In Game 16, a Sunday nighter in front of a national television audience playing the role of spoiler in the NFC East, the Eagles will be in that unfamiliar role in the familiar, and very uncomfortable, position of patching together an offensive line that could very well have its 14th different starting combination in 17 weeks. The opponent is Washington, a team that opened the season with eight quarterback sacks against Carson Wentz and a group that is probably the best in the NFL with four former first-round draft picks stretched end to end – and another former first-round pick off the bench – speed to the end of the night and the kind of collective power that just doesn't come along very often in this league.
Left tackle Jordan Mailata is in concussion protocol and a question mark for Sunday's game, making for the very real possibility that the Eagles are going to be forced to shake things up once again at the line of scrimmage. Jeff Stoutland, ever the offensive line coach who loves challenges, won't blink if he has to put a young player like Brett Toth out there at one of the tackle spots because, well, Stoutland has been doing it all season.
"It's all about the teaching of the player who's there at the moment and keep the young players, the guys that are at the backup roles, keep them sharp, you know, really demand from them in meetings," Stoutland said before the Eagles played Seattle at Lincoln Financial Field. "Really push them like they're in a game. I say to them, I go, 'Look, I want you to pretend that you're literally the starter here and you're going into a game.' That should be your mindset in these meetings each and every day."
If Mailata can't play, the Eagles will have their fourth left tackle of the season (Andre Dillard, Jason Peters, Mailata) at the position. If Matt Pryor – the third right tackle of the season behind Lane Johnson and Jack Driscoll – doesn't start there on Sunday night, the Eagles would start their fourth man at that spot, too (Brett Toth? Is there another option?). When right guard Brandon Brooks was injured in the spring, the domino impact at that position was intense (Nate Herbig, Pryor, Jamon Brown, and Jason Peters have started there during the course of the season). At left guard Isaac Seumalo, Herbig, and Sua Opeta have started games this season.
Only Jason Kelce, the Pro Bowl center, has been a constant.
And you wonder why the offense hasn't had much traction this season?
For Sunday night in this 2020 season finale and then in the offseason after that, the Eagles have a lot to consider along their offensive line. A team with four wins heading into Week 17 has a lot to think about, anyway, but the offensive line has to be among the very most important decisions to make. For years the offensive line has been a strength in Philadelphia, one of the best in the NFL, and a reason that the Eagles – through the Andy Reid years, through Chip Kelly's seasons, and all the way through the first four years with Doug Pederson that included a Super Bowl victory – have been one of the winningest franchises in the NFL.
The Eagles invest in the offensive line. They understand the importance of winning up front.
This season, it's been hard to win there with so many iterations of starters.
"It hasn't helped things," Pederson said earlier this week. "It's obviously an important group and if you don't have continuity, it's very tough to be at your best."
If there are silver linings here, it's that some of the young players who have had extended reps have improved each week out. Mailata has the makings of a quality starter at tackle. Herbig has shown versatility at both guard spots. Pryor is probably more suited as a guard, but he's at least been able to play tackle with some strong moments. Driscoll had a bunch of injuries in his rookie season, but as he gets bigger and stronger, he could be a quality player along this line.
Brooks, who ramps up his rehab this week with a return to the practice field in a limited capacity, will have had a full season-plus to heal from his torn Achilles tendon and would return a best-in-the-game presence upon his return. Johnson, who had ankle surgery nearly a month ago, says he will be 100 percent for 2021, and having Johnson and Brooks together on that right side will boost the line in a big way.
"I'm glad to put this behind me. It was tough to play through and I'm excited to come back with Brandon for next year," Johnson said. "No looking back. This is something that has probably hindered me for quite a while, and I will be ready to rock and roll next season.
"This year it's been interesting. A lot of young players have stepped up and done really well. You can't replace game reps, so every time these young players play they are going to improve and be better for it. They will benefit in the future."
Philadelphia opened its season at Washington with Jason Peters at left tackle, replacing the injured Dillard, who should return fully healthy and wiser in the system entering his third year. They will have Seumalo at left guard. Kelce has been an end-of-the-season, is-he-coming-back-next-season? question mark for the last couple of years. Brooks is, if he's healthy, the right guard and Johnson, health questions there as well, is the right tackle. On paper, it's promising with players like Mailata, Driscoll, Herbig, and Pryor having gained valuable experience this season.
Will the Eagles add to the returning manpower? How much confidence will they have in post-injury recoveries?
"The offensive line, that's where it all starts," Pederson said. "If you don't have it going on up there, it's hard to get your offense going. We've found that out this year."