Farewell To ‘The Mad Scientist’

By Lloyd Vance, BASN Staff Reporter
Updated: July 31, 2009

Philadelphia Eagles PHILADELPHIA (BASN) — The date of July 28, 2009 will now hold significance around the NFL. Though the four-letter network will continue to push never-ending stories about Brett Favre’s unretirement/retirement and the reinstatement of Michael Vick.

The “real” story of the day was the untimely passing of defensive icon Jim Johnson at the age of 68. The Eagles veteran defensive coordinator, who will forever be lovingly known as the “Mad Scientist” of the blitz, unfortunately lost his battle with melanoma cancer after stoically fighting the disease for some time.

Johnson, who was a well respected veteran defensive stalwart coach, had over 42 years in the business of football including 22 in the NFL. A true defensive genius, Johnson carried his defensive scheme across the football landscape with career stops at Missouri Southern (head coach in 1967), Drake University (1969-1972), Indiana University (1973-1976), Notre Dame (1978-1983), Oklahoma Outlaws – USFL, Jacksonville Bulls – USFL, St. Louis Cardinals – NFL (1986-1993), Indianapolis Colts (1994-1995), Seattle Seahawks (1998 – linebackers coach), and Philadelphia Eagles.

Recently when announced as the Eagles new defensive coordinator, Johnson’s pupil, Sean McDermott probably summed up his mentor’s approach to life and football best by saying, “Blitz…and then blitz some more”. Over ten years with the Eagles organization, mostly filled with more ups than downs, Johnson built a defense that was the cornerstone of the Andy Reid era.

Like a grizzly-tough battle tested staff sergeant, Johnson under Reid’s guidance was the glue that held Eagles teams together on and off the field of battle. JJ never was the type to be a figurehead coach that just sat high above the action on the field , he would much rather roll his sleeves up and fight right along side of his players.

Known for putting pressure on quarterbacks, Johnson always consistently held himself to a higher standard and you could tell that there were many “working” nights for him. The steady coach was a man that embraced the challenge, camaraderie, and preparation for the game of football that was unmatched by many in NFL coaching circles.

Johnson after coming over from the Seattle Seahawks in 1999, helped to restore the roar of an Eagles defense that was coming off a 3-13 season in 1998 with an NFL defensive ranking of 19th in points allowed – an average of over 21 per game.

Johnson’s last Eagles defensive unit in 2008 ranked No. 1 in the NFC allowing a stingy 274.3 yards per game and led the Eagles back to the NFC Championship Game. From his arrival in 1999 to the 2008 season, Johnson’s units were ranked in the NFL’s Top 10 defensively seven times.

At practices and on game day, Johnson’s gravely voice could easily be heard as a focal point as he not only taught defense, but also life lessons to a generation of Eagles players, coaches and anyone affiliated with the organization.

Despite sometimes being caught cerebrally thinking of the intricacies of stopping the Birds’ next opponent, Jim always had a smile and kind words for anyone who was part of the Eagles family.

Everyone will of course point to the Eagles’ Super Bowl run in 2004 led by Johnson’s NFL 2nd ranked defense – allowed only 16.2 points per game – with Pro Bowl players like safety Brian Dawkins and middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter as one of his career highlights.

But to me his most masterful performance may have been in the Eagles’ 2006 season. The 2006 season had it’s adversities for the Eagles including injuries to players like cornerback Lito Sheppard and of course season-ending surgery for quarterback Donovan McNabb.

However, Johnson willed his defense to an NFL 15th ranking sometimes filling-in the gaps with players like defensive tackle Sam Rayburn. The Birds down the stretch shutdown the Panthers, Redskins, Giants, Cowboys, and Falcons in successive weeks — allowing an average of only 15.8 points per game — to make the playoffs.

None of the teams had a losing record at the time the teams played and there were three consecutive road wins in the set. Then in the wildcard round of the playoffs, the Eagles held the Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning to only 161 yards passing and forced an interception in a 23-20 thrilling win at Lincoln Financial Field.

McDermott also said in his press conference, less than a week ago, regarding the lessons that Johnson taught him, “What haven’t I learned from Jim?” McDermott added, “He’s been a significant influence in my life, both on and off the field.”

“He’s been a mentor to me on the field, of course. But I don’t think it would be fair to Jim to limit to one statement, one press conference, the effect he has had on my life.”

The venerable defensive coach helped produce 26 Pro Bowl players in Philly including DE Hugh Douglas, MLB Trotter, FS Dawkins, LB Ike Reese, CB Sheppard, CB Troy Vincent and many others.

He also leaves behind defensive disciples to continue his teachings in Steve Spagnuolo (head coach of the St. Louis Rams), John Harbaugh (head coach of the Baltimore Ravens), Ron Rivera (defensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers), Leslie Frazier (defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings) and McDermott.

The venerable coach is survived by his wife, Vicky, two children, Scott and Michelle, and four grandchildren, Katie, Justin, Brandon, and Jax.

I am sure the Eagles will be adding some kind of tribute to their fallen coach on their uniforms this season. For those wanting to see the Eagles tribute to their beloved coach, click this link.

Rest In Peace, Jim.