IT'S THE unacknowledged elephant in the Eagles' locker room, and everyone shuffles past it, eyes averted.

Andy Reid at least acknowledged its presence yesterday, in wrapping up 2 weeks of full-team organized team activities. The Eagles disperse now until rookies report to training camp on July 26.

Asked to update the status of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, Reid said: "Some days are good days, and some days are not-so-good days. He's receiving pretty intense chemotherapy. There are just some days that stuff gets you, and there are other days that he feels pretty good. I have a chance to talk to him about every day. He's a battler."

Johnson is taking a leave of absence while being treated for metastasized melanoma. He has spoken to reporters only once since his illness was diagnosed, during the first OTA, on May 2. Secondary coach Sean McDermott is running the defense in his absence.

This change - potentially the most significant development of the offseason - is a hard thing to talk about for everyone involved, because everybody hopes Johnson's health is restored and he returns to the role he has held since he and Reid arrived in 1999. That might not be likely, as Reid seemed to acknowledge yesterday when asked about important accomplishments from these pretraining-camp workouts.

First, Reid talked about the practice reps for rookies and vets new to the team. Then he mentioned "the opportunity for Sean to get in and work with the defense."

"If that's how it is in the fall, then at least he's had a little bit of exposure to it," Reid said, reluctantly voicing the possibility that McDermott will be running the defense this season. "If Jim comes back, I think Sean's even better for [the experience]."

Reid said McDermott "had a great teacher" in Johnson, 68. "He had the best in the business teaching him."

The Eagles have not allowed reporters to speak with McDermott, thinking it unseemly, with Johnson hoping to return. Certainly, questions about how McDermott might do things differently would be horribly awkward right now.

But the transition is taking place, even if it is rarely discussed. The Eagles hired former Cowboys defensive coordinator Brian Stewart for McDermott's former job. From the players' perspective, McDermott clearly is the guy making the defensive decisions, maybe even some different decisions from what they've seen before.

Defensive end Juqua Parker said McDermott "is a little more open" to letting the linemen rush the passer, with fewer rules about responsibilities. "It's pretty much the same, but it's a little different, different blitzes," Parker said.

Free safety Quintin Demps said McDermott "is young-minded in a way, not so stuck in his ways as Jim was. It's good for us; he can relate to us a little bit more, bring a little of that spunk and swagger we bring."

That probably didn't come out exactly the way Demps would have wanted, if he'd had time to reflect, but it gets at a harsh truth of the matter - Johnson is not here, and things are different, will be different, on the field, where sentiment does not hold sway.

"We don't know what the situation is with Jim, and there's not much we can do about it," said strongside linebacker Chris Gocong. "We're still his defense; we still have that aggressive style . . . I haven't seen him since [the first] minicamp. It's something he's dealing with. I haven't talked to him. I hope to."

Gocong said McDermott made it clear over these past few weeks that "He knows the defense like the back of his hand. He really has made it easier for the guys who were used to Johnson. It's been going well."

Johnson ranked second recently in columnist John Clayton's assessment of the NFL's top defensive coordinators. Two of his former assistants, San Diego's Ron Rivera (fourth) and Minnesota's Leslie Frazier (fifth), also made the list. *

For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read

the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at