Analysis: Closer look at what loss of Pepper Johnson means for Patriots
|01.21.14 at 12:32 pm ET|
No coach on the Patriots roster had a longer relationship with Bill Belichick than Pepper Johnson.
The linebacker was a mainstay of Belichick’s Giants defenses of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and made his bones as a two-time Super Bowl champ working with a unit that included Lawrence Taylor. When Belichick took over as head coach in Cleveland, Johnson followed him as a player to the Browns. And when Belichick became coach in New England in 2000, he brought Johnson on board as an assistant. While Belichick has deep and abiding relationships with most of his assistants, it’s hard to imagine that he’s worked with any longer than Johnson.
“I can’t say enough about Pepper,” Belichick said of Johnson in 2008. “He’s been a great player for me, a great coach for me and a great friend through the years. I have great respect for everything that he’s done in the National Football League and in football.”
And so the news that Johnson will be leaving the Patriots organization is jarring on a couple of levels. First, from a continuity perspective, Johnson has been with the organization in various capacities since 2000. He was the team’s assistant linebackers coach in 2000, led the inside linebackers from 2001-03, was the defensive line coach from 2004-11, and was linebackers coach the last two seasons. Few people know the makeup of the New England defensive scheme and what Belichick wants more than Johnson.
And second, Johnson was the only full-time coach on staff who had experience as an NFL player. That sort of background can go a long way in the locker room. He clearly had an impact on several key players over the last few seasons. He served as something of a part-time coach/advisor for Brandon Spikes, and was extremely tight with Vince Wilfork. Wilfork issued a statement via Twitter on Tuesday, saying, “Pepper Johnson will always be part of my family,” and adding that, “He has always been a constant and a hell of a coach.” (Prior to Matt Patricia being named New England defensive coordinator, Wilfork was an advocate for Johnson to be named DC.)
When it comes to who might replace him, there are a few names out there who could be intriguing to Belichick and the Patriots, including former Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano. Schiano was recently let go by the Bucs but has a history with Belichick, as the two fostered a relationship when Schiano was the head coach at Rutgers.
As for Johnson’s future, he has certainly built an impressive resume with the Patriots. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him show up as a defensive coordinator at the college or professional level sooner rather than later.