Eagles' McDermott will use lessons learned from late mentor Johnson

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- New Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott received a thought-provoking text message regarding his mentor, Jim Johnson, who passed away at the age of 68 on Tuesday night after a long battle with cancer.

"It said, 'It's apparent that the good Lord above needed the best defensive coordinator up there with him,'" McDermott said Wednesday morning. "In my mind, he's the best defensive coordinator I've ever known."

Johnson had been Andy Reid's only defensive coordinator in his 10 seasons as Eagles head coach. The legendary defensive coach's attacking units helped Philadelphia to one Super Bowl appearance and five NFC title games, including last season.

A member of the Eagles since 1998, McDermott worked under Johnson for the past eight seasons in various roles as a defensive assistant.

"There's just no way when somebody has a profound impact on your life that you can say in one word or one statement that embodies what he's done for me or what I've learned from the man," McDermott said.

While McDermott has learned enough to fill several tomes, he has yet to locate one volume.

"I'm still looking for that book of sorcery, so to speak, in his office somewhere," he said. "Because that book of potions and magic and that Harry Potter book is out there somewhere, and I haven't found it yet, but it's in there somewhere, and I'm going to look in every corner until I find it."

McDermott is the latest of several of Johnson's disciples to rise to a position of greater responsibility, joining Steve Spagnuolo (St. Louis Rams head coach), Ron Rivera (San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator), John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens head coach) and Leslie Frazier (Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator, assistant to the head coach).

Johnson had been treated for melanoma in 2001. In January, he complained of back pain and coached from the press box during the Eagles' playoff victory over the New York Giants and the NFC Championship Game loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

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An MRI after the divisional playoff victory over the Giants on Jan. 11 alerted doctors that something might be wrong. Following the loss to the Cardinals, the Eagles announced that the cancer had returned, and Johnson would undergo more treatments.

Johnson had recovered sufficiently enough to coach during the Eagles first post-draft minicamp in May. But he moved around on a motorized scooter during practices and said he wasn't certain he'd be able to return for the season.

Johnson died one day after the Eagles opened their 2009 camp. He is survived by his wife, Vicky; two children and four grandchildren.

Though McDermott officially was named defensive coordinator last Friday, he inherited the job in May when Johnson took a leave of absence after the minicamp. McDermott ran practices and organized team activities.

That previous experience didn't make the drive to Wednesday morning's practice any less difficult.

"This day for me, as I was driving to practice, is kind of ominous -- just knowing that Jim is looking down on all of us, and he has the best video camera in the sky," McDermott said. "I was talking to Steve Spagnuolo last night, and we were talking about how he's got the best view right now to watch all of his sons right now, if you will, operate his defense."

Johnson frustrated opponents and confused young quarterbacks with his complex schemes, always looking for a new way to disguise a blitz. He never ran out of ideas or the desire to coach, even when he had more pressing concerns. In his final days, he was concerned about the start of training camp.

Johnson made the calls on an aggressive defense that, since 2000, is second in the NFL in sacks (390), tackles for loss (tied at 457), forced fumbles (159), red-zone touchdown efficiency (43.9 percent) and third-down efficiency (34.0 percent).

So while Johnson will be watching, his sons will do their share of listening.

"If I'm stuck on making a decision in terms of what's in the best interest of this team and this defense, Jim will help sway me in one way or the other," McDermott said. "If I look back to say how would Jim have done it to help me break that tie, so to speak, it will make it easier for me."

In other words, when in doubt, blitz.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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