The gauzy drowsiness that had come over Lane Johnson on Oct. 8, when he suffered a concussion against the Cardinals, had lifted last week, and once it had, he started looking ahead. He had time to. He had not cleared the NFL’s concussion protocol in time to suit up for the Eagles’ Oct. 12 game against the Panthers, and the Eagles wouldn’t play again until Monday night, against the Redskins. That gave Johnson more than two weeks to rest and heal, to survey the Eagles’ upcoming opponents and appraise the influence he could have on the team’s fortunes.
That influence will be significant. Over the Eagles’ remaining 10 games, they will face the following pass-rushers: the Redskins’ Ryan Kerrigan, the Broncos’ Von Miller, the Cowboys’ DeMarcus Lawrence (twice), the Seahawks’ Michael Bennett, the Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul, and the Raiders’ Khalil Mack. Each of them is counted among the NFL’s elite, and each of them plays either left defensive end or left outside linebacker, which means each of them will line up across from Johnson and his right-tackle position, which means it will be primarily his responsibility to prevent them from rudely introducing themselves to Carson Wentz.
Put simply, one cannot overstate Johnson’s importance. The Eagles’ regression last season once he began his 10-game suspension for violating the league’ policy on performance-enhancing drugs has been well documented. In the game-and-a-half that Johnson missed this season because of the concussion — his first, he said — Halapoulivaati Vaitai did not embarrass himself, and the Eagles beat Arizona and Carolina. But all things being equal, they would prefer Johnson be out there, obviously. So would he.
“I feel like I’m ready to go against the best,” he said Thursday, after the Eagles had practiced. “I’m looking forward to going against Kerrigan, Von Miller, all those guys who they say are the best in the league. We’ll see what they can do.”
It was a telling turn of phrase, those final six words. No, Johnson wasn’t curious how he would fare against those six pass-rushers. He was curious how they would fare against him. It betrayed Johnson’s self-confidence, his sense of how he stacks up against the other right tackles in the NFL. And make no mistake: For all the speculation that he will move to the left side someday to succeed Jason Peters, Johnson is in no rush to make the change. Why would he when he regards himself as the league’s top right tackle?
“I think I’m the best,” he said. “You’ve got to have two good tackles nowadays. Look who I’m going against. I don’t think anybody’s better than Von Miller. You think anyone’s better than Khalil Mack? I think all that left-tackle stuff is out the window now.”
That he said this after being suspended twice for PED violations, after vowing to excel this season without the aid of inappropriate pharmaceutical assistance, was striking. When an athlete is punished for using PEDs, fans, media, and even his peers often frame his actions in one of two ways. Either he was dumb (Didn’t he look at the label on the bottle?), or he was devious. But there’s another category: the athlete who uses PEDs out of weakness, who doubts that he can maintain a particularly level of play without the stuff he’s not allowed to have.
Johnson entered the University of Oklahoma as a quarterback who weighed about 200 pounds and is now a lineman who’s listed at 317 pounds. Not only did he insist that he hasn’t sacrificed any strength for the sake of being all-natural, but he said his tainted reputation motivates him.
“They think I’m a ‘roid-head, that I may not be mentally there or something,” he said. “That’s what I want them to think, so when the time comes and I get on the field, I think they see I’m a different breed of guy.”
Who are they? They are the defensive ends and linebackers across from him, the people watching in the stands and their living rooms. None of them has taunted him about his past, he said, or talked trash to him on the field. He just conjured up their contempt and mockery within his mind.
“I just think that’s a stigma with me,” he said. “It’ll always be with me. When I go out there, I want to put things on film that other people can’t do, other tackles can’t do. I want to wow people, reassure them that I’m for real. I’m not trying to be arrogant, but I’ve had a long time off, and it’s time for me to reach my full potential. When that happens, I don’t think there’s a lot of guys who can compete with me.”
The next 10 games will pose as stern a test as Lane Johnson could ask for, and the stakes are as simple as they are high. If he passes, the Eagles will, too.