Lane Johnson was prepared for the worst as he ran through the tunnel during pregame introductions Thursday night at Lincoln Financial Field.
"I just ran out of the tunnel as fast as I could," he said. "I was expecting a lot of boos, but they showed me love. I was surprised. I joked about it with some of my teammates before the game. I thought about holding up a sign saying, 'I'm sorry.' "
Instead, Johnson did something much more effective. He went out and reminded us all why the Eagles missed him so much during his 10-game suspension. He was a dominant force during the Eagles' 24-19 win that prevented the New York Giants from clinching a spot in the playoffs.
"We started out with a boom, got good momentum and usually when that happens, it goes well for us," Johnson said.
That, of course, is exactly the way the Eagles' season started. They won three of the first four and looked like a playoff contender before Johnson exited for Oklahoma after losing his appeal on the second banned substance suspension of his career.
Nothing much went right for the Eagles after that.
"I failed the team this year," Johnson had said upon his return Tuesday. "Could have been a lot different. That's on me."
Nobody lined up to argue with the 6-foot-6 right tackle who is talented enough to be a Pro Bowl player, but you understood after his return why his teammates and the Eagles' decision-makers still want him around. Johnson's only Kryptonite in his first four seasons has been the banned substance, which has resulted in two suspensions totaling 14 games.
Johnson's suspension this season should have irked his teammates and coaches more than it did, but you did not get the sense they were all that angry with him when he returned to work Monday morning to prepare for the game against the New York Giants.
"Lane . . . walked in to say hello to the quarterbacks, and it was a good sight," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "And they were happy to see him as well."
The reason is simple. Johnson's teammates know exactly how good he is. They know he was playing as well as any right tackle in the league before his suspension and they know when you have him on the right side and nine-time Pro Bowler Jason Peters on the left that you have the makings of one of the league's better offensive lines.
"[NBC announcer] Cris Collinsworth is going to tell us the Dallas Cowboys are the best, but I think we're pretty good whenever we're all healthy and together," Johnson said. "I think collectively we're top five."
Johnson reminded us all exactly how good he is on the Eagles' first series when the offense went 78 yards on seven plays for a touchdown. The drive started with a 17-yard run by Ryan Mathews that was sprung by a Johnson block. The touchdown came on a pitch right to Darren Sproles. The outside lane was open because Johnson had overpowered Landon Collins, the Giants' Pro Bowl safety.
As Johnson returned to the sideline, he was greeted by a smile and a hug from defensive end Connor Barwin, who was also on the long list of Eagles happy to see Johnson again.
"I can't even remember what he said," Johnson said. "Probably some cuss words, but he was happy."
Johnson was pretty happy, too. He had spent the last 21/2 months keeping in shape by working with some professional baseball players back in Oklahoma and painfully watching his teammates go 2-8 without him. They are 4-1 with Johnson this season.
The way Johnson played late in the game was just as impressive as the way he played early.
The Eagles' last score of the evening came on a 41-yard field goal by Caleb Sturgis on a drive that started with a 13-yard run by Sproles. The NBC cameras spotlighted Johnson driving defensive end Kerry Wynn 15 yards downfield on the play.
"To be honest it just felt good to get back on the field with my guys," Johnson said. "Not being able to play the game that you love knowing that it was self-inflicted is a hard pill to swallow. It's two strikes and from now on I have to be more careful."
It was all very lovely except for the part that no matter how well Johnson played he could not reverse all the damage that had been done during his absence. You could argue that Johnson was not responsible for all the drops by the wide receivers this season or all the false starts charged to Peters - there was another Thursday night bringing his season total to 10. You also cannot blame Johnson for all the defense's late-game failures in tight games, although the D finally managed to hold a lead with Johnson back in uniform Thursday night.
You can blame Johnson for forcing the Eagles to use five different players at right tackle, including rookies Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Isaac Seumalo.
Reich tried to put a happy spin on that scenario earlier this week. He gushed about how well Seumalo played in his first start at right tackle Sunday in Baltimore and the Eagles were thrilled with how well Vaitai played in six starts before suffering a knee injury.
"One of the real positives is all our draft picks have really looked good," Reich said. "It gives us versatility. It gives us depth."
That's nice, but what the Eagles could have really used over the previous 10 weeks was Lane Johnson and we saw exactly why Thursday night at Lincoln Financial Field.