In 2018, Lane Johnson was playing with a left high-ankle sprain when he made that injury worse and sprained the MCL in his left knee, during the Eagles' Oct. 28 victory over Jacksonville, in London.
That, and a high-ankle sprain suffered against the Giants last Dec. 9, provided much of the background to the ankle procedure Johnson underwent at the end of August, which kept the Eagles' 30-year-old Pro Bowl right tackle out of last week’s season opener at Washington.
“I feel a lot better this week. I’m ready to go,” Johnson said after Thursday’s practice, in which coaches chose to make him a limited participant, after he practiced fully on Wednesday. “Today we dialed it back a little bit on the practice, so then [Friday] I’ll be full-go again.”
Johnson’s ability to play this week is huge for the 0-1 Eagles as they host the 1-0 Los Angeles Rams and their formidable defensive front, led by defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Neither rookie right tackle Jack Driscoll nor second-year right guard Nate Herbig was physically dominated at Washington, but they did look like two guys who hadn’t played much – Herbig got a total of three snaps as a rookie. Sorting out blitzes proved quite a challenge. Putting Johnson next to Herbig ought to upgrade both positions.
Should Johnson play this week? A medical source with experience in such matters thought this might be a little soon after the “tightrope” surgery Johnson had, which he said he needed after further injuring his unstable ankle. Johnson said he reinjured himself in “the scrimmage.” The Eagles' only scrimmage was held at the Linc Aug. 30, but Johnson was already being held out of practice by then. He must have meant the first day of live hitting, more than a week earlier.
“It happened in the scrimmage. Basically, when you have a high-ankle sprain, that ligament in there that connects the two bones [fibula and tibia] ends up tearing a little bit. So it pretty much got ‘re-tore,’ and they had to go in there and fix it,” Johnson said.
“I won’t be 100 percent, but I’ll be able to play. As long as I’m not feeling pain, I just gotta get my [practice] reps, get out there, get some game action, and then I think I’ll be fine. Just have to deal with the swelling; that’s really the main issue.”
In the procedure Johnson underwent, a polyethylene band is fastened to the two bones to stabilize them. The medical source said players usually take 4-to-6 weeks to return from this, and a man as large as Johnson (6-foot-6, 317) might require the full six weeks; on Sunday, Johnson won’t be much more than four weeks past surgery, at the most. The medical source also said this would seem to be something that should have been identified and fixed at the end of last season, as the Eagles were once again shaking up their medical and training personnel.
Johnson said he doesn’t expect any more problems.
“So basically, ever since that Jacksonville hit, I had a high-ankle sprain and an MCL and I played through it,” he said. “And then really, last year, it felt unstable, but I was able to play effectively. … This was kind of a ‘fix-it’ for me, so I finally got it addressed, got it taken care of, and I think it will only get better as the season goes on.”
It seems less and less likely that the Eagles really thought Johnson might play at Washington, though that was the impression left right up until game day. The Eagles' All-Pro right guard Brandon Brooks suffered an Achilles tear in June, then the team saw left tackle Andre Dillard go down to a biceps tear in August. They had no experienced depth to rely upon, when Johnson couldn’t play.
“I was really pushin' last week. Just really, the swelling was a big issue,” Johnson said. "I think the bus ride there was about 2½ hours, it swelled up pretty big, ballooned up on me.
“All you have to do is gain back the strength, appropriate extension in that leg. It’s getting a lot stronger. Last week, trying to ramp up on it, the swelling would get bad, and then we’d have to deal with that, but now it’s starting to roll over, and I’m starting to feel good.”
Johnson did not want to delve into the fact that since Doug Pederson became coach in 2016, the Eagles are 36-17 with Johnson in the lineup and just 6-12 without him. Of course, that disparity has a lot to do with 2016, Pederson’s first season, when the Eagles were a 7-9 team and Johnson served a 10-game league suspension after failing a banned substance test for the second time.
“I don’t know. I think it all goes down to execution,” he said. “Last week, I don’t think we ran the ball very effectively [17 carries, 57 yards]. My mindset is, if we can take the pressure off the passing game, if we can run the ball effectively, then that makes our team a lot better. Going into this week, I’m just fired up to play, fired up to be around my guys. I’m just glad to be out there on the field; that’s going to be my main focus, and get a win.”
The trip to Washington wasn’t much fun for anyone, especially Johnson, who watched from the sideline as his teammates blew a 17-0 lead into a 27-17 loss.