The Eagles lost their defensive coordinator Tuesday, and the league lost a great man, as Jim Johnson has died at the age of 68.
It was Johnson’s attacking defenses that helped the Eagles to one Super Bowl appearance and five NFC title games. Johnson had taken a leave of absence from the team in May as he continued to battle a cancerous tumor on his spine. The team announced his death on Tuesday afternoon.
Johnson was a veteran of 22 years as an NFL assistant, and was considered to be one of the top defensive minds in the league, known for complex schemes that confused opponents and pressured the quarterback from every angle.
His defenses consistently ranked among the best in the league, including last season, when the Eagles finished third in total defense and fell one victory short of the Super Bowl.
From 2000-08, Johnson’s Philadelphia defenses ranked second in the NFL in sacks (390). During his 10-year tenure, the Eagles made the playoffs seven times and he produced 26 Pro Bowl selections.
Earlier this week, the team announced that Sean McDermott would replace Johnson, who had been Andy Reid’s only defensive coordinator in his 10 seasons as Eagles head coach.
“What haven’t I learned from Jim?” McDermott said. “I don’t think it would be fair to Jim, in this setting, to try and limit in one statement, one press conference, the effect that Jim has had on my life.”
McDermott paid Johnson the ultimate compliment in describing the style of defense he wanted the Eagles to play: Johnson’s style.
“There is one thing I know, and that is that this system, it works,” McDermott said. “Jim has spent a considerable amount of time in his coaching career researching and finding things that work and finding things that didn’t work, quite frankly, and I’m going to respect that and we’re going to build on that. From there, we’ll add wrinkles.”
Johnson had been treated for melanoma in 2001.
In January, he complained of back pain and coached from the press box in the Eagles’ playoff win over the New York Giants and in the loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC championship.
An MRI after the divisional playoff win against the Giants on Jan. 11 alerted doctors that something might be wrong. Following the Arizona loss, the team announced the cancer had returned and Johnson would undergo more treatments.
Johnson had recovered sufficiently to coach during the team’s first post-draft minicamp in May. But he coached from a motorized scooter during practices and said he wasn’t certain he’d be able to return for the season.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin did not know Johnson, but admired him from afar.
“He was great to work with and for, and he had his priorities in order,” Coughlin said. “His players loved to play for him and his coaches loved to coach with him. It is a sad day for the National Football League to lose somebody the quality of Jim Johnson. It is a sad note on which to start the season.”
Johnson is survived by his wife, Vicky, two children and four grandchildren.