January 25, 2016
In two weeks, the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers will be playing in Super Bowl 50. In two weeks, the whole world’s focus will be converging on Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. In two weeks, Lane Johnson and the rest of his Eagles’ teammates will be watching Super Bowl 50 at home – light years displaced from the unbridled hope and vision they had back in August.
It was a trying, frustrating season for Johnson and the Eagles. Chip Kelly got fired. The front office underwent another overhaul after a 7-9 finish and new coach Doug Pederson will try to piece together a fragmented team that never really knew itself or had an identity in 2015.
All that Johnson, the Eagles’ hulking 6-foot-6, 310-pound right offensive tackle, has left is to reflect on what was learned and what mistakes can be avoided in the future.
“[The Dallas game was] probably the worst the Eagles have ever played in recent history. That was shocking. The plays were designed well. It was just one player missing an assignment on every play. We all looked at ourselves in the mirror. There wasn’t any finger-pointing at each other then – not that early.”
“Going into the season, we were really optimistic, especially after the preseason we had. We expected big things and had a lot of confidence going,” said Johnson, the fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft and Kelly’s first selection as an NFL coach. “After the first game (a 26-24 loss at Atlanta), as bad as we played, it was a reality check and things went south from there. We all had bought into Chip’s system and there was a bunch of big changes. We were all excited to see what could happen with all of the new guys.
“Every group each week confided with our position groups. You’re an offensive lineman, how can you not be excited about getting someone like DeMarco (Murray) and Ryan Mathews. We were anxious to get started.
"After Atlanta, we knew turnovers and penalties killed us. It wasn’t the way we wanted to start. Then we faced Dallas and we thought we would get it right against them. The mentality of this team was to get revenge from the previous year when they made the playoffs. We got tired of losing to Dallas at home. We wanted to make a big statement against them – and that was one of the biggest disappointments all year.
“It’s probably the worst the Eagles have ever played in recent history. That was shocking. The plays were designed well. It was just one player missing an assignment on every play. We all looked at ourselves in the mirror. There wasn’t any finger-pointing at each other then – not that early.”
The Eagles turned things around against the New York Jets and in Johnson’s opinion, that 24-17 victory momentarily saved their season. Johnson admits there was a feeling of desperation in the locker room. The Eagles needed to get some momentum; they were suffering from a crisis of confidence. The Jets’ win was followed by a 23-20 loss at Washington.
“I didn’t play particularly well, I probably had one of my worst games, and no one then was still pointing fingers at each other. We were all just shocked at the position that we were in,” Johnson said. “We were 1-3 and obviously not where we wanted to be. Then you think again when things are going well. We won a few straight games, when we beat New Orleans and the Giants. The whole season was filled with this attitude that we were right there on the brink, and we going to turn this around. We would gain some momentum and try to build a streak, then came another setback. It’s the way it was all year.
“What was so difficult is that we had success the first two years with Chip. I mean, Chip knows how to run an offense when he has the guys he wants. I was able to be a part of that. Going into this season, expecting such great things, and didn’t live up to what we hoped it would be … that was the mantra all year.”
Things unraveled fast. There was a civil war going on in the Eagles’ locker room, some believing in Kelly’s system, and some that no longer did. The doubts reached a flashpoint after the Eagles’ three-game losing streak. The bottoming-out came after the embarrassing 45-14 loss to Detroit on Thanksgiving.
“That was the season,” Johnson said. “Those three games. That’s when everybody was looking around wondering what was going on. We didn’t do anything different on offense. Guys started to blame each other. There weren’t any major blowups; everyone handled things professionally, but there was miscommunication in the locker room. We weren’t where we needed to be.
“As far as the coaching staff, we dealt with our position coaches. Whenever you’re not winning, it never looks good for the future as far as guys keeping their jobs. It was really internal, something we didn’t show to the media, but it was discussed inside (about players’ and coaches’ futures).
“The things we spoke about were turnovers and penalties – and I led the team in penalties. We beat ourselves. Turnovers were something we worked on. We still made them. As far as myself, my position coach (Jeff Stoutland) spoke to me about the penalties. He was definitely right. It’s something I had to clean up. I probably played my best football the last five or six games.”
Johnson felt the real crash came late – against Washington at Lincoln Financial Field. After scoring on their first drive, the Eagles became listless in a 38-24 loss on Dec. 26. It spelled the nadir for Kelly and signaled the beginning of a rebuilding process – Johnson’s second time around with the Eagles, since Kelly took over a 4-12 team in 2013.
“Washington doesn’t have more talent than us, that’s what was disappointing going against those guys the previous two years, being physical with them,” Johnson said. “We did some good things. Whenever we needed to make a play, we didn’t. We just wanted to get in the playoffs. It was the players not making plays.”
On Tuesday, Dec. 29, he was napping when a flood of text messages from teammates arrived informing him Kelly was fired.
“It was unexpected,” Johnson admitted. “Chip wasn’t a dictator. He just had a different style of coaching than I think a lot of guys were used to. There was a lack of communication with the players and him. I don’t know if it was intimidation or guys were afraid to talk to him, but that was probably the biggest thing that needed improvement, the communication between us and him.
“I wasn’t afraid to approach him. I stepped back and did my job and if someone called on me, I would talk. I felt it was up to the older guys to talk to him. It wasn’t my place. I would talk to (Kelly) now and then. We would be with our position coaches all day. We didn’t see him all that much. It was different. Every coach has a different style. Chip had different guys he could talk to, and Chip was professional. He was a lot like Bill Belichick.”
“Chip wasn’t a dictator. He just had a different style of coaching than I think a lot of guys were used to. There was a lack of communication with the players and him. I don’t know if it was intimidation or guys were afraid to talk to him, but that was probably the biggest thing that needed improvement, the communication between us and him."
But Belichick is a future Hall of Fame coach who’s won four Super Bowls and been to the big game six times. Kelly hasn’t won a playoff game.
“I know Chip earned his respect in college, but the league is different,” Johnson said. “I know Chip always said his door was open and I know there were guys that talked to him all of the time. I just wasn’t one of them. I didn’t want to be a coach’s pet or anything like that. I just wanted to do my job.
“Talking to older guys, they told me (Kelly’s style) was similar to when they were in college. I did feel bad when Chip got fired. He drafted me and I wanted to win games for him. I thought when Chip was fired there was some piling on. Some things could have changed and I think that could have involved us talking to him to get over that barrier. But it wasn’t as bad as everyone on the outside made it. He won more games than he lost here. He’ll learn from this in San Francisco. He’ll improve there. My advice to him would be to listen to your players and get good communication.”
Johnson will be entering his fourth season. He began to emerge more as a team leader this past year, becoming more vocal. Above all else, Lane Johnson is an honest, straight-shooter. There’s no filter censoring what he sees and says.
“I want people to see me as honest and forthright,” Johnson said. “People try to be politically correct with their answers. There are things that need to stay in the locker room, but other things, I think, are important for the fans and the media to know. I want to be smart with what I’m doing this offseason. The last few years I beat my body down to the ground.
He said he was going to watch more film of what the NFL’s top tackles do and try to absorb more technique skills to incorporate into his game.
“I’m talking to the Eagles (about a contract extension) and I want to stay here and retire an Eagle,” said Johnson, from Groveton, in southeast Texas, who has a two-year-old son and a daughter due in February. “I love Philadelphia. It’s a hard-working city that has passionate fans who care about sports, and reminds me a whole lot of the town I grew up in. I know Texas is a lot different from Philly, but I know there are a lot of similarities, too.
“I want to be able to play long enough so my son can see me play and remember. Being a dad has put me in a different place in my life and it’s made me a better player. You know you’re playing for more than just yourself. I want to leave a good, solid legacy for my kids as an NFL player.”