NOTHING ABOUT this ordeal has been easy, for Lane Johnson or for the Eagles. So maybe it is fitting that Johnson will take the field Thursday night against the Giants, all of two practices and three days into his return from a 10-game PED suspension.
Asked if working out with a few rehabbing major league baseball players in Edmond, Okla., is different from being in football shape, Johnson said: "Oh, yeah. Y'all see me huffin' and puffin', don't feel sorry for me. I'll try to get some oxygen on the sideline . . . We'll see if I'm up to it."
When Johnson had to leave the Eagles following the Oct. 9 loss at Detroit, his wish was that the team would still be in the playoff fight when he returned. That wish was not granted. The Eagles, 3-1 coming home from Detroit, went 2-8 while their right tackle was out.
Johnson watched, powerless to help, as Washington's Ryan Kerrigan abused fifth-round rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai the next week at Washington. Johnson saw Vaitai find his footing, more or less, only to go down to an MCL sprain in Seattle Nov. 20. Johnson could only shake his head at the TV screen and text his friends in sympathy when left guard Allen Barbre moved to right tackle, only to be felled by a hamstring injury three weeks later against Washington. Matt Tobin came in for Barbre and suffered an MCL sprain just before the end of that game. Rookie guard Isaac Seumalo became the Eagles' fifth right tackle of the season, Sunday at Baltimore, and unbelievably, he suffered a high ankle sprain (relatively mild) on the first series of the game. Seumalo stayed in and played well, but the Eagles lost their fifth in a row.
Johnson, the Eagles' most effective o-lineman at the time of the suspension, has never missed a game because of injury in his four-year NFL career. As he watched from Oklahoma, the Eagles' plan for replacing him, and then the season itself, went down in flames.
"I didn't like it, I can tell you that much. It was a (lousy) situation," Johnson said Tuesday, after his first Eagles practice in more than two months. "It was definitely not something I enjoyed . . . It seemed like everybody who stepped in at right tackle ended up getting hurt. It ended up being musical chairs. It messed up the continuity of the line. That's something that you really need to be successful."
There was much remorse, as Johnson had told the Daily News two weeks ago.
"It's something that weighs on my mind all the time. Even right now, when I'm with the team," Johnson said Tuesday. "I feel like a lot of things could have happened differently with the season. I'm not saying one player can do that much, but I feel like I could have helped the team, in a lot of good ways."
Johnson said he is mindful that the Eagles drafted him fourth overall in 2013 to "play tackle for them," not to sit out suspensions; this one was so severe because he missed the first four games of 2014 after testing positive for what Johnson has said was Adderall.
"They need me on the field. That's where I haven't been . . . Four years in, I've really only played three," Johnson said. If he ever tests positive again, he will be suspended for at least two years. "Three strikes and I'm out. I know what's at stake. I believe this will bring the best out of me as a player, and hopefully, as a person."
The suspension voided guarantees in his five-year, $56 million-plus contract, but Johnson was the only offensive lineman the Eagles drafted during the three-year Chip Kelly era. They still need Johnson to be a bulwark, as they try to build around rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. Can they depend on Johnson?
"Yeah," he said. "This is hard. I don't care who believes it or not, but words can't express anything; I'm just going to have to show by actions. Over the next few years, just less talk and more action."
There were no recriminations upon his return. If any teammates resented what Johnson's failed drug test did to their season, they kept those thoughts away from reporters.
"They had my back," Johnson said, even though "I failed the team."
"Good for the team. Good player," said Barbre, who said he is healed and will move back to left guard for Thursday's game. Barbre served a four-game PED ban that led to his release by the Seahawks in 2012. "I don't think any of that matters. I think what people want is to win."
Offensive coordinator Frank Reich told reporters "you could feel the energy" Johnson was bringing. Asked if it was hard not to think of how the season might have been different, had Johnson not tested positive for banned peptides after taking what Johnson said was an amino acid supplement that did not list them on the label, Reich said:
"I guess it would be easy to go there, but you're always so wrapped into the next opponent that you really don't have time to go there mentally. But, certainly, a good player that we've missed."
Of course, everyone has had plenty of time to process their feelings and get ready to move forward. Johnson took the drug test in June. Word surfaced of the looming ban on Aug. 9. It seemed to take forever for the suspension to be announced, then Johnson appealed it, allowing him to play the first four games. The appeal was denied.
"I saw it coming for a while. It just sucks that the process took so long," Johnson said.
Johnson has filed complaints with the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board over stipulations in the collective bargaining agreement having to do with drug testing that he alleges the NFL and the players' union have agreed to bypass, without notification to union members. Johnson said Tuesday he expects those complaints to be dealt with in the next few months.
"I'm on a few people's (bleep) lists, but I've got a few people on my (bleep) list, as well," Johnson said. He said he thinks the next CBA will reflect players' concerns on these issues.
"I still feel I'm one of the best right tackles in the league, if not the best right tackle that there is," Johnson said. "Having said that, I've still got a lot to prove. I'm going to keep proving that every day that I'm out there."