Here's how it works these days when you want to find out what a pro athlete is thinking: You check the athlete's Twitter and Instagram feeds – yes, including all the possible burner accounts. You check The Players' Tribune to see how the athlete's words and life experiences have been shaped into a shiny piece of self-serving art. You check the locker room during a 39-minute media availability and hope the athlete hasn't decided to take a strategically timed 38-minute, 55-second shower.
Here's how it works when you want to find out what Lane Johnson is thinking: You see him. You approach him. You put a microphone or recorder in front of his mouth and ask him what he's thinking. For instance, Johnson was at his locker Tuesday after the Eagles had finished practice during their organized team activities.
So, Lane, it looks like you've been getting some backlash for some of your comments about the Patriots…
"I gave an honest answer, and if I get backlash from it, so be it," he said. "Most of what I say is pretty accurate."
With that, we were off. From the instant he joined the Eagles in 2013 through his rise into the NFL's best right tackle – maybe the NFL's best tackle, period – Johnson has never been reticent, never been unwilling to answer a direct question or share whatever's on his mind. When the Eagles fired Chip Kelly, as one example, it was Johnson who put himself forward as the face of a long-disgruntled locker room, calling Kelly a "dictator" who had too much power and control over the team.
But ever since he and Chris Long donned those underdog masks and turned themselves into symbols for the Eagles' stunning Super Bowl run, Johnson has, if possible, become even more outspoken. He has directed several of his most pointed remarks at the Patriots, calling them a "fear-based organization" on a podcast, referring to Tom Brady as a "pretty boy," and saying that Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick talked trash to Jeffrey Lurie and Doug Pederson before Super Bowl XLII.
The comments have turned Johnson into a convenient heavy bag for those mid-morning debate programs on ESPN and FoxSports1 – How dare he besmirch the great and powerful Bill? – but he doesn't seem to mind much. Or at all. Besides, being a Super Bowl champion is a marvelous rebuttal. Has he received any feedback on his comments from players around the league?
"I don't need feedback," he said. "Even my first season, I talked to guys from there, and everything I said is accurate. I say, 'Why?' Why? Why do I have to keep quiet? Is there a rule about that? Do you have to be classy? Because the last time I checked, this is an entertainment industry. Am I right? So I think guys are entertained by that – by guys who go against the grain, not showing guys ultimate respect. That's how I feel. …
"I've been in this business long enough. I know what comes and what goes. I'm not really scared to voice my opinion. What are they going to do? Send mean tweets to me? Is that the worst that's going to happen? I think with my adversity, with people doubting me and questioning me, that's when I perform my best."
What Johnson described as "adversity," of course, was the biggest mistake and lowest moment of his career: the 10-game suspension the NFL levied against him in 2016 for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances. It might seem natural that the incident would have made Johnson more reluctant to say brash things publicly. But he said he was so confident that he would become an elite tackle that the prospect of having to withstand some schadenfreude never bothered him.
"I knew what kind of ability I had," he said. "I knew I was probably going to have a Pro Bowl year [in 2016] if I hadn't gotten in my own way. The only person who's ever really stopped me in this league is myself, and I was just ready to show my full capabilities. I've shown it in this building, and I was ready for the world to see it. …
"I think people aren't really used to hearing an offensive lineman speak. It's always a receiver talking. It's always a defensive back. Then they see an offensive lineman speak, and it's like, 'OK, what the hell's he doing talking? Nobody's ever done that before.' I don't know. I kind of want to be the first. I feel like the linemen have never had a voice in this league. Linemen are just the quiet guys who do their jobs and only get noticed if they don't do well. I'm saying, 'The hell with that.' "
His plan, after retiring from football, is to keep talking, he said. Not on TV, though. That would demand too much time away from his family. "I was thinking about maybe doing a podcast," he said. "You know, something to keep me occupied."