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Jim Johnson situation a new one for Eagles

Sheldon Brown wasn't there, which is just kind of pointless. Brian Westbrook wasn't there, which is just kind of troubling.

Sheldon Brown wasn't there, which is just kind of pointless.

Brian Westbrook wasn't there, which is just kind of troubling.

Several other players' practice activities were limited by old injuries, which Andy Reid detailed in his traditional news conference opener.

On June 2, none of this was remotely as interesting as The Story No One Knows How to Handle: the Eagles' behind-the-scenes preparations for a more permanent change at the defensive-coordinator spot.

This is a franchise that efficiently, sometimes ruthlessly, replaces aging or injured or unhappy players, assistant coaches who move on to bigger jobs, scouts, and personnel people. Whatever the role, from star to stage crew, there is someone in the wings ready to step in at a moment's notice.

The situation with respected defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is a new one. Johnson's leave of absence, required as he undergoes difficult chemotherapy treatment for metastasized melanoma, has the team balancing concern for Johnson and his family with the necessity of getting on with preparations for the 2009 season.

"I can't tell you exactly where Jim, what's going to happen with him," Reid said after yesterday's minicamp practice.

Reid quietly added former Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Brian Stewart to the staff, a move that was officially announced Monday. Stewart, 44, has the title of "special assistant" and will work with the defensive backs while secondary coach Sean McDermott fills in as defensive coordinator during Johnson's absence.

Clearly, Reid is hoping for the best with his trusted colleague. Part of his job, though, is preparing for the worst.

A couple of questions spring to mind at the news of Stewart's hiring: Does this mean the latest word on Johnson is bad? Or does it mean that Reid isn't completely comfortable having McDermott take the big step from position coach to coordinator?

The move could be read both ways. Here's Reid's explanation:

"It gives us an extra set of eyes there and another good coach, somebody that can work with the secondary as Jim is on his leave of absence," Reid said. "It gives us another person there with experience. . . . We'll just see how things go down the road here. We've done this with the offensive side the last couple years. Actually, Marty Mornhinweg came in at the same position on the offensive side."

That was a little different. Mornhinweg is in the Mike Holmgren mafia and needed a job and career resuscitation after his ill-fated turn as head coach of the Detroit Lions. He was on hand to replace Brad Childress as offensive coordinator when Childress was hired to coach the Minnesota Vikings.

Stewart's hiring feels more like Reid's original choice for offensive coordinator back in 1999. Building a young, hard-working staff, Reid turned to longtime NFL and college coach Rod Dowhower as his top offensive aide.

The hire made sense. Reid was a first-time head coach and, even though he never lacked self-confidence in his ability to do the job, it was helpful to have an experienced guy on hand. Dowhower had run teams and meetings, formulated game plans, and organized training camps. He was available as a resource and to cross-check that everything was in order.

There's a chance that Stewart would wind up being the coordinator if Johnson is unable to return. No one is addressing that at the moment. But the best guess, based on Reid's history, is that Stewart will serve in the same role Dowhower did. He has put game plans together and called games and made adjustments. He's someone McDermott can lean on for guidance and support.

Safety Quintin Mikell said McDermott has already added some new blitzes to the Eagles' defense.

"The basic scheme is the same," Mikell said, "but there is going to be different wrinkles. Sean has been here 11 years, so he's seen the weaknesses of the defense and he's seen the great things, so he knows where to change things and where not to. I'm looking forward to it. It's like playing in a whole new defense, but I already know everything, so it's going to be a lot of fun."

Whether these are McDermott's own twists or changes Johnson was planning to introduce is unknown, because Reid has chosen not to make his assistant coaches available during Johnson's leave of absence.

The sensitivity is understandable, but also kind of ironic. Johnson is the most direct, matter-of-fact guy on the planet. He'd have little use for mincing words or playing coy here. In the first camp after the draft, Johnson did his usual press availability. He talked about his health and about his players with the same clear-eyed candor as always.

By September, Brown's absence and Westbrook's June ankle injury will likely be long forgotten. The bigger, more lasting impact could well be from the story no one seems to know how to talk about.