He will be no better than the second-best defensive coach involved in this Super Bowl, behind the New England Patriots' mastermind of a head coach, Bill Belichick. But there are some in the NFL who believe that Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is the second-best defensive coach in the entire league, and now he has his chance to step out from the pack on football's biggest stage.
This Super Bowl is a matchup not only of highly successful head coaches, Belichick and the Eagles' Andy Reid, but also of four of the league's top coordinators. Belichick's top coaching lieutenants are about to become head coaches; offensive coordinator Charlie Weis has accepted the Notre Dame job and defensive boss Romeo Crennel is in line to be hired by the Cleveland Browns after the Super Bowl. Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress's time will come soon; he interviewed for the San Francisco 49ers' head-coaching job during the playoffs and was passed over, but now he's in that loop.
Johnson's days as a head-coaching candidate might be over; he turns 64 in May. But he is as revered as any assistant in the league, and takes a back seat to no one, even in this star-studded lineup.
The Eagles are coming off an NFC title game in which they bottled up Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick and shut out the Falcons in the second half of a 27-10 triumph at Lincoln Financial Field. Johnson doesn't get the acclaim for Xs-and-Os brilliance that Belichick does, but Reid said this week of Johnson's blueprint for facing Vick and the Falcons: "Jim's plan, I thought, was really second to none."
The Eagles wanted to be aggressive on defense against Vick without being reckless, which would open up lanes through which Vick could run. So Johnson devised a game plan by which the club's defensive ends often would hang around the line of scrimmage on passing downs, rather than rushing too far upfield and creating space for Vick. The Eagles believed that if they could get any kind of up-the-middle pass rush by their defensive tackles, Vick would take off from the pocket to the outside -- straight toward their defensive ends, they hoped.
It worked. The Eagles sacked Vick four times. Starting defensive ends Derrick Burgess and Jevon Kearse had three of the sacks. Vick ran for only 26 yards.
The Falcons, the NFL's top rushing team during the regular season, ran for only 99 yards against the Eagles. Score another one for Johnson: The Eagles defense became far tougher against the run following an in-season lineup reshuffling in which he made Jeremiah Trotter his starting middle linebacker. Trotter, due to his creaky knees and two disappointing seasons in Washington, was unwanted around the league after he was released by the Redskins last offseason. He had to accept a minimum-salary contract and a backup role to return to the Eagles, whom he'd left in a bitter contract dispute with Reid following the 2001 season. Now he is a key member of a Super Bowl team, thanks to Johnson giving him a chance.
The Eagles and Patriots were tied for allowing the second-fewest points in the league this season (260 apiece), a feat that Philadelphia managed even after promoting young cornerbacks Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown to be starters following the offseason departures of veterans Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor. Johnson's defenses aren't about looking good in the league's total-defense rankings, which are based on yards permitted; the Eagles ranked 10th in the NFL this season by that measure. What Johnson's defenses are about is playing winning football. The Eagles, under Johnson, once yielded 21 or fewer points in 34 consecutive games, the second-longest such streak in NFL history.
In the Super Bowl, the unit will face a New England offense that was clicking in the AFC title game against Pittsburgh, which had the league's top-ranked defense (in both yards and scoring) during the regular season. Johnson undoubtedly will have a good game plan. The rest will be up to his players.
"It's one thing to put together a good scheme," Reid said this week. "It's another thing to execute it."
Owens Could Practice Monday
If wide receiver Terrell Owens doesn't suffer any setbacks in his rehabilitation of his surgically repaired ankle and all goes well in the running program that he started Tuesday, the Eagles apparently are aiming to have him try to participate in Monday's practice in Jacksonville, Fla. . . .
Reid said that right tackle Jon Runyan, who played in the NFC championship game with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee, would be limited during this week's practices. Runyan didn't participate in the Eagles' practice Wednesday, but is virtually certain to be in the lineup against the Patriots. . . .
Linebacker Mark Simoneau practiced Wednesday, and Johnson will have a lineup decision to make next week. Simoneau missed the Eagles' two playoff games because of an ankle injury suffered in the regular season finale, and Keith Adams played well in his place. It seems likely that Adams will remain in the lineup.
Simoneau opened the season as Philadelphia's starting middle linebacker, but was moved to outside linebacker as part of the reshuffling in which Trotter became the starter at middle linebacker. . . .
The Patriots' first practice of the week is today.
Bills Considering Quarterback Options
The Buffalo Bills are contemplating promoting J.P. Losman, a first-round draft pick last year, to be their starting quarterback next season. If that happens, the club perhaps would release veteran Drew Bledsoe, whose contract calls for him to receive a $1 million roster bonus and a $3.3 million salary next season. . . .
Bills President Tom Donahoe told reporters Wednesday in Mobile, Ala., before one of the Senior Bowl practices that he would consider trading tailback Travis Henry to Miami if the Dolphins make a suitable offer. Henry has asked to be traded after losing Buffalo's starting tailback job to Willis McGahee this season, and the Dolphins are among the teams in the market for a centerpiece runner. But they are a division rival, and Donahoe might ask Miami to pay a premium price if he's going to help an AFC East foe. . . .
Bob Slowik, replaced as Green Bay's defensive coordinator by former Dolphins interim coach Jim Bates, reportedly has agreed to become Denver's defensive backs coach. Bates and Packers Coach Mike Sherman offered Slowik a chance to remain on Green Bay's defensive coaching staff. . . .
New Orleans offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy reportedly agreed to a three-year contract to become San Francisco's offensive coordinator. McCarthy's contract with the Saints was expiring, and he was a popular offensive-coordinator candidate league-wide. Saints Coach Jim Haslett is thought to be considering replacing him with Marc Trestman, the former offensive coordinator for Cleveland, San Francisco, Arizona and Oakland who spent this past season as Miami's quarterbacks coach. But Trestman also has an offer from North Carolina State, and Haslett could end up promoting Saints quarterbacks coach Mike Sheppard. . . .
The 49ers could hire George Warhop as their offensive line coach. He was fired as Dallas's offensive line coach after the season by Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells. . . . The 49ers are scheduled to interview Mike Butler, the Colts' director of college scouting, today. He will become the fourth candidate known to have interviewed for the vacant front-office job created by the dismissal of Terry Donahue as San Francisco's general manager.