Rich Hofmann: Stonewall Johnson's troops carrying Eagles

Eagles' Trent Cole has Eli Manning in a scissors hold after fourth-and-1 stop.
Eagles' Trent Cole has Eli Manning in a scissors hold after fourth-and-1 stop.
Posted: January 12, 2009

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Nine stories below where he sat, Jim Johnson's defense toiled. He is normally down among them, cussing and crabbing and calling another blitz from his laminated list of diabolicals. A bad back made him worry about standing and moving for hours, though, so he worked from the press box. He walked there with a cane.

"It was

different," Johnson said. From above, high above, he was able to bear witness. It is hard to verbalize what his defense has accomplished. It provided the stability upon which a rickety 5-5-1 team could build its stunning turnaround. It brought a dead team back to life.

Yesterday, that defense held the New York Giants without a touchdown at the Meadowlands. It now has not allowed a passing touchdown in five games. The transformation, from inconsistent to solid to dominating, has vaulted the Eagles to the NFC Championship Game for the fifth time in eight seasons. In the process, they have left their fan base simultaneously delighted and open-mouthed.

"People say every once in a while that I like to throw the ball around and coach on the offensive side," coach Andy Reid said. (In the Andy-to-English dictionary, "every once in a while" translates to "every hour of every day.")

"[But] I know that you win games on defense in the National Football League," Reid said. "If you don't play good defense, you're going to struggle.

"I'm partial but I've got the best defensive coordinator in the National Football League. These guys believe in him and the things he does, he's kept it fresh for them. He's kept it fresh for 'em, even though he's 100 years old [Johnson is 67]. You noticed today he was up in the box. The poor guy's in the box. His back's aching a little bit, so he called it from up there.

"Coach Paterno was a good example," Reid said.

Except that, well, USC could have scored half-a-hundred on Joe Paterno's Penn State defense if it had kept trying in the Rose Bowl, and the Giants got only three field goals on Johnson's defense in the Eagles' 23-11 victory.

The Eagles' defense is playing with a swagger that knocks people over at this point - especially on fourth-and-1. The first 2 months of the season are completely forgotten.

"It's a great journey, a very, very intriguing, delightful and pleasant journey right now," safety Brian Dawkins said, and the next stop, stunningly, is the conference championship game against the Arizona Cardinals.

Even Johnson, who thought they were a good team, didn't see all of this coming.

"I think it's a very good defense," Johnson said. "We've got a few more games to go and we'll kind of evaluate it at the end of the season, but right now they're playing at a very high level. They're doing everything that we ask them to do - turnovers, big stops, good job against the run for the most part - and they're playing with a lot of aggressive attitude. And I think there's a lot of guys that are contributing . . . It seems like every week there's another guy coming up with some big plays."

Normally, he can hear what happens on a fourth-and-1 better than he can see it. Johnson has always liked it better that way. On the field, he can feel the emotion as his defense begins to dominate. Standing among them, he can read their joy and their disappointment. He can exult with them. He can yell at them. He can be with them.

Yesterday was different. It was from more than 100 feet above the field that he saw the Eagles stuff the Giants twice on fourth-and-short in the fourth quarter. From his perch, Johnson said the first thing he saw was the surge of his defensive line, led by tackles Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson.

But he missed the noise. As cornerback Sheldon Brown said, "You've got a lot of crazy people in that huddle, saying some crazy things and playing their heart out. And that's what they did today . . . It's ironic that we couldn't get 1 yard [earlier in the season] and now we're stopping people from getting that 1 yard. That's crazy."

They couldn't get a yard against the Giants, against the Redskins, against the Bears. It was maddening and it led to so much teamwide inconsistency. Now it is different. Now they have built everything upon the defense instead.

There was so much noise earlier in the season, much of it justified, the result of that inconsistency and underperformance. In the time since midseason, Dawkins said he has felt "a lot of jelling, a lot of coming together, a lot of putting your hands over your ears."

Whatever. The coach has also made some adjustments, and good health has been a blessing, and the result is the result.

"This is by far the best defense that we've ever had," said offensive tackle Tra Thomas, who has been here for 11 seasons. "Just looking back in the past. Especially our front four - those guys out there are just relentless. They get out there and get after the quarterback and allow our corners and safeties to go out there and make big plays."

It has all come together here. We are entering the why-ask-why portion of the proceedings. Out of nowhere, the Eagles are playing in the NFC Championship Game again and that is all that need be explained. The defense is dominating, and that's it.

"It's a collective heartbeat now," said Dawkins, who majored in perspective at Clemson and has obtained his doctorate since. And while you know he believes that in his own heart, well, the old coach is little more steely-eyed and practical. Jim Johnson is about schemes and scheming, about putting players into position and watching them flourish - from the sideline, from the ninth-floor press box, from the conference championship game.

The conference championship game . . .

"It's great," Johnson said, the cane leaning against the podium. "It doesn't get any better than this." *

Send e-mail to hofmanr@phillynews.com, or read his blog, The Idle Rich, at http://go.philly.com/theidlerich.

For recent columns go to http://go.philly.com/hofmann.

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