Ex-quarterback is brains behind Eagles defense
Published: Tuesday, February 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 1, 2005 at 12:16 a.m.
PHILADELPHIA - In six seasons as the Philadelphia Eagles' defensive coordinator, Jim Johnson has earned a place as one of the NFL's top defensive minds for his ability to send linebackers and defensive backs into the backfield at any time, from any angle.
But more than 40 years ago, Johnson was trying to outsmart defenses as a quarterback running the Delaware Wing-T offense at the University of Missouri.
They played a different style of football then. Quarterbacks were prized more for their brains and brawn than for golden arms, and the most gifted players played both ways.
Johnson was also a safety at Missouri (though he later played tight end in the old American Football League), and when he stopped playing and started coaching, his knowledge of defense became a handy tool.
''I always say that he is a guy who must hate quarterbacks,'' said former All-Pro safety Dave Duerson, who played under Johnson at Notre Dame and later with the Arizona Cardinals. ''He played quarterback, but I think playing safety was where he got his most pleasure. He liked the idea of stopping the offense.''
The man who so cunningly shut down Michael Vick in the Eagles' NFC Championship game victory over Atlanta knew something about leaving the pocket. A left-hander like Vick, Johnson didn't pass much in his day - in 1962, his senior season, he led the team with 198 passing yards, on 12-of-33 passing. Unlike Vick, he was more apt to run over defenders than around them.
''We were both freshmen in 1959,'' said Bill Tobin, the long-time NFL executive who teamed with Johnson and Johnny Roland to form a celebrated backfield at Missouri. ''The first time I saw him, it was in the cafeteria, and I figured he was a football player, too. I said, 'What do you play?' He said quarterback, and I was like, 'Oh my God,' because he was a big guy.''
This mentality carried Johnson through a coaching career that has spanned nearly 30 years, leading him from the college ranks to winning a national championship with Notre Dame, then into stops with three NFL teams before Andy Reid hired him as his defensive coordinator in 1999.
Only since then has the 63-year-old Johnson developed his current standing as a defensive mad scientist. His current task is to match wits with New England coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, both masters of defensive scheming as well, when the Eagles face the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX.
And only now is Johnson gaining the national recognition that had eluded him through 18 years in the NFL - though he was a defensive assistant when Notre Dame won the national championship in 1977 - he had never reached the Super Bowl until this year.
Ever stoic on the sideline, Johnson admitted that last Sunday's victory left him ''as emotional as I've ever been as a coach.''
Johnson started off coaching quarterbacks at the high-school level. Before the Eagles, Johnson earned perhaps his greatest notoriety at Notre Dame. He presided over a dominant defense that produced NFL players including Duerson, the Golic brothers (Bob and Mike) and linebacker Bob Crable.
''It was nothing like what he does now,'' said Mike Golic, now an ESPN NFL analyst. ''He's taken it to another level with the Eagles. I think some of it might be a little too advanced for college kids.''
But more than 20 years later, some of Johnson's former Irish players wonder what it would have been like had his current schemes been part of Notre Dame's defensive playbook.
''The system that Jim runs now, I would've loved to have played in that,'' said Crable, who went on to play eight years in the NFL and now is the head coach at Moeller High School in Cincinnati. ''The allure is how aggressive it is. However you do it, you know that somewhere, someone is putting pressure on the quarterback.''
''The allure is how aggressive it is. However you do it, you know that somewhere, someone is putting pressure on the quarterback.''
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