Every NFL season has a tipping point, a time when things can go in one direction or the other, and it is easy to pinpoint exactly where Doug Pederson's first year as the Eagles head coach took a turn in the wrong direction.
Following a rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the 3-0 Eagles went into Detroit as the talk of the NFL. Carson Wentz jerseys were flying off the shelves, and Jim Schwartz was the second coming of Jim Johnson. They left Motown with a 24-23 defeat after committing 14 penalties and two costly late-game turnovers.
Losing the game, however, was not the tipping point. Losing a player was.
Lane Johnson knew as he stood in the losing locker room that day that his appeal of a 10-game suspension had expired. He knew there was little chance the suspension for using a banned substance was going to be removed or reduced.
His parting words: "Stay in shape. Hopefully our team is good enough to stay in playoff [contention]. I'll come back fresh."
Johnson's physical condition is irrelevant. Fresh or stale, he will return to a team that is dead. The fourth-year right tackle will serve the final game of his suspension Sunday, when the Eagles play the Ravens down in Baltimore. He will be eligible to return next Thursday, when the Eagles play a home game against the New York Giants. Both games are meaningless and, for that, Johnson bears a huge part of the blame even if his teammates have chosen to be forgiving.
"It is what it is," center Jason Kelce said. "I don't get upset with him. He made a choice, and it [stinks]. I don't think he knowingly did anything stupid. I think he made a mistake, and I don't hold that against him. He's excited to come back now. Obviously he was very frustrated at first. I think everybody was. I think a little bit embarrassed as well. I think he's looking forward to putting all that behind him and just getting out there and playing."
Great. Meanwhile, another fruitless season has passed for a team becoming more and more adept at taking pies in the face.
Johnson's absence has been devastating, and now it is even endangering the health of quarterback Carson Wentz, the foundation of the franchise's future.
"I think the biggest thing - the glaring thing - is that we're on our fifth right tackle," Pederson said when asked what he has learned about Johnson during the player's long absence. "With Lane, we weren't going through this. So you're asking guys to kind of play out of position."
First, they asked Big V - rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai - to fill in for Johnson. After a disastrous debut against Washington, the fifth-round pick out of TCU did a solid job over the next five games before suffering a knee injury that will keep him out of his fourth straight game Sunday.
"I think V, especially for a rookie, went out there and did a great job," Kelce said.
That's nice and could even be beneficial in the future if the Eagles ever decide to move Johnson from right tackle to left tackle, where Jason Peters has been a pillar for so long. But there were times when Vaitai needed help on things Johnson could have done alone, so it obviously impacted the playbook.
Since Vaitai went down in the Week 11 loss at Seattle, the Eagles have had to patch things together even more with veteran Allen Barbre moving from left guard to right tackle. When Barbre was injured Sunday against Washington, Matt Tobin moved into the right tackle spot. It's possible Isaac Seumalo could become the second rookie to start at right tackle Sunday against Baltimore. This is not the suggested formula for keeping rookie quarterbacks safe.
"We've been through the gauntlet along the offensive line," Kelce said.
Johnson has had to watch it all, and if he feels guilty about it he should. In addition to being good, he has also been durable, never missing a game because of injury. But his reputation for never being hurt has been destroyed by the 14 games he has missed because of performance-enhanced suspensions.
"It's too hard to tell what it would have been like with him in there," Kelce said. "Obviously Lane is a great player, and we had a lot of close games, so you would think that he would make a big impact."
The Eagles averaged 28.8 points and 363.8 yards per game with Johnson at right tackle. They have averaged 19.4 points and 331.4 yards in their nine games without Johnson. In his last 32 games, Johnson surrendered just eight sacks, according to Stats. Vaitai allowed three in six games.
And, of course, there's this: The Eagles went 3-1 with Johnson and are 2-7 without him.
"We're just looking forward to next week and getting [Johnson] back," Pederson said.
Why? They shouldn't even play him in the final two games. It does nothing to help the Eagles this season or the next one. Let him sit and watch and ache some more. He deserves more punishment for his role in destroying a once promising season.