When Carson Wentz fractured two ribs against Tampa Bay on a hit by a third-string linebacker trying to make the roster, the right side of the Eagles offensive line was being held down – quite literally, it turned out – by rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
Every quarterback is only as good as his offensive line allows him to be, so it was welcome news for Wentz this week that right tackle Lane Johnson's expected suspension won't take effect by Sunday. Even if the B sample test corroborates the A sample in the next few days, Johnson would have five days to decide whether to appeal. That takes him, and by extension Wentz, safely past the opener against the Browns.
Or, at least, more safely than if Doug Pederson had to shuffle the line and add another layer of uncertainty to a rookie making his first NFL start.
Pederson, who claims to be bullish on the Eagles' chances this season - which is part of his job - said Wednesday that one reason for optimism regarding what Wentz will accomplish is the fact that the team has "a great offensive line."
Going into Sunday's game with everyone apparently healthy and eligible, the line of Jason Peters, Allen Barbre, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Johnson seems pretty sound. The odds are against that group remaining together, however, and not just because of Johnson's situation. Brooks, the right guard, missed playing or practice time with both a biceps and a hamstring injury during training camp. Left tackle Peters is 34 and has been bothered by back and leg problems for two years.
That's not an unusual prospect for an NFL team. The offensive line rarely makes it through the season as a unit. It happened in Chip Kelly's first season and the Eagles rushed for a team record 2,566 yards. The line has been mixed and matched since, particularly at the guard positions. How well this line can play will have a lot to say about how well Wentz will play, or whether he will make it through the season in one piece.
"Obviously in this league, when you start a rookie quarterback, defensive coordinators have a tendency to pick up their blitzes and see how they handle that," said Kelce, who is trying to rebound from a disappointing 2015 season at center. "We have to make sure the communication is there, so that he knows what's going on, what's hot and what's not. Carson came here attuned to that stuff in terms of protections and blitz pickups, so that's good."
Avoiding a crash on the driving simulator isn't the same thing as doing so in traffic, though, and the offensive line will have to really help out a guy playing his first professional game after only a very brief bit of exhibition experience.
"We want to make sure we get the run game going and try to take pressure off him," Brooks said. "Playing quarterback in this league is tough enough in itself. For a rookie quarterback, it's even tougher. We need to let him focus, go through his progressions and get the ball off."
There is no bubble wrap for the NFL, of course, and Wentz appears to enjoy contact. He's going to run the ball when that opportunity arises and he's going to stand in the pocket and take some shots. Hopefully for the Eagles, he survives that style of play. He'll have a better chance if the offensive line is closer to what Pederson expects and further from what might be more realistic.
"The biggest thing is to boost his confidence. I remember how it was my first game. You get in there and you get a little bit nervous," Johnson said. "We've got a bunch of veterans and we'll make him feel comfortable. If we can run the ball, that will help him a lot. He's already confident, not cocky. He comes to work every day, shuts his mouth and works his tail off. That's all you can ask, and we have his back."
Just as long as he's not on his back.
Cleveland's Ray Horton is known as a blitzing defensive coordinator. He runs a hybrid 3-4 scheme from the school of Dick LeBeau that places five men on the line of scrimmage and gives the opposing quarterback multiple looks. It is a defense that relies on pressure, although there's no way to know if the young Browns defense will be able to bring it.
"Whether it's pressure or playing zone, whatever we think is the best way to defend him, that's what we're going to do," said Cleveland head coach Hue Jackson. "It doesn't have to be any one thing."
But if it is one thing, it will be that thing where the defense tries to knock the rookie around and find out if he really likes it, or only liked it against Western Illinois. Standing in the way of Cleveland's plan is the offensive line, a great one, according to the coach.
For at least one week, they'll all go out there together and see what happens. The kid will be on his own at some point this season, but for now, he'll have company, and he should appreciate that while it lasts.