The Eagles will officially name Sean McDermott as their defensive coordinator at a 1 p.m. news conference tomorrow.
McDermott, an assistant with the Eagles since 1999, replaces Jim Johnson, who is battling the metastatic melanoma that was discovered in his back during the Eagles’ playoff run last January.
Based on the Eagles’ defensive accomplishments during Johnson’s 10 seasons in Philadelphia, McDermott, the 35-year-old graduate of La Salle High School, has monumental shoes to fill.
“There is going to be a different perspective about the Eagles’ defense,” said Troy Vincent, the former Eagles cornerback who played for five seasons under Johnson. “It’s the same thing in Tampa Bay now that Monte Kiffin is gone. If you don’t think him leaving changes the way people feel about that defense, then you’re fooling yourself. You’re talking about the two people who have been the most consistent defensive coordinators over the last decade. As an offensive coordinator, you have to think, ‘Let me see what McDermott is going to do. I know he comes from the same system, but let’s see if he’s going to call the same game.’ ”
Kiffin, who left Tampa Bay to join his son Lane’s coaching staff at the University of Tennessee, and Johnson have been the two premier defensive coordinators in the NFC for the last decade.
Seventeen was Johnson’s magic number.
Hold the opposition to 17 or fewer points and the defensive coordinator said he felt as though the Eagles would almost always be celebrating a victory at the end of that game.
“Every coach has goal charts when they come in and obviously the first thing you look at is points allowed,” Vincent said. “They don’t score, they can’t win.”
During the last decade, Johnson’s defenses met that goal 55 percent of the time – 88 of 160 regular-season games – and 53 percent of the time – 9 of 17 games – during the postseason. The Eagles went 71-16-1 in those 88 regular-season games and 8-1 in the nine playoff games.
Only Kiffin’s Tampa Bay defenses held the opposition to 17 or fewer points more often in the regular season than the Eagles during the last decade. If you include the postseason, no team has held its opponents at or below Johnson’s target more often.
During Buddy Ryan’s five seasons as head coach, the Eagles’ oft-celebrated defense, with Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White, held the opposition to 17 points or fewer only 30 times in 80 games, or 38 percent of the time. No Ryan defense ever held an opponent to fewer than 17 points in a playoff game.
Great defensive play has helped quarterback Donovan McNabb, head coach Andy Reid, and the Eagles’ trio of offensive coordinators, including the current one, Marty Mornhinweg.
During Mornhinweg’s two seasons as the head coach in Detroit, the Lions’ defense held opponents to 17 points or fewer just four times.
“It’s been a whole lot different here,” Mornhinweg said. “These teams have generally been pretty good, and one of the major factors is defense. Just go back to Donovan in those early years to know what that means.
“Holy smokes, those defenses were so good, and it allowed Donovan and the entire offense to progress. That was a huge factor for this organization, because it took much of the pressure off in many of those games.”
Reid said he knows how fortunate he has been to have someone like Johnson during his entire tenure in Philadelphia.
“I always told him the number was three,” Reid said jokingly last month as the Eagles went through a summer camp at the NovaCare Complex without Johnson, who was undergoing chemotherapy. “I tell him if we score three we should be OK.”
Reid also knows it’s going to be quite different without the veteran defensive coordinator around this season. But he said McDermott is ready for the biggest responsibility of his career.
“I think Jim did a great job of teaching Sean,” Reid said. “Sean was in Jim’s hip pocket all the time, and he developed into somebody that Jim could bounce things off and talk to. I don’t have a concern from a coaching standpoint or a leadership standpoint at all. Sean will be different than the way Jim went about it. But Sean has studied Jim, and Jim has opened up so much to Sean that I don’t think Sean will have a problem.”
Perhaps Reid’s confidence comes from watching former Eagles defensive assistant Steve Spagnuolo become the New York Giants’ defensive coordinator, a move that he successfully parlayed into a Super Bowl title. He is now the head coach of the St. Louis Rams.
“Jim opened up to Spags, but I think he opened up to Sean even more,” Reid said.
Mornhinweg also endorsed McDermott. Mornhinweg said he saw that model in action when Spagnuolo became the Giants’ defensive coordinator.
“Jim is a tough, aggressive, well-versed coach and one of the best ever,” Mornhinweg said. “All of those things are great attributes that can be relied on every day. Youth, however, can be a huge positive, as well as far as the excitement that guy can bring to the table. The other thing is, Sean knows the defense inside and out, and he also may have an idea or two that moves the defense forward and allows it to evolve.”
Still, Vincent said the Eagles have a real challenge ahead without Johnson and departed safety Brian Dawkins around. Asked which man the Eagles would miss more, Vincent called it “a push.”
“Dawk carried out Jim’s plan, and Jim was able to call his game because of the way Dawk played the game,” Vincent said. “Jim’s plan most of the time was based on how Brian was feeling. That combination gave the Eagles a lot of leadership, and those two had a lot of trust and belief in each other.”
And they had a lot of success, too.