THERE IS NO JUSTICE on the Eagles' starting offensive line this week.
And there might not be any Justice for a long time.
Starting left tackle William "Tra" Thomas returned from minor knee surgery for the final week of "organized team activity" (known to most of us as minicamp). Previously, Winston Justice took all the first-team reps at Thomas' spot.
Justice, the guy from USC the Eagles were thrilled to be able to draft in the second round in 2006, never got on the field as a rookie. Thomas, 32, rebounded from back surgery last offseason for one of his best, and healthiest, seasons. On the other side, which Justice also can play, 33-year-old Jon Runyan seemed similarly rejuvenated.
Between them, Thomas and Runyan set a franchise record for a tackle tandem - they'd played 102 games together by the end of last season. And Thomas, the Birds' first-round draft choice in 1998, now has the team's second-longest tenure (behind Brian Dawkins, 1996). Thomas' 135 games in an Eagles uniform rank fourth all-time among Birds offensive linemen, behind Chuck Bednarik, Guy Morriss and Jerry Sisemore.
Justice had to think, when the Eagles drafted him, that this was a pretty good situation - both starting tackles over 30, Thomas coming off surgery and a potentially career-threatening blood clot problem. But that isn't how it has played out. With the old guys looking spry, this is a ridiculously deep offensive line, easily the team's most well-stocked grouping. There's no talk of Justice filling in as a guard if Todd Herremans or Shawn Andrews should go down - Scott Young is the guy there, and behind him is massive Max Jean-Gilles.
So wouldn't Justice really like to see Thomas limp off during one of these drills and decide, upon reflection, that it's time to, say, devote himself to evangelism full time?
"I'll never wish that upon him," Justice said. "The only thing I can do is make the best of the situation I have. If it's sitting another year and watching Tra and Jon again, I'll make the best out of it, like I did last year. I can't learn from two better tackles . . . Whenever someone's competitive, in any type of field, and they have success in it, they'll always want to prove they can play. Him being out here, you just have to make the best of it.
"Even though I'm not playing, it's not like I'm not progressing. Having coach Juan [Castillo, the offensive line coach] always working me out at practice, it's almost like a game."
Coincidentally or not, on Tuesday, the second day of practice for Thomas, Justice, dropped to the second team, got in a rare minicamp scrap with rookie free-agent defensive end Marques Murrell. No Justice, no peace? Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said he wasn't worried about Justice losing focus or becoming discouraged.
"Great work habits, great focus and concentration," Mornhinweg said. "And Juan does a nice job of keeping those guys sharp and ready to play."
Justice, 6-6, 320, used the offseason to tone up and get stronger, but Mornhinweg said there were no glaring deficiencies in his game last season, the Birds just never had a spot for him.
"Much of it is acclimation and experience. He's got that [now], so it'll be an interesting preseason for him," Mornhinweg said.
Justice said there was value in practicing with the first unit for much of the spring.
"It's been helping a lot, getting to go against Trent Cole and Darren Howard, and getting to work with Todd . . . it's really progressed my game," he said.
NFL offensive line play often seems mostly about getting your hands on the defender, with leverage. Justice said he's better able to do that now.
"I put on a lot more muscle," he said. "I think it helped my punch in the pass game, my punch in the run game. I really think this extra work I've done is going to pay off."
Of course, Thomas and Runyan want to make sure it doesn't, right away.
Thomas, a three-time Pro Bowler, reiterated yesterday that his goal is to play 20 years, an unprecedented tenure for an offensive tackle. Nine down, only 11 to go. But the way he played last season certainly did nothing to discourage him.
"It made just coming back off this knee surgery seem very small," Thomas said. He said his knee swelled up toward the end of last season, making a minor cleanup warranted.
"We saw that it needed a little work and we went on and did it. That's what the offseason is for, get everything fixed, get back to normal."
Thomas said he's "way better" at taking care of himself than he was earlier in his career, when coaches often felt he wasn't fulfilling his potential. At 6-7, he's now listed at 335, instead of the 349 figure the Birds used for much of his career.
In case Justice is concerned about Thomas playing another 11 seasons, Runyan has encouraging words.
"That's not going to happen," said Runyan, who is embarking on his 12th NFL campaign. "He'd be one massive human scar, after surgery every year."
Both Thomas and Runyan have seen stories about retired linemen who can't walk. Both know there's a balance between wanting to play forever and getting out while crucial joints are still in working order.
"This is the way we take care of our families. I think every man puts himself in some kind of jeopardy to take care of his family," Thomas said.
"There's going to be a point where the graph doesn't work - the money you make vs. the pain you have, those lines don't intersect anymore," Runyan said.
Offensive line is not one of those places in sports where you can just take it a little easier when you get older, like a catcher letting the backup play in day games after night games. Thomas and Runyan really do look over their shoulders. They saw Justice breezing through the linemen's wind sprints last week, looking like a really big tight end. They are unapologetic about wanting to keep the backups off the field.
"That's really my goal at this point," Runyan said, smiling but not really joking. "I tell guys all the time - don't let anybody go in there and show they can play, because you'll lose your job real fast."
Quarterback Donovan McNabb participated in the entire workout yesterday, for the first time since returning to the field for limited work on Monday. McNabb is scheduled to address reporters today, after the Eagles wrap up their final on-field work before training camp starts July 27 at Lehigh . . . The tight end crunch abated with Matt Schobel returning from a hamstring pull . . . Owner Jeffrey Lurie is hoping homefield advantage will help him end the Baltimore Ravens' 2-year run as champs of the NFL softball challenge. NovaCare will host tomorrow's five-team double-elimination tourney, which will feature front offices from the Birds, Redskins, Steelers, NFL office and Ravens. *
Quarterback participated in the entire workout yesterday, for the first time since returning to the field for limited work on Monday. McNabb is scheduled to address reporters today, after the Eagles wrap up their final on-field work before training camp starts July 27 at Lehigh . . . The tight end crunch abated with returning from a hamstring pull . . . Owner is hoping homefield advantage will help him end the Baltimore Ravens' 2-year run as champs of the NFL softball challenge. NovaCare will host tomorrow's five-team double-elimination tourney, which will feature front offices from the Birds, Redskins, Steelers, NFL office and Ravens. *