Before the debacles that have been Billy Davis, Juan Castillo and Sean McDermott, there was Jim Johnson, one of the best defensive coordinators of all time.
It’s on a day like today, where we look at the current state of the Eagles defense, the one that just was never quite the same after the passing of its leader seven years ago, that its easy to look back on the good times, those that were made iconic thanks to the one and only Jim Johnson.
In 1999, just one year after hiring Andy Reid to replace Ray Rhodes as head coach, the Philadelphia Eagles hired Johnson as the new defensive coordinator. It was the best decision the Eagles could have made as from 1999 until 2009 when he was forced to resign as a result of melanoma which would also cause his untimely death, Johnson was one of the best at the position and led his teams to the same kind of success.
Johnson brought a tenacity out of his players that the Eagles had been missing and he turned the less than effective defense into the aptly named “Blitz Inc.” which would dominate the league for the better part of the 2000s. Thanks to Johnson’s leadership and ability to draw up a blitz the opposing offense never saw coming, Philadelphia named 10 different players to the Pro Bowl, a total of 26 accolades divided among them. Leading the way was Brian Dawkins, who became one of the best safeties in the game while playing under Johnson’s system. According to Dawkins himself, it was Johnson who unlocked his truest potential and found a way to use him in a way that showcased his unique talent and size for the position he played.
I wouldn’t say or take this lightly, but I don’t know if there would be a Weapon X or Wolverine personality on game day if Jim didn’t believe in me to use me the way he used me.”
– Brian Dawkins as quoted by The Philadelphia Daily News staff.
A 2011 inductee to the Eagles Hall of Fame, Johnson recognized talent on his defense better than anyone. He knew how to put his players in the best position to succeed, much the way he did with Dawkins. For that reason it should serve as no surprise that the teams of the 2000s were the class of the league defensively. They were the Legion of Boom but with a better and more perfect moniker which emphasized what Johnson did best, that of course being the blitz.
The Eagles used to run blitz after blitz rivaling the old Pittsburgh Steelers teams with the frequency and effectiveness of their defensive schemes. It was the Jim Johnson blitz packages, which some would refer to as aggressive and even exotic, that helped the Eagles, from 2000-07, rank tied for first in the NFL in sacks with 342, second in 3rd down efficiency (34.3%), second in red zone touchdown percentage (43%), and fourth in fewest points allowed per game (17.6). In 2001, Johnson helped the Eagles become just the fourth team in NFL history to go all 16 games without allowing a single team to score more than 21 in any given contest. Philadelphia also holds a record for their streak of allowing 21 or fewer in 34 straight games, which is the second longest such period in league history.
And before the success of the 2000s, in his first year as defensive coordinator?
Johnson’s team forced an NFL-best 46 turnovers including a team record five of which were returned for touchdowns.
But it wasn’t just his players either that benefited from the man’s coaching acumen. Johnson’s coaching tree includes John Harbaugh, current head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, and Ron Rivera, current head coach of the Carolina Panthers. Both of these coaches worked under Johnson, learning his system and enforcing it both while with the Eagles and again after they left to become head coaches of their own. In fact, it was the success they had in Philadelphia that opened those doors for them, all thanks to the late great Jim Johnson and his unique style of coaching and teaching.
“Now listen,” Rivera remembers Johnson saying. “You have the hardest job on the defense. I’m an old linebacker coach. I’m going to come into your meetings, and I’m going to take over your meetings. I’m going to take over your drills. Just don’t be offended.” – Joe Posnanski, NBC Sports
“But nothing more so than Jim Johnson, nothing more so than the guy I would consider the greatest coach — the greatest defensive coach — in the history of football…“We’re running half his schemes out here right now. He was a great man and a great mentor and a great teacher… “Football-wise, I’d say he’s probably the biggest influence. I learned more football in the NFL from him than anybody else, just learning defense in his system.” – John Harbaugh as quoted by Reuben Frank.
Thanks to Johnson’s defense, the Eagles went to five NFC Championship games including four in a row from 2001-04. Since 2009 however, the team’s first without Johnson, the Eagles haven’t been to one. In fact, they haven’t even won a single playoff game in the post-Johnson era and have only reached the postseason in three of those seven seasons compared to reaching the postseason seven out of nine years when Johnson was at the helm. In those 19 playoff games, the defense allowed just 18.4 points per game, fewer than six of which came in the second half.
With the loss of Johnson and Dawkins to Denver soon to follow, the team had in many ways lost its identity, its heart and soul. It went from a unit that opposing quarterbacks feared to one that in 2015, gave up the third most yards and one that doesn’t even really use the blitz anymore, at least, not to the level of efficiency that Johnson managed. And for a team that had just one DC for almost a decade, the Eagles have now seen those at the position come in on almost a yearly basis, having already had four in the seven seasons since Johnson’s last in 2008.
“Defense wins championships” so they say and while the Eagles never did manage to get that first Super Bowl, they came a lot closer to the pinnacle when Johnson was coaching the defense than in the past seven seasons.
Because for seven seasons now they haven’t that kind of strong leadership of a guy who knew what he was doing and how best to do it, and for seven seasons, they sure could have used it.