The Philadelphia Eagles Must Answer The Lane Johnson Question

Sep 25, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles tackle Lane Johnson (65) in action against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lincoln Financial Field. The Philadelphia Eagles won 34-3. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 25, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles tackle Lane Johnson (65) in action against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lincoln Financial Field. The Philadelphia Eagles won 34-3. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

Lane Johnson’s suspension derailed the Eagles’ season. Whether the team can count on the exiled lineman in the future emerges as the Philadelphia Eagles’ biggest offseason conundrum.

On the final play of their ill-fated last drive, the Philadelphia Eagles lined up in a shotgun formation. Four yards behind a patchwork offensive line stood rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. At the snap of the football, three wide receivers ran patterns. Tight end Zach Ertz, stationed next to Jason Peters, joined them. Running back Ryan Mathews, positioned next to Wentz, immediately vacated the backfield to run a checkdown route.

On the defensive side of the line of scrimmage, Washington Redskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan placed his hand on the ground and waited for his opportunity. Matt Tobin, the Eagles’ fourth option at right tackle, was the only impediment standing between the sack specialist and the quarterback. Kerrigan blew past Tobin and throttled Wentz, forcing a fumble that teammate Trent Murphy recovered. Ballgame.

In the quest to assign blame for the Eagles’ loss, fans and pundits have a number of culprits from which to choose. One could point a finger at Tobin, though it seems unfair to attack a backup lineman for failing to block one of the NFL’s elite blitzers.

Perhaps Eagles head coach Doug Pederson should have called a play that provided support for his overwhelmed tackle. Was it too much to ask for a chip block from the tight end? Maybe Wentz should have made a better pre-snap read and changed the protection. A critic may even fault Ryan Mathews for running a route instead of staying in the backfield to block.

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Any of these critical avenues are worthy of exploration, but they all miss the point. The Redskins ultimately prevailed because the Philadelphia Eagles could not count on the one man they handsomely paid to neutralize pass rushers like Ryan Kerrigan. The outcome of this frustrating game- indeed, the entirety of this lost season- can be directly attributed to the absence of Lane Johnson.

The lineman’s suspension for performance-enhancing drugs has destabilized a solid offensive line and has disrupted the flow of the offense. Though the Eagles initially may have planned to replace the aging and increasingly expensive Jason Peters with Johnson, the importance of stability at left tackle to the development of Carson Wentz might require them to reconsider.

Howie Roseman and the Eagles front office must carefully weigh the cap rewards of a possible transition with the risk of entrusting an essential position to a player who has not established a track record of dependability.


Ten years ago, author Michael Lewis published The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. Though most people identify the book as a chronicle of Michael Oher’s personal journey to the NFL, The Blind Side also serves as a compelling account of the evolving importance of the left tackle in

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Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports /

football. Lewis attributes the elevation of the  position to the revolutionary impact Lawrence Taylor made on the game. Taylor, the legendary New York Giants outside linebacker, wreaked havoc on opposing offenses and struck fear in the hearts of many a quarterback.

Overmatched offensive tackles could not handle Taylor’s unique mix of speed and power. Quarterbacks, most of whom were right-handed, could not see the Giant linebacker bearing down on them from the left side. The results were as predictable as they were devastating for the offense. Consequently, Taylor accumulated 132.5 sacks and ended his career in the Hall of Fame.

As scouts scoured the country for the next Lawrence Taylor, coaches schemed to mitigate the pass-rushing advantage the Giants enjoyed. The antidote to Taylor arrived in the form of more powerful linemen who were less likely to be pushed around and pummeled. However, as Lewis writes, “size alone couldn’t cope with the threat to the quarterback’s blind side, because that threat was also fast.

The ideal left tackle also had great feet. Incredibly nimble and quick feet…He had the body control of a ballerina and the agility of a basketball player.” Left tackles would be charged with protecting a franchise’s most important (and lucrative) asset against the existential threat that players like Taylor posed.  

Think about it. The difference between success and failure in the NFL can be measured in fractions of seconds. In this minuscule stretch of time, careers are solidified or shattered. A quarterback with 2.5 seconds to make a throw is less likely to make the correct read and set his feet to deliver an accurate pass than his counterpart who is afforded 3.0 seconds. Time shapes the narrative. If the Eagles’ offensive line played better against the Bengals, for instance, do you think the stories about Carson Wentz’s faulty mechanics would have found their way into the sports conversation this week?  

Since the 2009 season, the Philadelphia Eagles generally have not had to worry about the play of their left offensive tackle. Jason Peters, who assumed the role at that time, has built a resume that might land him in Canton.

Peters’ quick burst off the line at the snap of the football seals the edge of the pocket, enabling his quarterback to make a throw without having to worry about potential threats arising from the blind side. Carson Wentz joins a long list of quarterbacks who have benefited from Peters’ exemplary play. However, instability within the rest of the line has stunted the rookie’s development.

Which brings us to Lane Johnson. Johnson, the Philadelphia Eagles’ first round pick in 2013, played well enough in his first three seasons with the team to earn a six-year contract extension worth $35.5 million in guarantees. Like Peters, Johnson possesses the qualities talent evaluators seek in offensive tackles. He is big and athletic, boasting the foot speed required to thrive at the end of the line. Given the size of both their contracts, many foresee the Eagles phasing out Peters in favor of the younger Johnson.

There is just one problem with this master plan: Lane Johnson has not proven himself a reliable contributor. In the space of four professional seasons, Johnson has landed on the suspended list twice for PED violations. During his current 10-game exile, the Eagles have lost 7 of 9 games.

Johnson’s self-inflicted error effectively derailed the season. Without him, the Eagles have been forced to ride the right tackle carousel. First to assume the role was rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Though Big V acquitted himself well, a sprained MCL in Seattle forced him out of the lineup. Next, Allen Barbre, who had been playing well alongside Peters at left guard, was shifted to right tackle with mixed results. An injury in the Redskins contest forced Barbre to the sidelines, which compelled the Eagles to press into service reserve lineman Matt Tobin.

Tobin, who apparently injured his knee on the penultimate play of the Eagles’ doomed drive, was simply unable to block Ryan Kerrigan with any degree of effectiveness. Therein lies the difference between 6-7 and 5-8; between the possibility of the postseason and the premature end of the regular season.

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Is Lane Johnson ready to accept the baton from Jason Peters? Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

In truth, it was probably a bit optimistic to expect the Eagles to make a playoff run in Doug Pederson’s first year at the helm of a rebuilding program. Nevertheless, the developments of the 2016 campaign will present the Eagles front office with some hard choices about the future direction of the franchise.

No decision will be more important than the assessment made on Lane Johnson. Can the Eagles depend on Johnson to take personal accountability for the supplements he ingests? Is he worth the risk of cutting a cornerstone player like Jason Peters? Can Johnson handle the burden of replacing Peters? Of protecting the blind side of Carson Wentz? Of affording Wentz the ability to realize his considerable potential and assume the mantle of franchise quarterback?

Next: Philadelphia Eagles: Birds Fight Valiantly, Fall 27-22 to Skins

The Lane Johnson question is not one that lends itself to easy answers. But the Philadelphia Eagles brain trust must get it right. Nothing less than the future professional welfare of Carson Wentz rests on it. Good luck, Howie Roseman.