ONE OF the things Chip Kelly referenced yesterday when he was asked about Lane Johnson's progress was that the rookie right tackle has "a great group of older guys to learn from . . . they've really kind of taken him under their wings and kind of fostered that."
This was said in the wake of what Kelly called Johnson's best game as a pro, Sunday's 49-20 victory at Oakland. It also was said against the backdrop of a huge mess being dealt with by the Miami Dolphins, over the treatment of a young offensive lineman by a veteran that allegedly caused second-year tackle Jonathan Martin to leave the team and veteran guard Richie Incognito to be suspended indefinitely for insults and threats to Martin that are being classified as bullying.
Obviously, different personalities, different teams. In the past, there have been Eagles who didn't easily fit into the group, and weren't popular, though they might not have been insulted or harassed for it. Former Pro Bowl guard Shawn Andrews dealt with depression and didn't seem to have a lot of locker-room pals in whom to confide. But this o-line group seems to have assimilated Johnson very well, and his steady development speaks well for the veterans.
"They've embraced Lane," offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland agreed. "Todd [Herremans, the right guard] is always with him. They'll joke around; Lane calls him 'the old dog.' In the middle of a play - I can't be there - so Todd'll say, 'Hey, Lane, I need you to get to be here.' And Lane does that; he's really good about that. Lane does exactly what you want him to do."
"Here it's different," said left guard Evan Mathis, who also has played for Carolina, Miami and Cincinnati. "The most intense hazing we do of our rookies is to ask them to keep waters and Gatorades in our fridge in the offensive line room. Nothing crazy. When a rookie comes in here, especially someone who's the fourth pick in the draft like Lane, you don't want to beat 'em down, you want to make 'em feel comfortable, groom them, bring them along, make them feel like part of the group, so they can help contribute, not feel outcast."
"It's a lot of fun. I come to work every day with a bunch of goofballs," Johnson said yesterday. "It feels like we're out there at recess at practice. Obviously, we're working, but it's fun . . . I feel kind of like the baby brother of the group."
Nine games into his NFL career, the big kid from Oklahoma (6-6, 303) has dealt with quite a learning curve. Stoutland was quick to remind a reporter yesterday that 5 years ago, Johnson was a 202-pound junior college quarterback, and then a tight end and a defensive end, before he started to learn the ways of the o-line. Then there was his marriage and the birth of son Jace, back in August. It has been a bit of a busy time.
"Especially these past four or five games, I think I've been progressing, learning," Johnson said. "You get beat, sometimes you have bad games, but it's just how you recover from it, not letting things get you down. It's probably more mentally challenging than it was in college."
Johnson said, "It's kind of stress relief when you go home" to the wife and baby. "I think it takes a lot of stress out of my life."
What made the Oakland game so good for Johnson?
"He played fast," Stoutland said. "And he played with a tremendous amount of confidence. Don't misunderstand me; this is not a finished product yet. There's still things we can do to improve, and he knows that . . . Lane has so much room to grow . . . But he did play very well."
Johnson said he mixed some jump-sets in with the vertical sets he'd been using in pass protection, and found the more aggressive posture helpful against Oakland.
"My confidence is a lot better than what it was" going into the season, Johnson said. "First game, you don't really know what to expect, but I thought I had a good game. Kansas City [in Week 3, in which Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston notched 3 1/2 sacks] was definitely a setback, but ever since that game I've been learning and progressing. I've just gotten a lot better with my technique."
Mathis talked about the importance of building confidence in a young o-lineman.
"The biggest challenge for anybody is to not let the game be larger than life. Goals are achievable. Blocks can be made. If you have the right confidence and the right technique, then things should fall into place for you. Some guys come in and get overwhelmed, do too much thinking, or their confidence starts to feel the negative impact of overthinking," Mathis said, without ever mentioning 2011 Eagles first-round pick (and current Dolphin, by the way) Danny Watkins by name. "The guys that come in that have the physical ability, that don't succeed right away, sometimes it's just confidence."
Kelly referenced again yesterday how Johnson "rarely makes the same mistake twice, and that's the mark of a really good football player." Stoutland talked of how Johnson has a good attention span in the meeting room, doesn't ever lose focus or start to nod off.
You might think the game would come quickly to someone like that, but Kelly said: "The issue is, you can't show him everything [at once] just because of his lack of experience. I've seen a steady progress as the season has gone along . . . if you want to play here, you've got to be a great effort player, and I think Lane understands that. He's always played with great effort, and as he gets through more experience, as he sees more diverse looks, he's just going to continue to grow."