Second-guesses: Why not hire Jim Johnson?

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John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It's too bad Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson isn't 57 instead of 67 years old. But being old isn't a good thing these days as owners search for football's next bright mind. Johnson's ability deserves to be recognized with a promotion because he's done a marvelous job down the stretch with Philadelphia's defense, one that allowed a combined 25 points to the New York Giants in their last two meetings. Yes, Johnson knew weeks ago that he could jam the gaps and the cutback lanes against the great New York running game once its biggest playmaker, Plaxico Burress, was placed on the suspension shelf. Yes, the Giants might have won Sunday with Burress; he may have bailed out Eli Manning once again. In the fourth quarter Sunday, the Giants had four possessions: Two ended on failed fourth-down runs, the other two on a fumble and an interception. You don't win in the playoffs with such an unproductive offense. Hats off to the Eagles' two defensive tackles, Broderick Bunkley and Mike Patterson, who stuffed the inside runs of Brandon Jacobs and the misguided Manning quarterback sneak. On one attempt, Bunkley flipped New York center Shaun O'Hara on his back, then still jammed another blocker and Jacobs. Johnson was smart to start ball-hawk Quintin Mikell at safety and also to rely on young linebackers like Chris Gocong and Stewart Bradley. Down the stretch, Johnson has his defenders playing at an extremely high level. And it was money well spent on cornerback Asante Samuel. He came up with another interception, giving him seven in his postseason career, tying former New England teammates Rodney Harrison among active players. Samuel loves to jump routes and you have to figure he will be doing much the same next week against Larry Fitzgerald. The Eagles won't make the same mistakes that Carolina did; playing zone all game and allowing Fitzgerald to run as many crossing patterns as he wants. The Panthers never jammed Fitzgerald enough and never knocked him off his routes. Still, like the Giants of a year ago, Andy Reid and Jim Johnson have a shot to win three road games and end up in the Super Bowl.

There are still several head coaching vacancies and some of them will be filled this week now that talented assistant coaches like the Giants' Steve Spagnuolo and Tennessee's Jim Schwartz are available since their teams were eliminated from the playoffs. But unless the Jets make a dramatic hire — I think Spags would qualify — this is one team that has messed up its coaching search. First, how do you fire Eric Mangini without a plan in place? Owner Woody Johnson should have told GM Mike Tannenbaum to contact some candidates in secret — like Bill Cowher — ahead of time to gauge their interest before pulling the plug on Mangini. The Jets didn't do that. They fired Mangini and were left with a huge vacancy while also being in quarterback limbo with Brett Favre playing his familiar waiting game. Obviously, the Jets had no plan and now the word is that offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is the leader in the clubhouse. How can that be? No offense, but Schottenheimer should be a fall-back candidate since he's an in-house candidate. And if the next best candidate is Baltimore's Rex Ryan, how is he much different than Mangini? OK, he's more likable than the demanding Mangini, but most football people will tell you that Ryan's schemes can be a little unsound and work because of some unique talent on the Baltimore roster. To this day, I remain stunned that Browns owner Randy Lerner didn't hesitate to sign Mangenius. Lerner must figure that his new head coach will get his locker room into shape and weed out the ingrates. I figure that Spags really wanted the Broncos job because the offense in Denver is set. But he's out of luck there with Josh McDaniels replacing Mike Shanahan. The Jets never had a shot at McDaniels because the pipeline between New England and New York has been severed. You won't be seeing coaches jumping from the Pats to New York for a long, long time. Too much bad blood between these organizations.

I realize Panthers GM Marty Hurney quit taking my advice when I told him he should draft Joey Harrington over Julius Peppers, a physical phenom who wasn't a bad basketball player at North Carolina. But I will say this. Julius Peppers is no Dwight Freeney. He is no Jared Allen. He is not even close to Pittsburgh's James Harrison. Yes, he had a pretty good season this year after an awful one in 2007. But how does Hurney rationalize giving this guy $17.5 million should the Panthers decide to put the franchise tag on Peppers? The three players I mentioned are always hustling, always giving great effort. I don't care for Allen's recklessness — too many personal fouls for me — but the guy never quits. He inspires his teammates with his emotional desire and effort. You want your highest-paid player performing like that. To this day, the Chiefs blew it by trading Allen away; heck, he had more sacks than their entire team this past season.

I don't know how many times I have seen Freeney with an inside pass rush chase down an offensive player on the opposite side of the field. And Harrison is non-stop. Yes, there's nothing Carolina can do about Peppers' laid-back leadership skills. But I don't remember Peppers applying any pressure to Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner. I never saw him encourage his buddies up front to start knocking Warner around. Everyone in the NFL knows that if you get in Warner's face, start knocking him down, you have a very good chance of beating him. Well, Peppers and his buddies never did that and Warner ended up passing the ball like he was in practice, running a seven-on-seven passing drill. Warner never had a care in the world. Yes, Peppers is an unique player, but he doesn't belong in the class with Freeney, Allen, Harrison or even the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware. I know the Panthers will be debating this decision for a couple of weeks because their left tackle Jordan Gross is also an unrestricted free agent. They have to pay them both, or at least place the franchise tag on one of them. But didn't Peppers hurt his asking price on the open market with such a so-so performance on Saturday?

Who is this mystery coach? He has been a NFL head coach for 14 seasons, has been a consistent winner and is considered among the game's great coaches. He gets his teams to the playoffs, but once he gets to the playoffs his teams have won only five times. If you guessed Marty Schottenheimer, you're wrong. The answer is Jeff Fisher. Yes, I cringed a bit when writing this because Fisher would be mad about the comparison even though his sideline approach is as conservative as Schottenheimer's. But Saturday was the second time in Fisher's career that his Titans finished as the AFC's top seed, only to lose in the first round to the Baltimore Ravens in 2000. That season, the Ravens went on to win their only Super Bowl to date. Yes, Fisher ran into some bad luck against the Ravens. Baltimore couldn't stop running back Chris Johnson in the first half, but then a right ankle injury put the explosive Johnson on the bench. Then his other players started turning the ball over — can anybody say Earnest Byner? — and the playoff game was history. Fisher deserved a better fate than this, considering he won 13 games with Kerry Collins as his quarterback after Vince Young went down. Now, he will be facing pressure next season to give Young another chance and that could mean not paying Collins to keep him around. Still, there is no doubt that Fisher is a top five coach in the NFL. It's just that he's stuck with Schottenheimer at five playoff victories.

After hearing Giants GM Jerry Reese say that Plaxico Burress would be welcomed back to the team next season, my first question was: Why wasn't he welcomed back for the playoffs?
OK, Plax was silly enough to bring a loaded Glock on a Friday night of clubbing back in November. But most Giants will tell you that Plax isn't a bad guy. He doesn't have a long history of arrests. The Giants could have suspended Burress for the final four games of the regular season, then returned him to the lineup for Sunday's playoff game against the Eagles. OK, we all know the ramifications of his legal predicament regarding New York City's ban on hand guns, but what does that have to do with playing football? Without his favorite receiver, Eli Manning looked like the Manning of old, the one that everyone was ripping early last season when his quarterback play was uneven. Manning silenced his critics by winning a Super Bowl, but he had Burress on the receiving end of many a great play. Who can forget his 11-catch, 151-yard effort in the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field in the 2007 NFC Championship Game? With the Giants trailing the Patriots in the final minutes, it was Burress who caught the winning touchdown. Facts are facts. The Giants lost four of their last five games without Burress as Eagles coordinator Jim Johnson showed the world how to stop New York's offense. Manning had four interceptions and two TD passes in those five games. "Obviously, the guy has a presence when he's on the field," Reese said. "But do the Eagles have a Plax out there? I don't think so. They have good receivers and we have good receivers." The Giants made a couple blunders, too. Coach Tom Coughlin should have taken the wind for the fourth quarter instead of deferring to the Eagles, who took it. You could tell that Manning wasn't comfortable throwing into the wind when he attempted to finesse his first pass of the game to a wide open Steve Smith. By taking something off his throw, Manning's pass fell a couple yards short of Smith. It was that kind of day for Eli.
Tagged: Browns, Cowboys, Lions, Titans, Colts, Chiefs, Raiders, Vikings, Patriots, Giants, Jets, Eagles, Panthers, Ravens, Cardinals, Steelers, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Kerry Collins, Plaxico Burress, Steve Smith Sr., Julius Peppers, Dwight Freeney, James Harrison, Jordan Gross, Chris Johnson, Asante Samuel, Quintin Mikell, Larry Fitzgerald, Eli Manning, Jared Allen, DeMarcus Ware, Mike Patterson, Brandon Jacobs, Chris Gocong, Vince Young, Stewart Bradley

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