The eve of the season has come, and with it the time of handwringing. This is especially true of teams that are expected to be good.
What issues lurk that might knock a team off its road to the Super Bowl? Will the Patriots survive a raft of coaching departures? Does Rams running back Todd Gurley still have a left knee? Is Cajun cooking a youth elixir for 40-year-old Saints quarterback Drew Brees?
The Eagles have more issues than most good teams. Is franchise quarterback Carson Wentz, the team’s most valuable player, fully healthy, and can he stay that way? Will the surgically repaired right foot of defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, the team’s best player, be ready for the opener? Will the homecoming of speedy DeSean Jackson, who is seldom content, be a love-fest all season long?
Of all the Eagles’ worries, the handwringing-est of them all is the least sexy.
Will the incomplete offensive line be able to survive the first few weeks?
It wasn’t ready on opening day last season, and it wasn’t much better through the first five games. The team that averaged 28.6 points in 2017 on its way to a Super Bowl title managed just 20.6 through the first five games of 2018, while the rest of the NFL enjoyed a points explosion. The team began 2-3.
Granted, there were other factors. Super Bowl hero Nick Foles played like a backup to start the season. Carson Wentz returned in Week 3, long before his surgically repaired knee was truly fit to play. Alshon Jefferey missed the first three games recovering from shoulder surgery.
But, more than anything, the line wasn’t prime. It won’t be prime when the Birds knock heads with Washington on Sept. 8, either. That’s an accepted fact.
“That’s the one group, I think offensively speaking, that there has to be that cohesiveness with that group,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson admitted. “I think any time you disrupt that group, there can be a little bit of that timing that’s off, but it only takes a few practices and maybe a couple of weeks to get that back.”
Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks, who ruptured his right Achilles tendon in the playoff loss at New Orleans in January, missed all of the preseason and won’t be near 100 percent come Sunday. Right tackle Lane Johnson, a two-time Pro Bowl selection and the best lineman on the team, has been bothered by a left knee problem that traces to last season, and Johnson was shut down for three weeks after the team’s first preseason game.
In the preseason, Halapoulavaati Vaitai replaced Brooks at guard, where Vaitai has never played. Jordan Mailata replaced Johnson at tackle. Mailata is a 22-year-old former rugby player in his second season. He has never played an NFL regular-season game. Johnson returned to practice after the third preseason game and will be ready for the season, but he won’t be as ready as he might have been.
Handwringing? Completely warranted.
Why is the line more important than Wentz’s rust and fragility, Cox’s presence, or Jackson’s attitude? Because an elite offensive line diminishes all of those issues.
An elite line keeps Wentz from getting hit and gives Wentz more time to make decisions. An elite line keeps the Eagles defense off the field, which helps both in Cox’s absence and when Cox returns, since he won’t be in game shape. An elite line allows Jackson the extra second or two he needs to blow past coverages, which makes him a better target more often, which is the only thing that will keep him happy.
The Eagles have an elite line. As well it should be, considering the five projected starters have combined for 15 Pro Bowls and five All-Pro selections and will make almost $40 million this season.
Last season, left tackle Jason Peters wasn’t fully recovered from knee surgery, All-Pro center Jason Kelce wasn’t right all season, and Isaac Seumalo replaced Stefan Wisniewski as the starter at left guard after the fourth game. Like last year, the Eagles are hoping that experience trumps practice.
“We’ve played next to each other a lot. I’m pretty comfortable with whoever’s in the game,” Kelce insisted. “I think we’re really, really fortunate as a team to have the caliber players we have, in backup roles, who could start on any other team. And I’ve had a lot of work with ‘V.’ ”
Most of the weight rests on the shoulders of Brooks and Johnson. Expect Washington to play all sorts of games with sack machine Ryan Kerrigan stunting from the edge. And the Eagles had better hope Brooks is ready, considering Vaitai’s history with Kerrigan: He baptized Vaitai in 2016 when “Big V” gave up two sacks at D.C.
He was a rookie then, just learning the position. He’s learning again.
“Everything happens a little bit faster [at guard],” Kelce explained. “It’s more of a phone booth. You don’t have as much space. Little things, like stepping on feet, spacing, fitting blocks so you’re really hip-to-hip when you’re double-teaming, really understanding what a guy’s going to do and how he’s going to react — he’s gotten better and better at anticipating.”
Stepping on feet?
“Yeah,” Kelce said. “He’s given me the black-and-blue toenail a couple of times.”
Clearly, Vaitai will never be Brooks; but then, not many guards play at his level.
“A lot of guards have to get in a three-point stance to move people. He can primarily be in a two-point stance, because he’s so powerful,” Johnson said. “He makes it look easy. Some people get turned off by that. Then you see other guys in film and they can’t do the things he does.”
Brooks won’t be doing those things at his usual level of proficiency right away, and he won’t have done those things in concert at all with the other four players.
“Yeah, we’d like to have reps, but you can’t really do anything about it,” Johnson said.
Brooks shrugged and minimized the importance of rehearsal.
“We know how each other plays,” he said. “Strengths and weaknesses. We’re not all that concerned about it.”
Pederson agreed: “I will say, they’ve all worked together for a long time, and so there is some familiarity there.”
Familiarity is nice.
Practice is better.