It made for a strange scene in the Eagles’ locker room on Wednesday. About 40 members of the media surrounded Brandon Brooks’ locker to get the right guard’s thoughts on receiving his second straight Pro Bowl invitation.
A few feet away, in front of the very next locker, Brooks’ good buddy and linemate, Lane Johnson, sat alone slumped in a chair.
Johnson was happy for Brooks and the other two Eagles who earned Pro Bowl invitations – defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and tight end Zach Ertz.
But he clearly was miffed that he wasn’t one of the three NFC tackles selected.
A year ago, Johnson was the best offensive tackle in the league. Went up against a Murderers' Row of elite edge-rushers and neutralized each and every one of them.
His uncensored candor – he’s the guy who had the temerity to call Tom Brady “pretty boy’’ before the Super Bowl -- and his two PED suspensions haven’t made him the most popular guy in the league.
But he was so dominant last season that even the players who don’t like him had to give him his due. He made the Pro Bowl and was a first-team All-Pro selection.
He’ll be the first to admit that he probably hasn’t played as well this season as he did last year. But injuries have been a factor. First an ankle injury, then a Grade 2 MCL knee sprain.
He didn’t miss any time with the ankle injury, though it clearly limited him. He missed just one game with the knee sprain, which typically is a four-week injury.
The three offensive tackles who did make the Pro Bowl – the Saints’ Terron Armstead, the Redskins’ Trent Williams, and the Cowboys’ Tyron Smith – all have missed multiple games with injuries this season. Armstead has a torn pectoral muscle and hasn’t played since Week 10. He might not play again this season.
He was playing as well as any offensive tackle in the league before he got hurt, but how do you put a guy in the Pro Bowl who probably is going to miss nearly half the season?
“It [stinks]’’ Johnson said. “It [stinks] for a lot of players. Look at [Green Bay Packers offensive tackle] David Bakhtiari. He’s been good for a lot of years and has never been voted to the Pro Bowl. He’s been [robbed].
“Every year I see a lot of guys who deserve to be there who don’t get invited. It [stinks].’’
Pro Football Focus has a 77.8 overall grade for Johnson this season, which is slightly lower than the 80.6 it gave him last season.
But it’s higher than the grades it gave Smith (77.0) and Williams (76.8). It gave Armstead the highest offensive tackle grade (89.4), with Bakhtiari a close second (88.9).
Does Johnson believe he played well enough this season to deserve a Pro Bowl invitation?
“I don’t know what I deserve,’’ he said. “It is what it is. That’s the way it is every year. What can you do?
“Look at [Kansas City Chiefs defensive end] Chris Jones. He’s second in the league in sacks with 14. He’s an alternate. I see something wrong with that. [Tampa Bay Bucs wide receiver] Mike Evans is second in the league [in receiving yards] and didn’t make it. I see something wrong with that.
“Whenever somebody’s talking about a guy’s season and they say he didn’t have a Pro Bowl year, it must mean he had a good year. Because I look at guys like Bakhtiari who are really good but never were voted to the Pro Bowl.
“So I look at myself and say, there are a lot of [other] guys getting screwed royally every year.’’
Fletch the warrior
Football is a game of attrition. It’s a game of next-man-ups. But there is no next man up for Fletcher Cox. The four-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro is Mr. Irreplaceable.
The Eagles have lost a lot of key players to injury over the last two seasons, including Carson Wentz, Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks, Rodney McLeod, Jay Ajayi. Mike Wallace, and Tim Jernigan.
They managed to weather those losses last year and win a Super Bowl, and have more or less managed to weather losses so far this year and stay in the playoff hunt with two games to go. But if Cox goes down, well, it’s game, set, and match.
Which is why the sight of Cox limping off the field late in the first quarter Sunday after Todd Gurley’s first touchdown run, and then being helped onto a cart for a ride into the bowels of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for medical attention on his hip, was so disheartening.
“When your best player leaves on a cart, sure you’re concerned,’’ said defensive end Chris Long. “But he was riding in the front seat. So that was a good sign. He was able to tough it out and came back and played well.’’
Said defensive end Michael Bennett: “It was worrisome because Fletch has been playing at such a high level. At this time of the season, you need your best players to play.’’
Cox not only returned, he returned and dominated. He made the last three quarters a living hell for Rams right guard Austin Blythe and center John Sullivan. He had a team-high seven quarterback pressures, including a huge third-and-11 sack in the red zone in the second quarter.
Cox, the Eagles’ defensive captain, said this week that not returning to the game wasn’t an option.
“I saw the look in guys’ eyes,’’ he said. “They let me know that they know I’m a fighter, that I’m a warrior. And they know there’s not a whole lot of stuff that can keep me down.
“I felt whatever I needed to do, I was going to get back out there and finish that game.’’
Cox played 57 of 76 snaps (including penalties) against the Rams The week before, he played 79 of 99 snaps in the overtime loss to the Cowboys. He had 10 quarterback pressures, including a sack, against the Cowboys.
“It’s what we need him to do right now,’’ defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “When he went down in that game and we got him back, at first we thought we were just going to use him on third downs.
“We tried to spot him a little bit here and there and put some other guys out there for the first couple of plays and sort of hold him in reserve. But he really didn’t need that.’’
Cox isn’t the only one playing hurt up front. Michael Bennett has been playing on an injured foot for weeks. But injuries to Jernigan and defensive ends Derek Barnett and rookie Josh Sweat have afforded him very little opportunity to rest it.
Bennett, who lines up both inside and outside, played 61 of 76 snaps against the Rams and 74 of 99 snaps against the Cowboys. He had 10 quarterback pressures in the two games, including 1½ sacks against the Cowboys. He has a team-high eight sacks, including seven in the last nine games.
“There’s a lot of good players, but to be great, you have to play through injury,’’ Bennett said. “You have to be able to come back into the game and make big plays when you’re hurt. That’s what Fletch did.
“This time of the season, you just go out there and do what you can. You don’t count the plays or think about how many snaps you’ve been out there.’’
Figuring the Eagles
--While the Eagles defense definitely has had its problems this season, one area it has excelled in is the red zone. The Eagles are third in red-zone defense, holding teams to a 43.4 touchdown percentage. That’s better than last year, when opponents scored on 54.0 percent of their red-zone opportunities. Of course, the Eagles have faced a few more red-zone challenges – 53 already this season compared with just 37 last year. But they’ve held teams to a 39.8 completion percentage inside the 20 (compared with 50.0 last year). Last week, the Rams’ Jared Goff completed just 2 of 10 passes in the red zone. The Rams converted just two of six red-zone opportunities into touchdowns in the game.
--All season long, the Eagles’ run defense has been a tale of two halves. Opponents have averaged 6.3 yards per carry against them in the first half, but just 3.5 in the second half. The Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott and the Rams’ Todd Gurley rushed for 121 yards on 21 carries (5.8 yards per carry) in the first half in the last two games, but just 40 on 19 carries (2.1) in the second half.
--The Eagles forced eight turnovers in their last four games after registering just seven takeaways in their first 10 games. The recent surge in takeaways has had a profound effect on field position and the length of scoring drives. In their first 10 games, the Eagles’ average drive start was the 26.5-yard line. In their last four games, it’s the 34.2. They had a plus-9.9-yard field position differential in their last four games. In their first 10 games, it was minus-1.9. The Eagles had 11 touchdown drives in the last four games. They averaged 55.1 yards per drive. Their 23 TD drives in the first 10 games averaged 71.0 yards.
This and that
--With the Eagles using more 12 personnel the last two games, Golden Tate has been on the field much less. He played just 22 snaps against the Rams and 20 the week before against the Cowboys. The Eagles acquired Tate without a clear idea of how they were going to use him. With the Lions, he was one of the league’s more productive third-down receivers. But in six games with the Eagles, he has just seven third-down receptions, and only three for first downs. “Golden is more of a running back playing receiver than he is a receiver playing receiver,’’ said ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky, a former teammate of Tate’s in Detroit. “I mean that as a compliment. That’s kind of like how Tyreek Hill is with the Chiefs. Golden isn’t the guy you’re going to put out there by yourself and he’s going to go win one-on-one routes all the time. You want to find ways to get him the ball either stationary in space or running against coverage. They just haven’t been able to do that. I don’t know why it’s been so hard to implement him to his strengths.’’
--The more I watch Rasul Douglas, the more I believe they need to move him to safety during the offseason. And while Jim Schwartz won’t admit that right now, I think he agrees.
-- As a former player, Eagles coach Doug Pederson understands the toll a season takes on players’ bodies. He understands that, sometimes, less is more. Wednesdays usually are the first day of intense preparation for the game on Sunday. But Pederson canceled Wednesday’s practice this week and held a walk-through instead. He felt his players needed the rest more than a hard two-hour practice. “It’s futuristic,’’ Michael Bennett said of Pederson’s decision. “Doug was a player and he understands what it’s like for a player to play hard games and have to bounce back. He’s doing a good job of communicating with the veteran leadership on the team and finding ways to, how can we still get the work done but lessen the load.’’