HE WENT SO QUICKLY. It was not until late January when we found out that Jim Johnson's back problems were not really back problems after all, and it was still July when we received the awful word. Civilians would see it as 6 months. Football people would see it as an offseason, as a death in the traditional period of rebirth.

They all knew he was dying, the rock upon which the Eagles had built their defense for this last decade, but they kept it pretty quiet. Andy Reid knew, and he and the rest of the coaching staff kept the players apprised. The rest of us knew it was bad. When Sean McDermott was named defensive coordinator, replacing Johnson, just before training camp, we knew it was very bad. Still, there was no preparing for what would turn out to be such a terrible swiftness.

Johnson had been such a strong, rawhide-tough kind of a man, weathered by years of sun and wind and cold and disappointment and triumph on football fields all across the country. He was the most honest public man in the Eagles organization. He seemed to understand football's place in the life of a city, and his place in the life of a football team and honored that place with two things above all: effort and honesty.

You approached him, and he seemed to welcome the approach. You questioned him and he seemed interested in the truth. You watched his defenses, and he seemed bent upon the construction of mayhem. You saw him age, but you never saw his ideas and his innovations grow old.

Then he was gone, from malignant melanoma at age 68. Then you wondered.

People talked about tributes, and what might be appropriate. The Eagles went with the dignified black-and-white "JJ" decal as their visible, daily reminder. But everyone knew that the real tribute could play out in only one place, on a green field marked by white lines.

Because these were still Jim Johnson's players, even if he was no longer here. And Sean McDermott was still Jim Johnson's protege, who learned pretty much everything he knew about the business at Johnson's side. Fair or unfair, that is where their greatest opportunity to acknowledge their mentor's memory would be afforded.

And while Johnson was the kind of man everyone in the NFL admired, it is a cold business. He knew that as well as anyone. And while planning in the NFL is copious, it never works out that way - and Johnson knew that as well as anyone, too. And, so, when injuries nicked and nibbled at the defense all season, no one on the outside cared. No one.

But here they are today - a different team, for sure, but a playoff team again, even after everything. In the last days of July, there were so many questions, and it is the nature of the business that the questions never end. But as the year winds down, the Eagles have a proud defense again. In this way, Jim Johnson lives. *