from the press box, turned out to be melanoma metastasized to Johnson's spine, where a tumor grew that caused the back pain.
The team said Johnson, 67, will not travel to Hawaii to coach the NFC defense in the Pro Bowl, but wants to continue in his job, as his treatment allows.
"I think the world of him, though he probably doesn't know that," Brown said last night. "He's a major competitor. He's always worked hard. He wanted to be the best at everything - that's just him."
The Eagles did not offer a prognosis; however, metastasized cancer is very serious, and head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder indicated that the tumor is not Johnson's only cancer site. Burkholder said Johnson underwent melanoma treatment in 2001 but has been cancer-free in regular checkups since then.
Several oncologists were contacted by the Daily News yesterday. None of them wanted to venture a prognosis without having looked at Johnson's tests. They agreed that, given the description of his set of circumstances, Johnson's outlook likely is dire, unless he is quite fortunate. Dr. Michael Mastrangelo, the director of the melanoma program at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, said that any such tumor on the spine, growing into bone, would constitute Stage IV cancer, the most serious stage. Mastrangelo said Stage IV cancers, in general, "are rarely curable. About 1 in 20 patients have a 20-year survival rate."
According to the National Cancer Institute, the estimated new melanoma cases in the United States in 2008 is 62,480, with 8,420 deaths.
Johnson's difficulties apparently arose within the past month, and a final diagnosis wasn't made until the day after the loss that ended the team's season, one game short of Sunday's Super Bowl.
"He presented with the back pain the week of the Minnesota game," Burkholder told Daily News and Inquirer reporters in a call from the San Francisco airport, where Burkholder was changing planes for his trip to the Pro Bowl. "We got him an MRI right after the Giants game, and the MRI looked funny. We thought he was going to have a disc problem, because of the symptoms, but it actually looked like there was a tumor beside this stress fracture in his spine. That alerted our doctors that something else might be going on. They did further testing, further scans, had him see some other doctors, and it looks like the melanoma is back, in his back. It's manifested itself in a tumor in his spine.
"He's already started treatment, radiation treatment. That's the first course . . . I think about 4 weeks of radiation, then we'll take the next step from there."
Burkholder acknowledged that "there are some other areas of his body - I'm not going to really get into where stuff is - but that'll all be treated together. The main deal is his back, right now . . . that's what we have to attack."
Asked specifically if the cancer had spread to Johnson's brain or spinal fluid, Burkholder said that did not seem to be the case, so far, "but we'll continue to monitor."
Mastrangelo said Johnson's doctors probably don't know yet where else the cancer has spread, that they will search as they treat his back pain with radiation, and that other treatments likely will follow when more is learned.
Burkholder emphasized that team internist Dr. Gary Dorshimer and Johnson's oncologists, based out of Pennsylvania Hospital, are "very optimistic, and Jim is really upbeat about it. Vicky, his wife, is upbeat about it."
Burkholder said no surgery is planned. Johnson's radiation treatments are being done at Bryn Mawr Hospital, near his home.
"The radiation will calm some of that pain down and let him get back to a little more normal walking," Burkholder said.
Burkholder said the medical staff began to strongly suspect a cancerous tumor in the days before the Eagles' Jan. 18 NFC Championship Game loss at Arizona.
"Thursday and Friday, going into the Arizona game, we were suspicious that he needed more testing. He had more testing done on Monday, when we got back, and that's what proved for sure that it was cancer," Burkholder said.
That Thursday before the game, Johnson told a press conference questioner he'd injured himself swinging a golf club. Then he acknowledged he hadn't played golf in quite a while.
Quarterback Donovan McNabb said he found out about John-son's situation in a phone call yesterday from coach Andy Reid.
"He's a fighter," McNabb said from Tampa, as the quarterback prepared for a guest appearance on ESPN's "SportsCenter."
"He kept his spirits high and he kind of kept [his troubles] low - he didn't really expose it to all of the rest of the guys . . . It's kind of tough to hear of a guy like that. He's a great guy. He cares about people, and he's willing to do whatever for anyone. To see him go through this is tough. But we're all behind him. We'll provide support for him, continue to pray for him, he'll go through his treatments and do what he has to do."
Johnson, much more demonstrative on the sideline than Reid, is the only defensive coordinator the Birds have employed since Reid became their head coach 10 years ago. They were not friends when Reid hired Johnson; rather, Reid appreciated how difficult it was to score against Johnson's Indianapolis Colts defenses, when Reid was an assistant with the Packers.
Johnson is known for his unorthodox blitz schemes, which produced 342 sacks from 2000 to '07, tying his defense for first in the NFL. His unit was the strength of the team early in the decade, then wavered as key players aged. It emerged with a new group of standouts this past season, ranking third in the NFL, propelling the Eagles' march to the NFC title game, where its performance was a keen disappointment. Johnson has not spoken publicly since that loss, which we now know virtually coincided with his cancer diagnosis.
The week before, Reid joked affectionately about his defensive mastermind, after the Eagles did not allow a touchdown in their upset of the defending Super Bowl champion Giants.
"I'm partial, but I've got the best defensive coordinator in the National Football League," Reid said. "These guys believe in him and the things he does, he's kept it fresh for them. He's kept it fresh for 'em, even though he's 100 years old. You noticed today he was up in the box . . . His back's aching a little bit, so he called it from up there."
Reid was not available for comment yesterday.
The Eagles announced that defensive lineman Darren Howard underwent successful abdominal surgery on Wednesday. The procedure was performed by Dr. Bill Meyers at Hahnemann University Hospital. *