By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Sometime before kickoff tomorrow at University of Phoenix Stadium, Jim Johnson will decide whether his balky back can withstand three hours of standing on the Philadelphia Eagles' sideline. If not, he'll make his way upstairs and find a seat in the coaches' booth in the press box.
He'll settle in for the NFC title game and, from whichever vantage point he chooses, he'll begin dialing up selections from the package of blitzes he devised during the week to try to confound the Arizona Cardinals and pressure quarterback Kurt Warner into mistakes.
Depending on how often Johnson outguesses the Cardinals' offensive coaches and Warner, Johnson's aggressive tactics could either give the statuesque Warner fits or provide him with openings to find standout wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin for big plays. It will be the matchup of wits that very well could determine which underdog team, the sixth-seeded Eagles or fourth-seeded Cardinals, becomes an unlikely Super Bowl participant.
Johnson, the Eagles' veteran defensive coordinator, is a stay-in-the-background sort, not to be confused with Jimmy Johnson, the every-hair-in-place, comfortable-in-the-spotlight former Super Bowl-winning coach for the Dallas Cowboys. This Jim Johnson probably won't end up on a network television NFL studio show. But his coaching peers appreciate his value to the Eagles.
"He is one of the most complete defensive coaches I've ever been around," Washington Redskins offensive line coach Joe Bugel said late in the week. "He is outstanding. He is a players' coach. He knows how to get them to play. He knows how to put them in the right spots. You talk about him, Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh and [Rex] Ryan in Baltimore, you go against those guys and you never know where they're coming from. It feels like you're going against 15 guys out there on defense."
Andy Reid is in his fifth NFC championship game in his 10 years as the Eagles' head coach, and he has a coaching tree going with former assistants moving on to head coaching success elsewhere. Brad Childress, Reid's former offensive coordinator, coached the Minnesota Vikings to the playoffs this season before losing to Reid and the Eagles in the opening round. John Harbaugh, Reid's longtime special teams coordinator and the Eagles' secondary coach last season, has the Ravens in the AFC title game Sunday as a rookie head coach. Steve Spagnuolo, Reid's former linebackers coach who went on to become the New York Giants' defensive coordinator, yesterday agreed to become the St. Louis Rams' head coach.
But it's Johnson, the 42-year coaching veteran who isn't seeking head coaching jobs, who has meant as much to Reid's success in Philadelphia as just about anyone else. Johnson has been Reid's defensive coordinator since Reid got the Eagles' head coaching job in 1999. Reid calls Johnson the league's best defensive coordinator, praise that Reid repeated after the Eagles held the Giants without a touchdown last Sunday at Giants Stadium to knock the defending Super Bowl champions from the playoffs.
Reid also made sure to point out that Johnson was coaching in pain, with a back too sore for him to stand on the sideline last weekend.
"The poor guy's up in the box," Reid said. "He's got the back aching a little bit, so he called it from up there."
Johnson said during the week that his coaching destination this weekend, sideline or press box, would be a "game-time decision." He did not provide details about his back ailment. "I don't know," Johnson said during his weekly news conference. "I probably swung my golf club too hard. It hurts."
Reid talks about how Johnson keeps things "fresh" for his players, even in the latter stages of a coaching career that began in 1967 in the college ranks as the head coach at Missouri Southern. Johnson had been a quarterback as a college player at Missouri, and he spent two seasons playing in the NFL as a tight end with the Buffalo Bills in 1963 and 1964.
Yet he eventually ended up coaching defense on a winding career path that included stops at Notre Dame, two United States Football League franchises and eight seasons with the Cardinals between 1986 and 1993, in both St. Louis and Phoenix, as their defensive line coach and later their secondary coach. The Cardinals' head coach for part of that time, between 1990 and 1993, was Bugel.
Johnson is known as being a master architect of blitzes, disguising them skillfully and keeping offenses constantly off-balance because the Eagles bring defenders from all different angles.
"We come up with little things here and there sometimes, you know," Johnson said. "Maybe it's stuff we haven't used in three or four years, just like a library. We're always trying to have the offense think about something, plus have our players go to meetings not just to go to meetings. They've got to pick up new stuff. It keeps them sharp, too."
The Eagles had the NFL's third-ranked defense during the regular season. They also ranked third in the league with 48 sacks. The team didn't have a single defensive lineman or linebacker reach the Pro Bowl -- cornerback Asante Samuel and safety Brian Dawkins were selected in the secondary -- but Johnson made the most out of what he had in the front seven.
The Eagles overwhelmed the Cardinals, 48-20, on Thanksgiving night in Philadelphia, but Johnson said he expects Arizona to be a far different team Sunday. He said Warner has become one of the league's best quarterbacks at taking advantage of a blitz. But that, he said, won't dissuade him tomorrow.
"It's not going to change our philosophy," Johnson said. "We're going to do what we've been doing."
The Redskins beat the Eagles twice during the regular season, and Bugel said he expects the Cardinals to do what the Redskins did against Philadelphia: run the ball. The Cardinals are known as a pass-first team. But they have used running backs Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower (from Episcopal High School in Alexandria) effectively during their playoff run.
And Bugel suspects that Cardinals Coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive line coach Russ Grimm, both former Redskins players and former Pittsburgh Steelers assistants under run-first coach Bill Cowher, will use the running game tomorrow to help keep the pressure from Johnson's blitzes off Warner.
"We stuck to our game plan against the Eagles," Bugel said. "We ran the ball real well. Even when we fell behind, we ran the ball. Grimm and Whisenhunt, they came from the Redskins. They were with Cowher. They have Edgerrin James. They might run the ball a little more than people think in this game. Don't be surprised if the Cardinals win. I'm not betting on it or anything. But they've got a heck of a football team. It's a good matchup."