Wednesday, July 29, 2009

RIP Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson, 1941-2009

Jim Johnson, longtime Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator and one of the most innovative and respected coaches in football died yesterday after battling a recurrence of cancer. Jim spent more than 40 years perfecting his football craft, steadily rising, always learning and teaching.

An All-Big 8 quarterback at the University of Missouri, Jim converted to tight end in a two year NFL career with the Buffalo Bills in 1963 and 1964. Three years later in 1967 Missouri Southern University was about to convert to a four year school and was constituting a football team. Jim was the Lions first head coach. In 1969 Jim moved up to Drake University, accepting an assistant coach position. Four years later in 1973 Jim became the defensive coordinator at Indiana University. Another four years later Jim was hired by his former college coach Dan Devine to be defensive backs coach at Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish won the national championship in Jim's first year with the team. Jim was later promoted to defensive coordinator at Notre Dame.

Striking out for the professional ranks, Jim joined Woody Widenhofer's staff as defensive coordinator of the USFL Oklahoma Outlaws in 1984, perhaps the Outlaws' finest moment occured that season when Oklahoma beat Jack Pardee's Houston Gamblers 31-28, Houston Gamblers quarterback Jim Kelly was the 1984 USFL MVP, throwing over 5000 yards and for 44 touchdowns. Leaving the Oklahoma franchise but staying in the USFL, Jim joined Lindy Infante's staff as defensive coordinator of the Jacksonville Bulls for the 1985 season. That year Jim worked to develop the talents of a young linebacker named Vaughan Johnson, Vaughan would go on to become a four time NFL Pro Bowl linebacker with the New Orleans Saints.

Jim fled the failing USFL, joining Gene Stallings' staff as defensive line coach of the St. Louis Cardinals. When Gene was replaced by former and future Redskins offensive line coach Joe Bugel in 1990, Joe retained Jim, moving him to secondary coach. During this time Aeneas Williams entered the league and became the first rookie cornerback in a decade to lead the league in interceptions.

After four years with St. Louis/Phoenix/Arizona, Jim left the Cardinals to join Ted Marchibroda's staff in Indianapolis as linebackers coach before the 1994 season, in 1995 the Colts came within one game of the Super Bowl. In the 1996 offseason Ted was not retained. New Colts head coach and Jim's former Jacksonville Bulls boss Lindy Infante retained and elevated Jim to defensive coordinator. After a wild card playoff berth in 1996, the Colts finished 3-13 in 1997 and Lindy and his staff were let go by the Colts.

Jim was not on the market long, Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson brought Jim on board as linebackers coach for the 1998 season, though the Seahawks only finished 8-8, the Seattle defense was top five in sacks and interceptions and top ten in scoring defense that season.

Dennis was not retained by Seattle in the 1999 offseason and once again Jim was not on the market long. Eleven days after coming on board as Eagles head coach, Andy Reid hired Jim to be Philadelphia's defensive coordinator, the position he held until taking his leave of absence in May.

Andy, an offensive coach by trade, turned over the entire defensive operation to Jim, and the Eagles and their fans reaped the benefits for a decade. Jim Johnson's defenses were regularly among the best in the NFL, both statistically and on game day. Pressure from every direction and confusion by the quarterback were the signatures of a Jim Johnson defense, like every great coach Jim knew exactly how to maximize the players he had and how to disguise and minimize weaknesses.

In ten seasons from 1999 to 2008, the Eagles made seven playoff appearances, won five NFC Beast division titles, appeared in five NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl. Jim's defenses sent ten Eagles players to the Pro Bowl a combined 26 times. Jim spawned his own coaching tree, launching the careers of Steve Spagnuolo, John Harbaugh, Ron Rivera and Leslie Frazier. I had the privilege of seeing Jim coach in person against the Redskins nineteen of a possible twenty times.

In 2001 Jim surgery and treatment for a cancerous melanoma at the base of his spine, he had been cancer free since then. Late in the 2008 football season Jim began to experience back pain, eventually so severe that he was relegated to the booth for the final two games, something he had never down before, and used first a cane then a golf cart to get around practice. He took a leave of absence from the team in May and just five days ago was replaced on an intermim basis by another protege, Sean McDermott, the team always hoped Jim would be back.

Jim could have had a head coaching job in the NFL anytime he wanted. He never wanted the trouble, Jim was happiest keeping quarterbacks and offensive coaches up at night, wondering where the pressure was going to come from this week. Jim will be sorely missed by fans of the Eagles and the NFL.

Jim Johnson was 68.

Wikipedia page | Philadelphia Eagles | New York Times.

Jim Johnson: Miles Kennedy / AP Photo from here via here.