IT'S THE heebie-jeebie question of this football spring, less certain than the quarterback's tenure or the running back's health or even the true quality of the Eagles' highly touted draft picks.

What if Jim Johnson's cancer battle extends into the late summer and early fall? What then?

Everyone says it: Sean McDermott knows as much about Jim Johnson's defense as Jim Johnson does. He has been under his wing now, in one capacity or another, for a decade, knows how his 68-year-old mentor's mind works as well as Johnson himself - maybe more.

What we don't know, and hopefully won't have to find out, is what happens the first time the 35-year-old interim defensive coordinator tries to apply that knowledge without the wizard looking over his shoulder. Specifically, what happens the first time McDermott rolls the dice with an unorthodox call, the way Johnson famously did, and comes up snake eyes?

"There's always risk," middle linebacker Stewart Bradley was saying after a short workout at the Novacare Complex yesterday. "You're not going to make the correct call every time. And I think what made Jim so great was that he knew the game so well he was always taking calculated risks. Sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don't."

When they didn't, though, doubt did not linger. Johnson had earned that over 4 decades of coaching, 4 decades full of way more rights than wrongs. He had plied his trade under many famous names, had sampled more than a few styles along the journey. Dan Devine, Ted Marchibroda, Dennis Erickson. When everyone was falling in love with the West Coast offense in the '80s and '90s, Johnson came up with toxins for it.

Often it was pure poison. But sometimes it was inert, or diluted. Over the years the reward usually overwhelmed the risk, but when it did not, things could get ugly quick. Johnson's defense made the Arizona Cardinals look terrible last Thanksgiving, then couldn't stop them for much of that NFC Championship Game loss.

When they couldn't, the altered dynamic was impossible to overlook. Johnson was on the sideline that cold night in Philadelphia. A painful back, a symptom of his cancer recurrence, put him in the press box for the title-game rematch.

Did it factor into the loss?

It's another one of those heebie-jeebie questions.

"I would say no," Bradley said. "He put in as many hours as anybody that week, if not more. And the adjustments were great."

Clearly, the Eagles defense looked different when it came out of the locker room after halftime in Phoenix, after Johnson, with McDermott's help, had made those adjustments. But the lasting impression, which tainted the late-season resurgence of the Eagles defense, was a winning touchdown drive in which Kurt Warner picked them apart.

"Football is made up of all those little battles," Stewart said. "So you looked at each little play. A lot of it was that. It came to execution and making plays. Jim was more than prepared for that game and made great adjustments. We just didn't execute."

Bradley is a McDermott fan. It makes sense. McDermott was Bradley's position coach when he first got here, was the guy most directly responsible for teaching Bradley the nuances of the two linebacker positions he has played in Johnson's elaborate schemes. "If Jim can't be calling it, he's the guy," said Bradley, who will enter his third pro season this fall.

"Sean has very high expectations. Seems like a mild-mannered guy, but he'll get after you. There's no doubt about that. He commands respect. He's the boss. There's no murmuring in the ranks. That's just not the way it is. Now he's younger, and there are more guys on defense closer to his age. But that doesn't mean the essentials of player to coach are any different."

At this time of the year it's easy to see that Bradley is right. The defense flew around yesterday as if the little battles mattered, even allowed for a little celebrating. The schemes looked similar because they were similar. There was nary a hum in the ranks.

But it will be months before we may have to test what Bradley already seems convinced about, that if forced to, 35-year-old Sean McDermott can make this defense play the way the old man could, can establish faith in his calls, even when the poison doesn't take, and things blow up. *

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