A veteran of 22 years as an NFL assistant, Johnson was considered one of the top defensive minds in the league, known for complex schemes that confused opponents and pressured the quarterback from every angle. His defenses consistently ranked among the best in the league, including last season, when the Eagles finished third in total defense and fell one victory short of the Super Bowl.
From 2000-08, Johnson’s Philadelphia defenses ranked second in the NFL in sacks (390). During his 10-year tenure, the Eagles made the playoffs seven times and he produced 26 Pro Bowl selections.
“This whole Eagles-Andy Reid regime here that’s taken place wouldn’t have been possible without Jim,” said Andy Reid, who hired Johnson to be his defensive coordinator shortly after he got his first head coaching job with the Eagles in 1999.
“I’m not sure there’s a person that I’ve met that isn’t a Jim Johnson fan. He really represented everything this city is all about with his toughness and grit. That’s the way he fought this cancer.”
Eagles chairman Jeffrey Lurie praised Johnson for his leadership skills and the person he was.
“For 10 years, Jim Johnson was an exceptional coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, but more importantly, he was an outstanding human being,” Lurie said. “As an integral part of the Eagles family, Jim epitomized the traits of what a great coach should be – a teacher, a leader, and a winner … It was easy to feel close to him.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell echoed Lurie’s sentiments.
“He was a teacher to many players both on and off the field and devoted his life to the game of football,” Goodell said in a statement. “He had a positive influence on scores of young men, and leaves behind a wonderful legacy.”
On Sunday, the Eagles announced that Sean McDermott would replace Johnson. In his first news conference as coordinator, McDermott gave full credit to Johnson.
“What haven’t I learned from Jim?” McDermott said. “I don’t think it would be fair to Jim, in this setting, to try and limit in one statement, one press conference, the effect that Jim has had on my life.”
McDermott paid Johnson the ultimate compliment in describing the style of defense he wanted the Eagles to play: Johnson’s style.
“There is one thing I know, and that is that this system, it works,” McDermott said. “Jim has spent a considerable amount of time in his coaching career researching and finding things that work and finding things that didn’t work, quite frankly, and I’m going to respect that and we’re going to build on that. From there, we’ll add wrinkles.”
Coaches across the league paid homage to Johnson’s impact on their careers and the league.
“I loved Jim Johnson,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, an Eagles assistant for nine seasons with Johnson. “He had a special ability to bring out the best in people while getting you to see the best in yourself. He saw potential and developed it. He made me believe I could coach at this level. In football, he was a pioneering and brilliant strategist, changing the way defense is played in the NFL. For me, he was a father-type mentor, and above all, a cherished friend. He belongs in the Hall of Fame. I will miss him so much.”
“He was a dear friend and a special person,” said St. Louis Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo, a member of the Eagles defensive staff under Johnson for eight seasons. “Our prayers and thoughts go out to his wife Vicki and their family. Jim meant the world to me, both personally and professionally. I am very blessed to have had the privilege to work for him and with him. The NFL has lost a good man.”
Giants coach Tom Coughlin did not know Johnson, but admired him from afar.
“He was great to work with and for, and he had his priorities in order,” Coughlin said. “His players loved to play for him and his coaches loved to coach with him. It is a sad day for the National Football League to lose somebody the quality of Jim Johnson. It is a sad note on which to start the season.”
Johnson had been treated for melanoma in 2001.
In January, he complained of back pain and coached from the press box in the Eagles‘ playoff win over the New York Giants and in the loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC championship.
An MRI after the divisional playoff win against the Giants on Jan. 11 alerted doctors that something might be wrong. Following the Arizona loss, the team announced the cancer had returned and Johnson would undergo more treatments.
Johnson had recovered sufficiently to coach during the team’s first post-draft minicamp in May. But he coached from a motorized scooter during practices and said he wasn’t certain he’d be able to return for the season.
“Jim was tailor-made to coach in Philadelphia,” said Broncos safety Brian Dawkins, who played 10 seasons for Johnson in Philadelphia. “He was a tough coach who wasn’t afraid to let you know how he was feeling, but at the same time, he cared about us deeply.”
Johnson is survived by his wife, two children and four grandchildren.