You've seen all the playoff promos, the ones on television with the images of the quarterbacks and the running backs and those touchdown-making wide receivers whizzing by, and, yeah, that makes sense. Putting the ball in the end zone is the name of the game in the NFL and having those talented skill-position players is what sells and there is a reason they gain all the glory. It's a whole lot harder to score touchdowns, though, if you aren't winning at the line of scrimmage.
And for all the talent the Eagles have put forth in a season during which the offense set a franchise record for rushing yards and tied a team mark for most touchdowns scored on the ground, and, overall, scored the third-most number of points in the history of the football team, it would have been a whole lot more difficult had it not been for an offensive line that went deep into its reserves and put together a historic performance.
All of this has, frankly, left Run Game Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach Jeff Stoutland pragmatic. "Underwhelmed" might even be a better description for the architect of a unit that annually performs at the highest level – an offensive line room of 12 or 13 players – every fall and winter.
"Well, I think there's room for improvement," Stoutland told me when asked how he would characterize the performance of the offensive line this season. "I think they've done a nice job and, most importantly, I really believe that if every day of each week, every player can get that much better and you stack those days and those weeks on top of each other collectively, as a group, I think you're going to see some really great things."
We've seen some great things from an offensive line that has developed – one by one and as a group – and the by-product is that the Eagles have played to their organizational philosophy of being dominant in the trenches and are letting the line lead the way. The shift in offensive approach – becoming a hard-charging, physical, run-first offense that led the NFL in ground yards per game this season – is a direct result of the way they're winning in the trenches under Stoutland's direction. It hasn't been easy, it never is. Stoutland has reached deep into his reserves, proudly. He stands by the idea that every single one of his players has improved – some more rapidly than others, perhaps – and that is what makes Stoutland happy.
Not the accolades. Not the records. Not the headlines. He's here to win football games and make his players better.
And he does it every day.
"Without Stout, of course, I wouldn't be here," left tackle Jordan Mailata said. "Every day, he's on me and he's urging me to improve myself and push myself. I know it comes from his love for all of us, and I also know that we would do anything for him."
As the Eagles prepare for Sunday's playoff game in Tampa Bay, the offensive line has a critical role against a Buccaneers front seven that combines power and speed. For quarterback Jalen Hurts to have time to throw from the pocket or attack the edges with his legs, for the running back corps to have lanes between the tackles, the offensive line has to win. That's it. Win.
No matter the opponent, that is the goal for Stoutland and his line every week.
Stoutland is busy now constructing the run game scheme for Sunday, understanding that his offensive line is as athletic and road-grading as any in the NFL. Center Jason Kelce is a brilliant tactician who dominates at the second level. Lane Johnson and Mailata are bookend freaks who have the requisite size, strength, foot speed, and change-of-direction ability to win on the edges. Guards Landon Dickerson and Nate Herbig are big and strong and nimble. If the Eagles can win here, they can put the ball in the end zone.
Play to the strengths. The offensive line is a strength. Inside the offensive line and what makes it special, Stoutland points to athletic ability.
"I think they move well. I think the offensive line moves very well," Stoutland said. "I think that we can get out in space. Jason Kelce is incredible in space. Lane Johnson is incredible in space. I think Jordan Mailata gave you an example of his ability in the Atlanta game when he went out there and made that incredible block, so I think we're pretty good in space. Getting to the second level in the running game isn't easy and it's hard to work on unless it's full speed (in practice).
"The other thing I really like is the understanding in how to surface blocks, double-team blocks. I think we're really good at that. We put a lot of time into that, talking about that, we do a lot of drill work on that, so I would say that's the strength of our group."
The Eagles are going to need that strength to be at its strongest on Sunday when the playoffs begin. Stoutland has the rest of the week to get his room ready and he intends to use every minute working on technique and discussing concepts and making sure that every one of his players is on the same page. Then it will be game time, and we will also see Stoutland's hard work put into action.
"Every game rep is like a gold brick for these players," he said. "You can't duplicate what that means. Every experience you have on the field, it's going to be something you learn from and, for us, something that makes us better. That's the approach I take into every week we play."