Eagles Defense: Can Todd Bowles Be the Next Jim Johnson?

Plus: Lance Armstrong stripped of his seven Tour de France titles.

Philadelphia sports teams have had their share of tragic player deaths. The too-early demises of Jerome Brown and Pelle Lindbergh spring to mind. But the improbable events of the past week force us to revisit another awful chapter in the city’s athletic history, one that explains the current mangled state of the Eagles and the panic-button decision-making of Andy Reid.

The July 28, 2009, death of Jim Johnson was a blow to those who knew and played for him. Johnson was a motivator, mentor and friend to many throughout the football community. He also happened to be a superior coach and the man Reid entrusted completely with the team’s defense, to the point that Reid removed himself almost entirely from that side of the ball. With Johnson in charge, Reid didn’t have to worry. More importantly, there was no reason for Reid to interfere.

Johnson’s death left a huge hole in the Eagles’ football administration, one that Sean McDermott and Juan Castillo couldn’t fill. Now, it’s up to Todd Bowles, and though he has promise, he has no experience, so expecting him to replace Johnson adequately–at least by Sunday’s visit by Atlanta–is asking a lot.

Although the Eagles’ defenses haven’t been awful without Johnson, with the exception of the outfit that gacked up leads in the first part of last season, they haven’t been dependable, either. Making a former offensive line coach your coordinator isn’t a good idea. And McDermott’s ascension was out of necessity, due to Johnson’s illness. Given his record last season and this in Carolina (the Panthers were 27th in points allowed last year and are 21st in 2012), necessity is often the mother of disaster.

The worst part of Johnson’s death, from exclusively a football perspective, is that Reid has taken a much larger role in the defensive part of the team. It was he who decided that the wide nine was a good idea. It was he who thought that drafting end Brandon Graham over safety Earl Thomas would best suit his goal of pressuring the quarterback first and foremost. And, of course, it was he who decided to elevate Castillo, perhaps the nuttiest NFL move in the last few seasons, and that includes the Jets’ decision to trade for Tim Tebow.

Without Johnson, Reid does not have someone upon whom he can rely on the defensive side of the ball. Though he tried to bring back Steve Spagnuolo and attempted to lure other proven coordinators to town–without success–Reid has been unable to find someone to whom he could give the defense. Being a rather, ahem, confident man, Reid has believed that he could make good decisions on that side of the ball himself.

That hasn’t gone too well.

It’s possible Bowles could become a first-rate coordinator. He might even do it this year, though he is constricted by Jim Washburn’s wide-nine predilection. The problem is that as the Eagles approach what can be argued is the biggest regular-season game in Reid’s tenure, it’s unlikely Bowles will be able to accomplish that in one week.

And even if Bowles figures out a way to get pressure on QBs when their offensive lines max-protect, even if he concocts fourth-quarter countermoves against offenses that have adjusted to his preliminary gameplans, and even if he can devise a way to create more turnovers, he must get a group of players that has begun to take on its head coach’s arrogant personality to play hard, selfless football. That might be his biggest challenge.

This is hardly an apology for Reid’s situation. His decision to elevate Castillo will be a first-paragraph reference when his Eagles obituary is written. His move to hire Washburn and force the defense to play within the strictures of line coach’s wide nine strategy will be scrutinized for years. It’s just that the man doesn’t know defense. When Johnson was in charge of the unit, that didn’t matter. With Johnson gone, Reid is involved way too much, and it has been highly problematic.

Now, he has turned to Bowles, hoping the fourth-quarter meltdowns will stop. Hoping the Eagles will be able to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. It would be nice if Reid could somehow convince Michael Vick that the football is something to be protected, but that’s a topic for a different day. This is about the defense and the fervent hope that Bowles is good enough to make Reid return to the offensive meeting room and stay there. Call the plays. “Dial up” some different ways to put his players in “better positions” to succeed. Nobody is asking Bowles to be Johnson, especially one week into his tenure.

We just don’t want him to be Castillo. That’s not asking too much, is it?


  • Please, Ruben, please! If the caller ID on your phone has a New York area code, don’t pick it up. It might be Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman trying to entice you into taking Alex Rodriguez. Even if the Yanks pay the juiceless third baseman’s salary, throw in a box of baseballs that he can toss to young lovelies sitting behind the dugout and vow to ship over a productive player the Phils can use at third if they make the playoffs, DON’T DO IT! Rodriguez is a heartless stat machine who is on a fast, steep decline. Talk to every other team in the league, Ruben, but let the Yankees’ call go to voicemail.
  • Iowa is hardly a juggernaut, but the Hawkeyes entered last Saturday’s game against Penn State on a bit of a roll and certainly confident. So much for that. PSU has now won five in a row and faces its biggest challenge to date when Ohio State visits Saturday. A few weeks ago, this looked like a mismatch. But the Nittany Lions’ resurgence and OSU’s recent near-misses against lightweights Indiana and Purdue make this look like a Penn State victory–and another entry on Bill O’Brien’s Coach of the Year resume.
  • Hats off to the International Cycling Union for banning Lance Armstrong for life and taking away his seven Tour de France titles. It’s one thing to use performance-enhancing drugs. Most of the cycling community does that. But it’s another to be an arrogant, bullying, nasty, defiant S.O.B. while doing it. Armstrong made millions by creating a self-image of a man triumphant over cancer and sport. Anybody who read Sports Illustrated’s recent expose of his drug use and aggressive tactics to protect himself understands what a lout Armstrong is. He shouldn’t be allowed on a tricycle, much less be allowed to compete again.