Jeff Stoutland is one of the best offensive line coaches in all of the game of football. He's a proven success story who brings out the best in his players, and those players look back on their careers and thank Stoutland profusely for the difference he's made in their careers. The immediate task in front of Stoutland is one of the greatest he's faced: Piecing together an offensive line that will start its 10th combination in 11 games.
There have been injuries. Oh, have there been injuries – starting with Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks in the spring, stretching through Training Camp when left tackle Andre Dillard went down, and then the "land mines," as Stoutland calls them, continued into the regular season with injuries to left guard Isaac Seumalo, right tackle Lane Johnson, left tackle (again) Jason Peters … the list goes on and on. Even now, with the game just two nights away, the Eagles moved guard Sua Opeta to Injured Reserve with a back injury and Peters, who is moving to right guard for the first time, "as questionable" with a toe injury.
How in the world does a coach keep up with all of the moving parts?
"You have to be prepared. Here is the biggest thing," Stoutland said on Saturday in a teleconference with reporters, "we make around here with the Philadelphia Eagles, and around here, in the offseason is the OTAs (Organized Team Activities). And we make so much hay, this is where you build your foundation. And this is where the young players really develop and learn how to play offensive line for the Philadelphia Eagles. And so that kind of thing was, we missed all of that this year. And we really did. And it affected us, believe me.
"I don't worry about that stuff. I just focus on who is it at that position. And then the next guy that's up, we've got to get him ready fast, and get him to understand what we're teaching. So, 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. 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."
Without the benefit of that offseason, the Eagles have done the best with what they've had along the offensive line, traditionally a strong spot and one of the best groups in the NFL under Stoutland's tutelage since 2013. Now they face the final six games of the regular season, beginning Monday night against a Seattle defense that is sure to attack the line of scrimmage, with an offensive line of moving parts that, even hours before kickoff, isn't quite settled.
The news this week that Johnson would miss the remainder of the regular season with an ankle injury that will require a second surgery was just the latest salvo hurled at Stoutland and his offensive line. Without Johnson, the Eagles shuffled the line – sliding Matt Pryor from right guard to right tackle, inserting Jordan Mailata back into the starting role at left tackle, making Peters a right guard, even though he spent only one Training Camp at the position after establishing himself as one of the greatest left tackles in the history of the game.
It's reality for the Philadelphia Eagles and Stoutland.
"I know, and you know, as the season goes on, there's gonna be land mines. Guys are going to get banged up, guys are going to get injured. It happens every single year," said Stoutland, who sits down before every game and plays a "mock game" to consider every possible scenario for this offensive line. Who's in? Who's out? What happens if this guy or that player goes down with an injury?
Stoutland is prepared for anything and everything. But, geez, has this season been over the top with injuries. The Eagles, let's be honest here, don't exactly know who is going to start at right guard with Peters listed as questionable. They now don't have Opeta, so the options if Peters can't play right guard are Nate Herbig, who started for most of the season before a finger injury set him back, and rookie Jack Driscoll. No doubt Brett Toth, claimed off of waivers from Arizona in early October, is cross-training at guard and tackle.
The depth here is, clearly, stretched to its thinnest.
And, yet, Stoutland relishes the challenge of seeing Mailata gaining more experience at left tackle. He wants to see Pryor and his big body and long arms who finished last week's game in Cleveland playing well on the edge, at right tackle in this one. Peters, if he can go, is a "natural" and an "artist" with the way he can assess angles and blocks and work in tandem with Kelce – the ironman making his 100th consecutive start at center – next to him.
Stoutland has no choice but to put out the "best five guys" on his roster along the offensive line, even if nobody in the world would have considered a starting five of (left to right) Mailata-Seumalo-Kelce-Peters?-Pryor for this prime-time, super-critical game on Monday against Seattle.
"What's really saving me, to be honest with you," Stoutland is saying as the interview wraps, "is I really focus on what we are doing in the moment what we are doing for that particular game and that game plan. And I truly try hard, I try my butt off, to not think about anything else. Don't be distracted, focus on teaching the player exactly the line you want them to take, or how to surface (block) this particular guy, this jersey number guy, he does something a little different than that guy. And this is the matchups that we have. And this is what we really focus on."
And on Monday night, the focus will be on an offensive line that is as makeshift as it has been in years, decades, for the Eagles. Stoutland believes. He has the track record that says he can make it work. And that is, as he says over and over, what it is.