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A Change At The Top Of Eagles Defense

The speculation about the status of the Eagles' defensive coordinator is over. The Eagles announced, officially, that Sean McDermott is the team's defensive coordinator. No interim title here. Jim Johnson is in grave condition after his re-occurrence of melanoma, and McDermott, who ran the defense in the spring drills after Johnson began an indefinite leave of absence, is now the man in charge of the defense.

This is not easy to write. Johnson is a man everyone loves. He is a gentle, kind, compassionate man. He happens to be a great defensive football coach, and working with him since 1999 has been one of the highlights of my career. But Johnson's health is a serious concern, enough that he is not returning to the coaching staff. Prayers that began months ago upon the news that Johnson was ill must continue with the same verve and sincerity and warmth.

Johnson continues to receive treatment for his cancer and he continues to battle. That is his way. That is his nature. A leave of absence that began in May continues, indefinitely.

Head coach Andy Reid will address Johnson's status and will officially introduce McDermott to the media on Saturday during a press conference at the NovaCare Complex. McDermott is a bright young coach who may very well be a head coach in this league. He is ready for this opportunity, having learned at Johnson's side for most of this decade, first as a defensive assistant/quality control coach in 2001 and then working with the secondary, the linebackers and then the secondary. He has the system down, he knows the personnel and he runs a darn great practice.

But it is going to be different. No question about that. McDermott called the shots for the NFC defense in the Pro Bowl, but he has never done so in a regular season game. He is going to have his own twists to add to the scheme and to the overall complexion of the defense. It will be exciting to watch McDermott grow into the role and to put his stamp on the Eagles' defense.

"Coach McDermott, I can tell you, is a great coach," said safety Quintin Mikell. "He is very prepared and he makes sure you are prepared. He had us ready in the spring, no doubt about it."

McDermott is one part of this very large story, and one that we will learn more about during his press conference on Saturday, and in the days and weeks and months after. Johnson's health, and the stamp he left on this team, this city, and every person who has ever met him, is the other part.

There is no word on Johnson's health, other than the very obvious: He is too sick to coach again. He is clearly in the battle for life and as the tears well up in my eyes and the words spill out, the severity of the situation is spelled out. All we can do is have our great memories, pray, hope for the best. Hope for a miracle.

Reid and the Eagles prepared for what could happen once the depth of Johnson's illness became known. After a heartening post-draft camp, when Johnson was able to get around and coach with the use of his motorized golf cart, and when he addressed the media and showed so much joy just to be back around the players and the coaches and the environment ... it was so uplifting to see that. You realized right there and then why coaches are in this business. This is in their blood. They love the challenge and they love to teach and they love the game within the game. And Johnson was very much in his element, obviously not well but fighting the fight and thrilled to be with the team doing what he does best.

In the camps to follow, though, Johnson took his leave of absence. McDermott ran the show, and by all appearances he did a terrific job. McDermott is an organized, forward-thinking coach. Demanding. Very aggressive. An excellent communicator. His units within the defense have had fine seasons and now he oversees a defense that returns 10 of 11 starters and he heads up a coaching staff that is clearly in a major transition period. Only linebackers coach Bill Shuey is in the same role as he was a year ago, along with quality control coach Mike Caldwell. Rory Segrest is in his first season as the full-time defensive line coach after coaching special teams the last two seasons. Brian Stewart is new to the secondary after his stint in Dallas as the Cowboys' defensive coordinator. Michael Zordich is Stewart's assistant in his first go-around as an NFL coach.

McDermott learned from the best. Johnson is at the top of the charts among defensive coaches in this league. And McDermott will continue to lean on the lessons he learned working with Johnson, time and time again throughout the years ahead.

So, the news is official -- McDermott is the team's defensive coordinator. Johnson's health is a far more important, more sensitive, more heartbreaking story. This is a bittersweet moment for everyone, but the reality is that Johnson and his family know that the show goes on in the NFL. He will still be here in spirit and in wisdom and in passion as McDermott takes the reins and the Eagles' defense takes a bold step into the next generation.

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