JUST A few weeks ago, Jim Johnson told reporters he was optimistic cancer treatments would help him regain full mobility. The Eagles' defensive coordinator was hoping not only to continue doing his job, but to park the red, motorized wheelchair he was riding to the practice fields.

Johnson's metastasized melanoma had other plans, though.

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The Eagles announced yesterday that Johnson would be taking a leave of absence for a second round of chemotherapy. No return date was indicated; it is unsure when or whether Johnson, who turns 68 on May 26, will resume his duties. Secondary coach Sean McDermott will run the defense in Johnson's absence, as he did during Johnson's initial treatment.

"Jim and I agreed that he needs to concentrate all of his efforts on his recovery," coach Andy Reid said in a statement. "His health is No. 1. He's struggling, but he's a tough guy and a true battler. I hope everyone will keep him in their thoughts and prayers during this period of time. We hope to have him back with the team as soon as possible."

Earlier, in the ESPN.com report that broke the news of the leave, Reid said: "I'd like to tell you he's great, but he's not. He's struggling right now."

Oncologists contacted by the Daily News yesterday said a second round of chemotherapy indicated that Johnson's cancer - which the team has acknowledged is present outside the site of the tumor on his spine - likely is starting to fully manifest itself in other areas. One oncologist said melanoma is particularly difficult to treat with chemotherapy.

Dr. Michael Mastrangelo, director of the melanoma program at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital's Kimmel Cancer Center, said there are two reasons a melanoma patient would have a second round of chemotherapy.

"The first is if the first round was effective, but not completely so" and the doctors treating Johnson are hoping to build on that success, Mastrangelo said. Given Reid's comments, it seems unlikely that is the case.

"Or it could be because the first round didn't work," said Mastrangelo, who also noted that subsequent rounds of chemotherapy tend to be tougher for the patient because "the person is less resilient . . . you tolerate it less well."

"I wish him all the best," Mastrangelo said. "But it's going to be a problem for him. All we can do is pray for him."

Mastrangelo said that given Johnson's strong will, he wouldn't bet against the only defensive coordinator the Birds have had under Reid being present this season, as a defense ranked third in the league last year continues to mature. But he said a strong, active role for Johnson seems unlikely.

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. In his first comments to reporters since the diagnosis, May 2 during minicamp, Johnson acknowledged that his illness made the loss that ended the Eagles' season tougher than it might have been otherwise.

"[My emotions were] all over the place. Disappointment, a lot of disappointment, losing that game and then I knew we were going to have to go in and see what was happening with me. That was tough, it wasn't easy," Johnson said.

Johnson said he was enjoying the minicamp, despite pain.

"Just being around those players, yeah, I do [appreciate it]," he said. "It's something you have to deal with every day and, like I said, I'm still going through treatment hoping you can get it done. Sure it affects your life. You think about it every day, no question, as far as the pain a little bit here and there. But the thing about when I come here to work is that it feels good. It's not going to be like this all the time, hopefully we'll get that injury back so I'm walking back on the field.

"I feel good," Johnson said then. "I appreciate all the concern about my injury, I really do, from the fans and you guys. I feel good. I'm still going through treatment. The biggest thing I'm trying to get now is just the pain out of my back. I've got some broken bones in the lower part, so that doesn't allow me to be on my feet quite as much, but everything else, I feel fine. [I'll] just keep working at it."

Johnson, a former Missouri quarterback and Buffalo Bills tight end, has been an NFL assistant since 1986. This will be his 11th season with the Eagles. Since 2000, only three teams have allowed fewer points than the Eagles, who rank second in sacks during that span.

McDermott, 35, starred as a defensive back at La Salle High and at William & Mary. He came to the Eagles in 2000 and has held several jobs since, moving from linebackers coach to taking over the secondary when John Harbaugh left to become Baltimore's head coach last year.

A source close to the situation has said NFL teams wanted to interview McDermott for coordinator openings this offseason, but the Eagles did not grant permission because of Johnson's situation.


The Eagles announced they have signed two players who tried out at the first minicamp: Temple quarterback Adam DiMichele and Florida Atlantic defensive tackle Jervonte Jackson. Jackson is the half-brother of Eagles center Jamaal Jackson. DiMichele was the Owls' team MVP the past two seasons. *

For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.