The method, or madness, behind Eagle Lane Johnson’s outspokenness
The Eagles' offensive tackle is never afraid to speak on what he knows, and he also isn't afraid to back it up.
Lane Johnson's chair in his stall faces out. While most Eagles have theirs tucked inward, away from reporters during open locker room, Johnson prefers to turn his chair around when he walks in after practice.
The 6-foot-6 tackle will plop down, stretch his legs out, and begin the process of undressing until a media member invariably approaches him. In other words, he's open for business and what often comes out of his mouth will fill notebooks and make headlines.
"I'm the guy with no filter," Johnson said. "But a lot of what I say is how people feel on the inside."
Johnson isn't outspoken about hot-button political or social subjects. He sticks to what he knows. Good thing for him, most questions he receives are about that very topic: Playing professional football. But Johnson doesn't sugarcoat the NFL.
"You can take it with me. I'm going to be original," Johnson said earlier this week. "There's going to be no change from me in the locker room and off the field. I think there's a lot of two-faced guys in this league, put on a good show for the cameras, and then off the field they're scumbags."
In February, after the Eagles won the Super Bowl, Johnson took dead aim at the Patriots and called them a "fear-based organization" with players who "act like [bleeping] robots" during interviews.
Ex-Patriots like Tedy Bruschi and current ones like Marquis Flowers countered Johnson's claims, citing winning Super Bowls as the only fun they needed to experience. While current Eagles defensive end Chris Long said that he enjoyed his one year in New England, Johnson said that he had former Patriots validate his comments.
He isn't likely to hear an endorsement when the Eagles head into Foxborough to face their Super Bowl LII opponents Thursday. It might be just a preseason game, but Johnson said he expects Patriots fans to be in regular-season taunting mode.
"Getting this heated-up matchup early, this simulated game, this is exactly what we need," Johnson said. "A hostile environment. These people don't like me, they don't like our team. What could be better? It's just going to bring the best out of you."
Johnson didn't just suddenly decide to be a firebrand. As Eagles coach Doug Pederson said, "He was born that way." But he has become more candid since serving the second of two suspensions for using performance-enhancing drugs in 2016. Teammate Brandon Brooks called it a "re-branding."
The 28-year-old Johnson said the 10-game suspension and his subsequent success — he was voted All Pro and to his first Pro Bowl last season – has given him perspective. "I've been at the very bottom of this league," he said, "and I've been at the very top."
But he also attributed his training with UFC fighters and watching how champion Conor McGregor approached his toughest challenge to his no-words-barred approach. Talk big and you'll push yourself to perform big.
The NFL prefers that its players avoid controversy. They're coached to project an image and say as little as possible. With the advent of social media and "gotcha" journalism, it's understandable. The players have as much to gain, as well, but even if some feel compelled to express an opinion, they're reluctant because NFL contracts aren't guaranteed.
Johnson, who restructured his deal in March to help the Eagles with their salary cap, has more security than most. But he also works for a coach who has become known for allowing his players to express their personalities – to an extent.
"I think you just got to be smart," Pederson said. "Lane can back it up, too. He's that type of player that can say something like that and back it up. But you got to be careful with what you put out there."
Pederson and the Eagles, per Johnson, did come and ask him to tone down his rhetoric on the Patriots. Johnson, who made his comments on Barstool Sport's "Pardon My Take" podcast, said that he only spoke out because he felt that Patriots owner Robert Kraft and coach Bill Belichick had disrespected their Eagles counterparts before the Super Bowl.
He didn't go into detail about the alleged remarks, nor did he name the ex-Patriots who had first expressed to him that the "Patriot Way" wasn't all lollipops and championships. But Johnson noted that the Eagles had intersquad scrimmages with New England in 2013 and '14 and that "word gets out in this league."
Belichick, to no surprise, didn't have anything to say Tuesday when asked about Johnson's comments. Quarterback Tom Brady never addressed the tackle's pre-Super Bowl description of him as a "pretty boy," although "I heard he didn't like it," Johnson said.
Long said that he didn't agree with Johnson's assessment of the Patriots. But the 33-year-old veteran also said that Johnson's outspokenness was a welcome change of pace.
"Is it stream of consciousness sometimes? Yeah." Long said. "But I think that can be a little refreshing in our society and in our league where 95 percent of everything is bull[bleep]."
Brooks' first four seasons in the NFL were spent in Houston playing for Belichick acolyte, Bill O'Brien. When he first arrived in Philadelphia in 2016 and heard Johnson in the next stall answer questions without pause, his first thoughts were, "Damn, this dude don't give a [bleep]."
But Brooks, who was also voted to his first Pro Bowl last season, said he started to respect Johnson's authenticity and credited him with helping him emerge from his shell.
"As wild as Lane is, he does have a point to a certain degree," Brooks said. "Some of the stuff, you're like, 'That's just Lane.' But some of the stuff he says you're like, 'Damn, I was thinking that, but he [bleeping] said it.'"
For instance, before Saturday's practice in pads, Johnson let out a loud expletive in the locker room as everyone dressed.
"It's training camp. Everybody's [bleeping] tired," Brooks said. "And he was like, '[Bleep]!' I was thinking the same thing in my head, but I wasn't going to say it out loud."
Brooks did speak frankly about his time in Houston when he was asked — after ex-Patriot Cassius Marsh said that he had been "miserable" in New England — how a player could feel that way. He said he had felt similarly, but that he was much happier playing for the Eagles.
But when his quotes ran, aggregate websites regurgitated the story and the headlines became "Brooks rips O'Brien."
"We live in a fishbowl," Brooks said. "Whatever we say, [reporters] write however they want to write it and then it's put out there. And you can't explain yourself once it's out there."
And sometimes a quote taken out of context can provide bulletin-board material for an opponent. Johnson's comments, on the other hand, are almost impossible to get lost in translation. And that is often by design.
He said he studied the way McGregor verbally disrespected Jose Aldo, the undefeated UFC lightweight champion, before they met. McGregor had won the mental battle, per Johnson, because he had talked himself into believing in his superiority. And when they finally did fight, Aldo was knocked out in 13 seconds.
"I think it brings the best out of you whenever you force yourself to be put on a platform," Johnson said. "All eyes are on you. Hey, you're going to get my best, I swear. It's going to make me work harder. And I hope guys in the locker room say, 'Lane's crazy.' But at the end of the day, I think they [bleeping] like that [bleep]."
"It makes us have to back it up every time now," Brooks said. "It makes you stay on your 'A' game."
Johnson said that the NFL should embrace the entertainment aspect of football. Rivalries should be publicized. Trash talking should be encouraged. And truth-telling accepted above all else. He's fine being the bad guy. At least he isn't a fake.
"I don't regret," Johnson said, "any [bleep] I've said."