It is fabulous that Brian Dawkins goes into the NFL Hall of Fame next week… but even more meaningful that Dawkins is giving full credit to his former defensive coordinator in Philly, the late and great Jim Johnson.
Johnson basically invented the deployment technique of moving the free/strong safety all across the defensive formation. He said goodbye to the classic definition of a strong safety and a free safety. If you played either safety position under Johnson, you were fair game to be deployed anywhere but (and including) at the back end of the defense. It was a play-by-play decision from the sidelines.
Dawkins used to play in the box as well as over the top of the defense. He would look to Jim Johnson on the sidelines before every play to get the signal.
“Jim Johnson, what he did with me, I honestly believe he is the one that truly revolutionized the position of safety,” Dawkins said at a press conference in 2016. “He changed it to what it is today because of the way he used me, all over the football field. Now you see those safeties all over the place, but when I came in, that was not the case. I believe that, because of his coaching philosophy, that has happened.”
Dawkins paved the way for safeties such as Kam Chancellor and Malcolm Jenkins, who basically roam the boundaries of the imagination on defense. The same could be said for Troy Polamalu before them.
I might also add that when Dawkins was slowing down footspeed-wise near the end of his career with the Eagles, Johnson compensated with a variety of Helpy-Helperton schemes which dropped linebackers and linemen into fresh coverage assignments. It wasn’t easy to adjust for Dawkins’ slowdown as a mortal aging athlete, but Johnson got his supporting cast of youngsters to go all in for filling the gaps to allow Dawkins to be “sort-of” Dawkins.
Ultimately Dawkins had to be let go because of his decreasing coverage dimensions, and Mr. Johnson of course tragically passed away at too early an age.
But the trademark of an uber-safety had been set for the future.
Dawkins made the Pro Bowl seven times under Johnson, including the 2001, 2002 and 2004 seasons during the Eagles’ McNabb heyday, earning First Team All-Pro honors all three seasons.
Dawkins doesn’t make the Hall of Fame if it were not for Johnson, whom he gives a lot of credit for allowing him to revolutionize the game at safety.
“Without his using me the way he used me, I think I still would have had a good career,” Dawkins said at a conference call last Tuesday. “But if you look at my ability to affect the game in pretty much every statistical category, that had a lot to do with Jim’s running the defense kind of through me a lot of times. And that was unheard of for a defensive coordinator to run a defense through a safety.”
“His willingness to go away from traditional thinking, he allowed me and my gifts to flourish and opened the floodgates. That relationship developed over the years.”
Dawkins finished with 14 interceptions, 10 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, and 334 tackles during that five-year stretch from 2000 to 2004, the highlight years of his Hall of Fame career.
Dawkins had been an Eagle since he was a second-round pick in 1996.
Jim Johnson went to bat for Dawkins big-time in his contract extension year in 2000:
“If I am going to build a football team, Brian Dawkins is my free safety,” Johnson said. “Brian can play strong safety, cornerback, and free safety, and not miss a beat. He has the toughness to play strong safety, and the cover ability as far as playing corner.”
In 2002, Dawkins led the Eagles with career highs in tackles (131) and forced fumbles (seven), while registering three sacks and two interceptions. In a Week 4 matchup with the Houston Texans, Dawkins became the first player in NFL history to record a sack, an interception, a fumble recovery, and a TD reception in a single game.
The sad truth is that both Dawkins’ and Jim Johnson’s physical fortunes went downhill at about the same time. It became obvious during the 2008 run for the NFC Championship (short-circuited by the Cardinals) that Dawkins was slowly but surely losing his playmaking edge.
Jim Johnson was simultaneously suffering from a case of melanoma (first diagnosed in 2001), which was reported earlier in the 2008 season as “problems” with his back. It wasn’t until after the season was over that the Eagles released that the melanoma had degenerated to spinal cancer.
It was then announced around May 18, 2009 that Sean McDermott was taking over the responsibilities as defensive coordinator until Jim Johnson was able to hold the reins of the “E-fence” once again.
Then on July 24, 2009 the Eagles announced that McDermott was permanently taking over as the defensive coordinator. This caused many to fear that Jim Johnson had taken a turn for the worse.
The fears became a reality just four days later on July 28, 2009 when Johnson passed.
“Jim was tailor-made to coach in Philadelphia. He was a tough coach who wasn’t afraid to let you know how he was feeling, but at the same time, he cared about us deeply.” – Brian Dawkins
Paradoxically coinciding with Johnson’s death, Dawkins was not re-signed by the Eagles in 2009. He finished his career with the Eagles starting 182 of 183 games, recording 898 tackles, 34 interceptions, 32 forced fumbles, and 26 sacks.
Dawkins then signed a five-year, $17 million contract with the Denver Broncos. He joined another teammate, Correll Buckhalter, who also signed with the Broncos. The contract included $7.2 million guaranteed and a termination clause that permitted Dawkins to opt out of the contract after two years and receive an extra $1.8 million, virtually making the contract for two years and $9 million. Dawkins could have also earned an additional $10 million in performance incentives.
On December 29, 2009, the NFL announced that Dawkins was the starter of the AFC Pro Bowl team as a strong safety. Dawkins played in 16 of 16 games for the 2009 Broncos. He totaled 116 tackles and 2 interceptions.
In the following two seasons, injuries hampered Dawkins. In 2010, he compiled 66 tackles and 2 interceptions while only playing in 11 games. Dawkins played in 14 games the following 2011 season, compiling just 38 tackles in limited snaps. He was voted into the 2012 AFC Pro Bowl team as the team’s starting strong safety, after an injury to Troy Polamalu prevented Polamalu from attending.
At that point it was just a career-achievement award for Dawkins. He knew, and we knew, it was over. We knew it in 2008. How he hung on through 2012 without Jim Johnson’s schematic compensations I will never truly know.