Lane Johnson is a Pro Bowl player, no doubt. Just not this year.
The Eagles got him a touchdown last weekend to make a statement about his exclusion from a meaningless all-star game. But, as delightful as it was, watching a 325-pound right tackle catch a pass, the statement was hollow.
Johnson didn’t play well enough, consistently, to make this year’s Pro Bowl. He has not been one of the three best tackles in the NFC. This isn’t a popular opinion to express about one of the most popular Eagles of all time, but it’s supportable — even if it leaves me on an island. You probably disagree.
Lane Johnson disagrees: “I was pissed,” he said this week.
Nick Sirianni disagrees.
“I don’t agree that’s he’s not in the Pro Bowl,” the Eagles’ coach said. “He just deserves so much more credit than he’s getting. This guy is just — I’ve never been around an offensive tackle as talented as this guy.”
Jalen Hurts disagrees.
“I know he may not be in the Pro Bowl, but he better be first-team all-pro for the player he is,” the Eagles quarterback said.
Hurts, somehow, is a Pro Bowl alternate, but that’s a different conversation. Certainly, Johnson should at least be an alternate, right?
Well, maybe. Maybe not. Johnson’s teammate, left tackle Jordan Mailata, has a better case this season.
Hurts very well could get his wish. The Associated Press all-pro teams are selected by the 50 members of the press, are announced after the season ends, and usually better reflect superior performances than Pro Bowl selections do.
Pro Bowl berths, meanwhile, are determined by a three-headed process, weighted equally, according to the NFL: fans, coaches, and players. The press has no vote.
Victim of circumstance?
To my mind, Lane Johnson is the best tackle in the NFL. He went to the Pro Bowl from 2017 to 2019. He’s the second-best tackle in Eagles history, behind Jason Peters. He clearly is the best player on this Eagles team, and has been that since 2017.
But that’s not relevant. What’s relevant is how Johnson played in the first 13 games of the 2021 season. When the Pro Bowl voting ended Dec. 20 — the day before the Eagles played their postponed game against Washington — Johnson had played in just 10 of the team’s 13 games.
Yes, he missed those games because he was dealing with complications from mental health problems. I have great compassion for him. What’s more, I have great admiration for him; his acknowledgment of his struggles give great comfort and courage to many of the millions of people who also suffer from anxiety. Also, I like him.
But he missed those games nonetheless — games that might have buoyed his overall performance.
Johnson said Wednesday that he thinks those absences are what did him in: “Probably because I left. Because of that three-game absence.”
So does the public, apparently. My (unscientific) Twitter poll Thursday drew almost 700 votes; 61% believed his absence cost him a Pro Bowl berth, while 5% blamed the Eagles’ losing record at the time (6-7), and only 2% agreed that he hadn’t played well enough. Then again, 32% chose the joke answer, “Everybody Hates Philly,” which says more about the pollster than the results.
Certainly, missing three games might have played a part in this perceived “snub,” but missing those games probably played less a part than Johnson’s actual play.
According to profootballfocus.com, Johnson currently ranks seventh among NFC tackles this season. When voting closed, he ranked 15th.
Yes, he’s played two more games than Dallas’ Tyron Smith, who has played just 10 games but did make the Pro Bowl, but Smith grades out at 91. Johnson’s at 83. But here’s the only thing that matters: They’d both played only 10 games when the voting closed.
Dallas’ other tackle, La’el Collins, graded out higher than Johnson both then and now. That might not be the best argument — Collins isn’t as good as Johnson — but Mailata, the Eagles’ other tackle, also posted better marks after 13 games and after 15.
Johnson’s grade didn’t suffer only because he missed three games — assuming those games would have improved his grade. His grade suffered because, in the 10 games that mattered, he didn’t play as well as he did in his Pro Bowl seasons of 2017, 2018, and 2019. Further, he played particularly poorly in the first three games of this season. In fact, he didn’t hit his stride until Thanksgiving.
Of course, when he hit his stride, he really hit his stride.
The overall picture gets skewed because Johnson had his two best weeks the last two weeks, in must-win NFC East games, with playoff implications. Awesome. And irrelevant.
Even those performances don’t come close to proving that Johnson had a better overall season than the Pro Bowlers — the 49ers’ Trent Williams, the Buccaneers’ Tristan Wirfs, and the Cowboys’ Smith. It might feel that way now, but it certainly didn’t back in September and October, and the judgment must be made in the proper time frame — all of it.
If you question the validity of PFF’s grading system, then you should disregard Johnson’s No. 2 PFF ranking in 2019. The website also ranked Jason Kelce the NFL’s No. 1 center in 2017, 2018, and 2019. He’s No. 2 this year. He’s going to his fifth Pro Bowl. Kelce earned those grades. He earned this berth — unlike Johnson.