Huge Shoes to Fill
This is an article from the Aug. 10, 2009 issue
You walk into Eagles training camp at Lehigh University, and you expect a pall. One of the top defensive minds in NFL history, coordinator Jim Johnson, died of melanoma on July 28 at age 68, leaving a legacy of confounding blitz packages and quarterback pressure that few coaches will ever come close to matching. In the corner of the end zone on one of the practice fields a large black circle is inscribed with white initials: jj. Yet the atmosphere is not funereal. "It's almost like we haven't mourned yet," linebacker Stewart Bradley said last Saturday, a day before his apparent season-ending ACL injury dealt Philly another blow. "You hate to say this because it sounds disrespectful, but the transition has been pretty seamless, because Sean was Jim's guy."
Sean McDermott, he means. The new coordinator, a baby-faced 35, has a work ethic to match anyone's: Players joked that he brought game tape into the delivery room when his wife gave birth to their first child last year. He also had 10 years under Johnson to learn the arts of game-planning and play-calling. "I've had a front-row seat with one of the best defensive minds in history, and he was my mentor as well as a dear friend," says McDermott. "I hope I learned something from him. I hope I learned a lot from him."
McDermott's life in football resembles that of another standout defensive mind. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was co-captain at William & Mary when McDermott was an undersized safety there. Tomlin spurned a lucrative nonfootball job in Washington for a $12,000-a-year graduate assistant position at VMI, then began climbing the coaching ladder.
McDermott could have been a well-paid broker out of college, but he chose to be a scouting administrator with the Eagles because he loved the game so much. Now he'll try to convey the same passion to his players that Johnson and Tomlin did to theirs.
"If we want to be one of the great defenses of all time—and that's the vision I've shared with the players—we're going to have to adapt to new things and demand excellence from ourselves," McDermott says. "Last year we finished third [in team defense], but we want to be world-class."
Johnson would approve.