Johnson, 68, had been the Eagles' defensive coordinator since 1999 after being hired by coach Andy Reid. Despite intense chemotherapy treatments, Johnson tried to continue coaching this off-season and even attended the team's postdraft camp in early May, navigating his way around the practice fields at the NovaCare Complex on a motorized red cart.
But before the team's rookie camps later that month, it was announced that Johnson would take an indefinite leave of absence to continue his battle against cancer. Team sources have indicated recently that the chemotherapy treatments have been particularly difficult for Johnson.
"First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers are with Jim Johnson and his family as they battle through this difficult time in his cancer treatments," Reid said in a statement. "I have been in constant communication with Jim and his wife throughout this off-season and they are thankful for all the support they have received from the Eagles organization, the fans and the entire NFL community."
Steve Spagnuolo, the rookie head coach of the St. Louis Rams, knows Johnson and McDermott as well as anybody because he worked together with them for eight years on the Eagles' staff before becoming the New York Giants' defensive coordinator in 2007.
"Jim has meant the world to me," Spagnuolo said by phone from the Rams' training facility. "I know a lot has been said about the success I had moving to New York and the role Jim played in that, and that's so very true. My most valuable years of coaching were those eight years I had in Philadelphia. A lot of that had to do with Andy and the players, but a great deal of it had to do with Jim. He was the guy I spent the most time with, the guy I was with in every meeting. He is who I listened to and who I looked up to in every aspect."
Spagnuolo said Johnson's brilliance as a defensive coordinator was his conviction to the scheme.
"He never deterred from his desire to play aggressive football," Spagnuolo said. "There are a lot of smart defensive coaches in the league . . . but a lot of them would go away from what they wanted to do if it didn't go well right away. Jim was going to stick with it. If there was a bad play, he wasn't afraid to come back with it, and not everybody does that. That's what made him special."
Though Johnson no longer holds the title of defensive coordinator, he still has the role of mentor.
"I saw him three weeks ago at his house," Spagnuolo said. "We talked a lot of football. When you're with Jim, you can't help but talk about football. While I had him for an hour, I bounced some things off him."
Spagnuolo said he also has exchanged text messages with McDermott recently.
"I've tried to be of some help to him," Spagnuolo said. "I think anybody who has had the opportunity to be around Jim and work for him has a very good chance of being successful. Sean will bring his own appeal and intelligence. Ninety percent of Sean's football experience is with Jim and that's a good thing. I just told Sean to believe in himself and trust what you know. I think he'll do a good job."
Reid said McDermott is ready for his new role after taking charging during the team's off-season camps.
"We have full confidence he can continue to lead this defense in his new role," Reid said. "He showed great command and presence in the off-season camps and has had an opportunity to learn from the best in the business. He's very smart, works very hard and has a good rapport with the players and the assistant coaches. He's ready for this and I'm confident he'll do a great job."
Pat Shurmur, the Eagles' former quarterbacks coach who is now the offensive coordinator for Spagnuolo and the Rams, said he also learned a tremendous amount from Johnson.
"He has always been a mentor to me even though we didn't coach on the same side of the ball," Shurmur said. "The first time I met Jim he was coaching at Notre Dame and he came to my high school to recruit me."
Shurmur went to Michigan State, but he met Johnson again a few years later when Fritz Shurmur, Pat's late uncle and another legendary defensive coordinator, was with the Arizona Cardinals. Johnson was coaching the defensive line and defensive backs under Shurmur.
"There were days when I looked down from the press box and I just knew the other team wasn't going to score," Shurmur said. "Jim had a huge impact on the winning years in Philadelphia. Sean obviously has some big shoes to fill because Jim has done so much for that organization and the profession in general."
Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at 215-854-2577 or firstname.lastname@example.org.