Legendary Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson passed away 13 years ago today at the age of 68 after a battle with cancer. He spent 10 seasons on the sidelines in Philadelphia from 1999-2008. He also spent time coaching three other NFL franchises, two USFL franchises, and the University of Notre Dame.
All great head coaches need capable coordinators to control the side of the ball where they lack expertise, and Andy Reid struck gold when he hired Johnson in 1999. Reid’s initial choice was Marvin Lewis. The future Cincinnati Bengals head coach turned down the offer and inadvertently changed the course of Eagles history.
Johnson, Eagles Develop Defensive Identity
Johnson became arguably the greatest defensive coach in the history of a franchise with a long lineage of defensive stalwarts. He resurrected the city’s love affair with an aggressive pass rush after years of Buddy Ryan and Bud Carson’s units that featured stars like Reggie White and Jerome Brown.
His success helped maintain the idea of a tough town with a fearsome defense and an intimidating home-field advantage at Veterans Stadium and later at Lincoln Financial Field.
Jim Johnson’s focus on bringing extra men in blitz packages created the defensive identity of one of the best eras of Eagles history in the early 2000s. His game plans consistently rattled the top quarterbacks in the NFL when the Eagles established themselves as a dominant defense. The rotation of defensive ends in Johnson’s schemes is a trend that has persisted into the modern era through indirect connections to Howie Roseman.
The Eagles recorded the second most sacks in the NFL from 2000-2008. Fans became obsessed with the blitz during an era when quarterbacks didn’t typically possess the same level of mobility inside or outside the pocket as they do in today’s game.
The “Andy Reid coaching tree” deservedly receives national praise 23 years after Big Red first took the job in Philadelphia. However, Jim Johnson’s contributions also paved the way for the success of defensive minds like Steve Spagnuolo, Ron Rivera, and Sean McDermott (among others) after they spent time on the Eagles staff.
Powerhouse Eagles Defense
A dominant defense led by Brian Dawkins, Jeremiah Trotter, and Hugh Douglas carried the team in the early years of Donovan McNabb’s career while the young quarterback progressively helped the Eagles become a juggernaut on the offensive side of the ball with more talented weapons by 2004.
The Eagles finished in the top five in scoring defense in five of their 10 seasons under Johnson. Four of those five teams reached the NFC Championship Game. In the 13 seasons since his unfortunate passing, they’ve finished in the top five just once when the 2017 defense caught fire under Jim Schwartz. Johnson’s units consistently ranked higher in scoring defense than in total defense, a testament to their knack for sacks and turnovers at opportune moments.
Jim Johnson consistently plugged in new players after key offseason departures and kept the defense intact throughout the franchise’s most sustained era of success. His ability to maintain dominant units despite changing personnel reached its peak in 2004 when Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown took over the two starting cornerback roles for veterans starters Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor. Sheppard became an All-Pro during a memorable season in 2004, and Brown ultimately started 128 games in midnight green.
The development of contributors like Hollis Thomas, Carlos Emmons, Derrick Burgess, Ike Reese, Corey Simon, and Michael Lewis (just to name a few) established excellent depth and a level of continuity that took the defensive identity past just a collection of standout stars.
Jim Johnson’s impact on Dawkins was perhaps his most influential contribution. Granting his free safety the freedom to utilize his talent all over the field unlocked the full potential of a future Hall of Famer. Dawkins remains the only player in NFL history with over 25 sacks, 25 interceptions, and 25 forced fumbles. He set a standard quickly followed by Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu that paved the way for an entire new generation of safeties.
The loss of a beloved defensive coordinator has even influenced the fan base’s perception of Schwartz and Jonathan Gannon, the two most recent Eagles defensive coordinators who both hesitate to draw up game plans relying on the blitz to generate a pass rush. Gannon has new personnel and an opportunity to flourish in Philadelphia, and Schwarz is the only defensive coordinator in franchise history to win a Super Bowl.
However, the impact Johnson had on the Eagles organization was best summarized by Dawkins when he called his late coordinator “tailor-made to coach in Philadelphia” after his passing in 2009.
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