The impact of Brian Dawkins' departure from the Eagles was felt by a lot of people in a lot of places around here.

The epicenter of that earthshaking news last March may well have been the NovaCare Complex office of defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.

At the time, McDermott was still officially an assistant, but the late Jim Johnson was in the midst of his cancer battle and it was clear that the Eagles' young secondary coach was going to have to shoulder more responsibility when it came to putting together the team's defensive plans.

Dawkins, in fact, said at the Super Bowl in Tampa that McDermott would be the Eagles' next defensive coordinator if Johnson couldn't continue on the job.

A few weeks later, the seven-time Pro Bowl safety signed a five-year, $17 million deal - the important part being $9 million in the first two years - with the Denver Broncos, the team that will visit Lincoln Financial Field in what's sure to be an emotional meeting between Dawkins and his former teammates.

A few months after Dawkins left, McDermott was officially asked to fill Johnson's extra-large shoes.

McDermott, 35, knew he had not inherited an easy job, and he also knew it would be even more difficult without Dawkins around as the defensive leader both on and off the field. Some people may have thought that Dawkins made his seventh Pro Bowl last season on reputation more than merit, but McDermott was not among them.

"I thought he had a heck of a year last year," he said yesterday. "I think he was the first or second most productive player on defense for us last year and, as Brian Dawkins has done over the course of his career here, when we were making our stretch run last year, he was in the zone as they say. He was putting together back-to-back games that were as good as any safety in the league at that time.

"It was sick. There were times I was just hands off with him. Just like any guy who is in a groove, you just give him what he needs and let him go."

When Dawkins left as a free agent, McDermott was saddened by the news.

"We had a special relationship," McDermott said. "How often do you coach a guy that is older than you are? He embraced me when I was one of the youngest position coaches in the NFL. We grew together and we developed a lot of trust in one another, at least from my perspective.

"With the impact that Brian has had on this city and this organization, you hate to see the business side of it be the reason for the separation. Because of the way this organization has embraced Brian and the way Brian has embraced this organization and this city, you hated to see that relationship come to an end."

McDermott, who is five months and eight days younger than Dawkins, said he called the safety shortly after he signed with Denver, but it was only to say thank you.

"I told him I appreciated everything that he'd done for me," McDermott said. "He's been a positive influence on my life. You're a better person for being around Brian Dawkins."

The question that still lingers is whether the Eagles would have been a better team this season if they had kept Dawkins.

"We've done OK," Eagles coach Andy Reid said the day after his 10-4 team won its fifth straight game and clinched its eighth postseason berth of the decade. "We've won a couple of games. I'm not into all of that. That's part of this business."

Reid, by no means, meant to disparage Dawkins' ability or contributions to the Eagles. Before that answer, the coach showered his former safety with heartfelt praise.

"He was a big part of us getting to where we have gotten as an organization," Reid said. "To say I don't miss him, I used to enjoy seeing him and being around him. He brought a lot of energy."

According to NFL.com stats, Dawkins ranks fourth among the league's safeties with 100 tackles and he also has a forced fumble and two interceptions. The Eagles, meanwhile, have used a trio of different players at free safety this season. Rookie Macho Harris started the first six games, veteran Sean Jones has started the last eight and Quintin Demps has also been in the mix at times. The three men, according to NFL.com stats, have combined for 103 tackles, three interceptions, and a sack.

McDermott, however, has high standards having been around Dawkins so long.

"The production part [at free safety] needs to improve," he said. "That's just being honest. The guys have worked hard among the three guys who have tried to fill that position, but the bar is high here. We're not about being 8-8. We want to win the Super Bowl."

The defensive coordinator said it has also taken a group effort to fill Dawkins' leadership shoes, which was one of the reasons the team brought back linebacker Jeremiah Trotter.

"I think that Quintin Mikell has done a heck of a job providing leadership and Jeremiah has returned to do that, too," McDermott said. "The leadership part, there was not one player that could have taken that burden on."

Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at 215-854-2577 or bbrookover@phillynews.com.