Jim Johnson Died Five Years Ago Today and I Cried a Lot

Truth be told, I cannot explain exactly why I’m writing this post.

Even after it was finished and ready to go, I had a couple second thoughts before hitting publish. I didn’t want it to seem like I was using the anniversary of someone’s death as a way to generate clicks on a blog.

I don’t have any type of cool anecdote about Jim Johnson. There is a hat of mine autographed by some players and coaches during a few trips to Lehigh for training camp back in the day.

Eagles Hat Blog Post

The Eagles former defensive coordinator unfortunately isn’t one of the signatures. Never once met the man.

I think, however, I’m doing this because despite never crossing paths with the guy, I loved Jim Johnson and never properly said goodbye.

Everyone knew Johnson’s battle with cancer had taken a turn for the worse, but it felt like the end came so quickly.

On the day Johnson passed away, I had been off the grid for about 12 hours from early in the morning until around 8 p.m. I was working as a camp counselor the summer before heading off to college, and it coincidentally happened to be the one day of the entire camp season that I had to work late, unable to check my phone or access the Internet.

Anyone who knows me now would wonder how I was able to do that, but it was the case back then. As I was walking to my car, a lifeguard stopped me and delivered the news. I can’t recall exactly what I said in response, but I got in the car and immediately turned on sports radio hoping it somehow wasn’t true.

But sadly it was. The defending World Series champion Phillies were 24 hours away from pulling off a blockbuster trade with rumors about Roy Halladay running rampant, and sure enough, WIP was discussing Johnson’s life and Eagles tenure, hosts and callers as distraught as I was about to become.

Before I could pull out of the parking lot, tears had already begun dripping down my face. They got heavier as the drive continued. At one point, I had to slam on my breaks to avoid running through a red light that I barely noticed.

Loved by players and fans, respected universally by colleagues,  and deeply feared by opponents — Legend. For 10 years, he would appear on your television screen on Sundays, and you knew everything would be relatively okay. No longer seeing that gray hair tucked under an Eagles hat and headset on the sidelines wasn’t going to be the same.

I was supposed to see my then-girlfriend upon getting home from work but still trying to compose myself, I told her that I needed a little while. ‘Jim Johnson died,’ I texted (or something very similar along those lines)

I don’t think she knew who Jim Johnson was, but rather than completely blowing it off, she kinda pretended to care, so that was cool.

Still home and wiping my eyes after delivering the news to my dad, I logged onto Facebook and posted a pretty generic RIP status. One of my best friends who I always texted during Eagles games sent me a message that said something along the lines of ‘For someone who loved him so much, I’m kinda disappointed you didn’t come up with anything deeper.’

I tried again, but still shaken, this was the best I could do, unable to really put into words what it meant to me.

Jim Johnson Facebook

I was sad and mad — Sad that cancer had stopped the 68-year old from doing what he loved and what he was best at too soon, sad that in what turned out to be his final game six months earlier, his ‘bend but don’t break defense’ had broken late in the fourth quarter. With the Eagles clinging to a 25-24 lead and 10 minutes to go, Arizona marched 72 yards while eating up 7:52 of game time.

The drive ended in a touchdown. The Cardinals went to the Super Bowl. Johnson never got to coach another game, and the Eagles haven’t won a playoff game since.

Most of all, I was sad that for all his hard work and all of the terrific defenses he oversaw, Johnson never got to hoist a Lombardi trophy.

Even in a lot of the Eagles playoff losses during Johnson’s reign, a collapse like that was so rare. A week earlier, his unit held the defending Super Bowl champion Giants to three field goals in an upset victory.

In a span of three years, he twice stifled Michael Vick during the prime of his Atlanta Falcons career, limiting him to a 53.2 completion percentage and a combined 406 passing yards, 56 rushing yards, yards, zero touchdowns, and three interceptions over two playoff games.

I don’t watch the Steelers on a week-to-week basis to fully appreciate Dick LeBeau, but I’ve never seen a defensive coordinator call a game and confuse opponents the way Johnson consistently did.

Going back to that Facebook status though, perhaps it wasn’t so bad. I’ve always said that coordinators need players to make their schemes truly go, but as guys came and went through the years, Johnson never lost a step.

According to an ESPN article published a week after his passing, Johnson’s defenses between 2000 and 2008 ranked second in sacks, third down efficiency, and red zone percentage.

Here’s a chart that further shows how good he was and the significant drop-off after he was gone.

Year Points Allowed Average Per Game League Rank Made Playoffs Playoff Victory
1999 357 22.3 22nd No No
2000 245 15.3 4th Yes Yes
2001 208 13 2nd Yes Yes
2002 241 15.1 2nd Yes Yes
2003 287 17.9 7th Yes Yes
2004 260 16.3 2nd Yes Yes
2005 388 24.3 27th No No
2006 328 20.5 15th Yes Yes
2007 300 18.8 9th No No
2008 289 18.1 4th Yes Yes
2009 337 21.1 19th Yes No
2010 377 23.6 21st Yes No
2011 328 20.5 10th No No
2012 444 27.8 29th No No
2013 382 23.9 17th Yes No

Sean McDermott initially had the challenge of being the guy to replace “the guy,” and he was decent but deemed not good enough at the time. So thinking he was closer to a Super Bowl than he actually was, Andy Reid fired him after two years.

Then, Andy Reid Andy Reid’d harder than he had ever Andy Reid’d before, replacing McDermott with Juan Castillo. A passionate worker and teacher but never having coached defense in the NFL before, it was an unmitigated disaster,

The missed tackles, the blown coverage assignments, the lack of effort, all of it would have had Johnson rolling in his grave had he saw what had become of his once proud defense.

Despite the still somewhat ugly numbers in that chart, things stabilized in 2013 when Chip Kelly brought in Billy Davis to run the show.

Davis took a group of scheme misfits and castoffs from other places and made a defense out of it. For the first time in a long time, things are looking kinda up on that side of the ball.

When someone like Johnson no longer has his job, the typical attitude is that the team looking to fill his role has to find an exact replica, “The Next  Jim Johnson” if you will. But that’s impossible. The reason he was so good is the exact same reason he is so irreplaceable.

Since Johnson has been gone, the game has changed a decent amount. Offenses are faster and more innovative with spread formations and wide open schemes. Still, it’s unlikely the final couple years of the Reid era would have gotten as ugly as they did had Johnson still been by his side.

The Eagles current head coach is one of the leaders of that innovation charge, but for as much as I love him, for as much as any intelligent Eagles fan loves him, part of the city has always identified with a dominant defense, and that’s a big reason Johnson was so beloved.

I mentioned earlier that I don’t have any special anecdote, but I thought this one from Reuben Frank of CSN Philly was pretty good. A few days before the 2005 Super Bowl, Frank casually asks Johnson if he’s enjoying Jacksonville and he responds bluntly with “I’ve got Tom Brady on Sunday.”

The man just ate, slept, and breathed football.

He died at the same time my situation was beginning to change and looking back, I think that’s maybe what contributed to the initial sadness. I was a month away from going to college and preparing to leave a good amount of my life behind.

It sucks because you know things will never be exactly the same, but you try to solider on because what else are you going to do?

The Eagles in time have begun picking up the pieces and appear primed to make another Super Bowl run behind rising star Nick Foles over the next few seasons.

Crying over Johnson five years later won’t bring him back or make the defense as dominant as it once was, but it will help preserve memories of a great run under a brilliant coordinator. Certain people are worth occasionally crying over. Certain people worth crying over who you’ve never met? Now that’s a bit more complex, but he was one of those folks for me.

I’ll watch the Eagles practice at Lincoln Financial Field today and at some point look skyward and tear up for a split second thinking about the legend who provided so many childhood memories.

I attempted to express some of this five years ago tonight and came up pretty empty, so now, I’m trying again.

I miss you so much, Jim Johnson, and I hope you’re having fun designing blitz packages in heaven right now.

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