Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Jim Johnson and the Peter Principle

July 31st, 2009 · 2 Comments

JimJohnsonAs noted at the end of our mission statement, we reserve the right to occasionally veer away from the esoteric in favor of more mainstream topics that tickle our fancy. And so we’d like to spend a few minutes ruminating over the passing of Jim Johnson, arguably the greatest NFL defensive coordinator ever.

A bold claim, for sure—many an NFL fanatic would prefer to bestow that title upon the cantankerous Buddy Ryan, the brains behind the 46 defense. But what separates the two was Jonhson’s refusal, time and again, to leave the Philadelphia Eagles for a head coaching vacancy elsewhere. Ryan somewhat sullied his legacy with a couple of mediocre head coaching stints. (Do you remember his tumultous Arizona Cardinals days? Yeah, neither did we.) Johnson, by contrast, never showed the slightest iota of interest in a promotion; he was perfectly content to play second fiddle in Philly.

Media shy to the fault, Johnson never really explained why he didn’t aspire to become an NFL head coach. His boss, Andy Reid, attempted to address the issue in a press conference two days ago, but his words shed little light. (“I think he knew this was a great situation.” Yeah, thanks, Scoop.) Our own take, though, is that Johnson was blessed with that rarest of gifts: the self-awareness necessary to realize that he’d fall victim to the Peter Principle should he try to move up the ladder.

If that sounds like a slam, believe us, it’s not intended to be—quite the opposite, in fact. The Peter Principle, which postulates that workers are eventually promoted one notch above their competence level, applies to so many situations because so few people have the ability to understand their talents. And so countless of organizational disasters have ensued due to outsized ambitions.

Johnson may have known on some level that he lacked a certain skill set required to successfully head a team. Maybe he just didn’t want to spend time dealing with egos rather than focusing on X’s and O’s. Whatever—the point is, Johnson chose instead to pour everything he had into building and managing one of the most consistently feared defenses in NFL history. We’ll never know how he might’ve done at the helm, but we can all be certain that he was a blitzing genius.

Rest in peace, Coach Johnson. And may future executives in the non-sports world learn from your tremendous-yet-humble success.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Gramsci

    Are we saying best DC ever period, or best not to have gone on to a head coaching career? There’s someone up in Foxboro who has to be mentioned if the former.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Gramsci: Fair point re: Belichick. No question, he deserves to be in the best-DC conversation.

    But you have to remember that Johnson did a lot of his best work during the salary cap era–a lot tougher, given that you lose starters every year. I was always impressed by how the Eagles were a perennial fixture atop the defensive rankings, regardless of the personnel that Johnson had to work with.

    That said, Belichick did earn those two SB rings while DC of the Giants. Tough to argue with that.

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