Eagles' Johnson will not be easy to replace

Posted by ESPN's Sal Paolantonio

PHILADELPHIA -- The Eagles announced the inevitable on Friday -- that the sage and highly successful Jim Johnson, who is fighting for his life against cancer, will not be returning to the team this season, and that interim defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will take his place when training camp opens on Sunday.

This decision has been coming since May, when McDermott took over temporarily during minicamp. Nevertheless, it came as a shock to many of Philadelphia's veteran defensive players.

"Jim is going to be missed. He is a unique coach," said cornerback Sheldon Brown, the lone remaining defensive starter from the Eagles Super Bowl team in 2005. "Guys like him come around only once a generation. You think of Monte Kiffin, Rex Ryan and Dick LeBeau, and Jim. He's in that kind of a league."

Under Johnson, the Eagles have ranked near the top in almost every important defensive category in the last decade. Since 2000, the Eagles have been second in sacks (390), tied for second in tackles for a loss (457), second in forced fumbles (159), second in red zone efficiency (43.9 percent), and second in third down efficiency (34 percent). During the Johnson era, the Eagles have finished fourth in the NFL in points allowed -- just 17.7 per game.

McDermott is certainly a capable young coach and has an intricate knowledge of Johnson's fire zone blitz scheme.

The challenge facing McDermott is whether he can quickly duplicate Johnson's uncanny ability to devise new wrinkles week after week, and then call the defensive signals when the real games begin on Sept. 13.

"The thing about Jim was his ability to watch what was happening on the field and counterpunch," said former Eagles cornerback Lito Sheppard, who now plays for Ryan in New York. "That takes knowledge and ability; Sean has that. But it also takes instincts and experience. And you can only get that by doing it."

Johnson's absence will have the biggest impact on head coach Andy Reid. Formulating and calling the offense in his 10 years in Philadelphia, Reid has had the benefit of Donovan McNabb as the starter and stabilizing force.

Johnson had Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins. But Dawkins fled to Denver. Without Dawkins and Johnson, and McDermott learning on the fly, Reid will have to keep one eye on the defense for the first time in his tenure in Philadelphia. Reid will have to be far more involved in devising defensive game plans than ever before.

"This will be a big test for all us," said Brown, who said he will be in training camp on time after being a no-show at voluntary minicamps in a contract dispute. "It will be interesting to see how things go if we get off to a slow start defensively. That'll be the big test. Without Jim there, how do we react and regroup?"

Sal Paolantonio, a former Eagles beat writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, covers the NFL for ESPN.