Jim Johnson: A Decade in Review
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A couple months ago, I wrote a long essay on the life of Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau for the Maple Street Press Steelers Annual. That piece brought one simple fact into sharp relief - the truly great and revolutionary NFL assistant coaches don't generally get the respect they deserve, and the ones who give decades to their profession and are still at their best now are truly gifted. 2008 may have seen LeBeau's best coaching job. When you watched the way he lined those chess pieces up play after play, adjusted to offensive game plans, and seemed to drill right through the helmets of enemy quarterbacks and steal the playbooks right out of their heads - well, you got the feeling you were watching something special. Something you weren't going to see too often.
Now, I'm writing about Pennsylvania's other NFL defensive genius, another man who gave decades to his defenses, and was at his best in 2008. Unfortunately, in this case, it's a posthumous appreciation for Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who lost his battle with cancer on Tuesday at age 68.
Johnson's coaching career took him to several different stops in the NCAA, USFL and NFL before former Green Bay assistant Andy Reid stole him away from the Seahawks to run the Philly defense. As Seattle's linebackers coach in 1998, Johnson helped put together a defense that scored 10 touchdowns that season. In Philadelphia, he gained a name as a tactician who would bring all kinds of blitzes from any angle, disguising some and making others all too obvious. At Football Outsiders, we have data going back to 2005, detailing how many defenders each team brought to pressure the quarterback on every play. Johnson's blitz percentages made his strategic preferences perfectly clear. Percentages are below, with rankings in parentheses.
But Johnson's body of work wasn't just about bringing the house or high sack percentages, just as LeBeau's is about much more than the zone blitz and a bunch of crazy formations. In the press release announcing Johnson's passing, the Eagles put the numbers out there: From 2000 through 2008, the Eagles ranked third in the NFL in sacks (390), third-down efficiency (34.0%) and red zone touchdown percentage (43.9%), and fourth in fewest points allowed per game (17.7).
2008 may have been Johnson's best year. Blitzing teams can find themselves vulnerable to the run, but the 2008 Eagles displayed a powerful blend between pass rush and gap control. At FO, we rate front sevens by several stats, but two stand out: Adjusted Line Yards and Adjusted Sack Rate. ALY takes all running back carries and places responsibility for yardage gained based on average totals. ASR gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. There were times when Johnson had to adjust his priorities based on his personnel, such as the 2005 season, when the defense ranked fifth in ALY and 27th in ASR after losing Derrick Burgess and Corey Simon to free agency. Johnson compensated by forcing linebackers and defensive backs to the line, which opened up another issue - the Eagles were the 26th-worst team in giving up runs of 10 yards or more. 2006 told the opposite story, as the Eagles ranked second in ASR and 21st in ALY. Johnson used new depth to run a two-platoon system, and four different linemen had at least five sacks.
2008 was the masterstroke. As the stats show, Johnson brought the house as much as he ever had, but there was no effect on the run defense, In fact, over the second half of the 2008 season, the Eagles put up the best run defense DVOA in the NFL (-24.7%) and posted the highest Defensive DVOA ranking (-20.3%) of any Eagles defense since 2001. Only the Steelers and Ravens were better. And for the first time since 2002, the Eagles posted top 10 rankings in both ALY and ASR< despite the fact that not one member of the front seven made the Pro Bowl. (Not that Pro Bowl nominations are reliable barometers of player value, but we're just sayin'...) As the Post's Mark Maske detailed in January, Johnson did it with what was then termed a "sore back" -- which was, in fact, the melanoma that would take his life all too soon.
It was about the big picture for Johnson, and that included one responsibility he took very seriously - creating a culture of accountability that worked through his coaches and players, and touched the entire organization. From Adam Caplan of Scout.com and SIRIUS NFL Radio, who has covered the Eagles for years:
As a defensive coordinator, Johnson was special because his schemes brought out the best in players and he understood their strengths and weaknesses. For example, while Brian Dawkins was listed as a free safety, Johnson knew his coverage skills regressed in recent years, so he made him more of a box player. He knew exactly what each player was capable of doing and he knew how to push them.
What I liked best about Johnson was that he wasn't afraid to make a call or a personnel move if it was going to help the team win. He wasn't afraid to bench a player or to push him to be the very best. Johnson was my favorite coach to cover because he never shied away from a question about his players and he would tell you what he thought although it could come off as criticism.
Jim Johnson was a teacher and tactician of the highest order, and it's important to take time to appreciate the lifers of the NFL. My hope is that Johnson's legacy and memory brings more visibility to all great assistant coaches - including and especially to the Hall of Fame voters. Assistant coaches are a woefully underrepresented class in Canton, and this needs to change.
Johnson's name wouldn't be a bad place to start.
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