TAMPA - As the shock of hearing that Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is fighting a very serious form of cancer begins to fade just a little, one of the next thoughts is of how much Johnson's style and personality have defined this Eagles era.
It's often called the Andy Reid era, or maybe even the Donovan McNabb era, but the Birds' success over the past decade has just as much or more to do with the team's 67-year-old defensive coordinator, who is taking radiation treatments to shrink a melanoma tumor on his spine. Johnson intends to continue coaching, the team has said, though oncologists not connected with the situation have told the Daily News that from what has been reported, his situation seems dire.
Johnson's illness could lead to more significant change for a coaching staff that underwent some shuffling yesterday, as forecast this week in the Daily News. Former quarterback Doug Pederson was announced as the new offensive assistant/quality control, with James Urban moving from that role to the quarterbacks coaching job vacated when Pat Shurmur went to St. Louis. Rory Segrest moved from special-teams coordinator to coaching the defensive line, replacing 67-year-old Pete Jenkins, who retired. Ted Daisher, once a special-teams assistant under John Harbaugh, returned to take Segrest's former spot.
Indications are that if Johnson's cancer treatment makes him unable to proceed as normal, secondary coach Sean McDermott will take on more responsibility. Other teams wanted to talk to McDermott about defensive-coordinator openings this month, but McDermott went on no interviews.
Of course, everyone hopes that that won't be necessary, that Johnson will rally and will be back barking at his troops come the first minicamp of spring.
"Along with the fans . . . one of the reasons for me staying with the Eagles so long was Jim," Eagles free safety Brian Dawkins said.
"What he allowed me to do, what he asked me to do, me being comfortable with what he does as a defensive coordinator, how aggressive he is. I've never really said that before," reflected the 13-year veteran, who spent the last 10 of those seasons as the on-field embodiment of Johnson's aggressive scheme.
Dawkins, a pending free agent who has said he wants to return to the Eagles, was in the Super Bowl media center yesterday to take part in a news conference honoring him as a finalist for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year award. The winner will be announced tomorrow before Super Bowl XLIII.
"He expects so much of us - you really couldn't 'mike' him during the game, a long string of 'beeps' the whole time, but that's just him, and we know that, because he expects us to get everything right the first time. He pushes us that way. Every guy on the defensive side of the ball respects him, to the utmost . . . He's just one of those, obviously, old-school guys. He'll let you have it. If he watches the film and finds out he may have been wrong, he'll come back and apologize. In the moment, he's just so juiced and so fired up, I think sometimes his emotions get the best of him," Dawkins said.
McNabb, who visited the media center a little while later on behalf of Novartis pharmaceuticals, said being an offensive player didn't make him immune from Johnson's outbursts. McNabb said Johnson's outspoken aggressiveness has been a big part of the team's personality, an inspiration.
"When you have a guy like Jim . . . as an offensive player, I'm talking to Jim on the sideline, it's like, 'Jim, we're going to get this drive, we're going to score.' And Jim's like, 'Hey, go do it; we'll get the defense ready,' " McNabb said. "You go down to score, you come back, Jim's one of the first guys to greet you, and say, 'Hey, we're going to get you the ball back.' When you hear a coordinator say something like that, especially Jim, you know, he's blitz, blitz, blitz, that just gives you more and more confidence."
Team head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder said no one suspected that Johnson's back problem was a cancerous tumor until an MRI exam was done following the playoff victory over the Giants, the first of two games Johnson coached from the press box. Players certainly didn't know, Dawkins and McNabb said, but they sensed Johnson was struggling.
"He was in pain, [but] he didn't miss a day, he didn't miss a meeting," Dawkins said. "He was still standing up in meetings . . . he still did his normal routine even though he was in that much pain, so that's going to tell you how much he's going to fight through this thing."
Dawkins agreed that McDermott would seem the most likely assistant to take on more responsbility, if the situation requires it.
"That would be my sense of it," he said. "Obviously, they haven't talked to me about any of those things - I'm kind of on the outside looking in right now, not really in the fold completely. But I would think that Sean would be the guy that would step up in rank."
said he is excited for
the Rams' new offensive coordinator. He said he had Shurmur over last week and told him he hopes the Eagles have homefield if they meet St. Louis in the playoffs, because the Rams' dome is so loud . . . McNabb called new QB coach
"a guy that's worked extremely hard" and knows all the quarterbacks' personalities from his time assisting Shurmur. McNabb said he is especially glad to see
, his rookie-season mentor, returning to the team . . . The offensive shuffling will leave wide receivers coach
with a bigger voice in game planning and the passing game, a source said. *