Football fans are stuck in the doldrums, and with no wind in their sails, they’re just waiting for the endless (month-long) break between mini-camp and training camp to end. Luckily you have us football writers, struggling furiously to generate enough hot air to fill those sails.
Chip Kelly’s Eagles finished spring workouts full of smiles, with no drama (after the DeSean Jackson release and recriminations) and everyone apparently on board. The team added a lot of depth (if no stars) in the off-season, and to a man they seem to have bought in to Coach Kelly’s concepts of hard work, egolessness, team work and healthy living. This is where one’s sense of self evaporates and is replaced by a feeling of oneness.
Of course, we’ll find out that many of the prospects were non-stars for a very good reason, or they’ll simply be unable to grow fast enough to reach NFL speed and talent levels. This is a very hyper-elite league, and no one has quite figured out the key to predicting who will succeed, which is one reason why Kelly’s “sports science” approach has people excited.
In the place these players are in, there’s a lot of room for discovery and growth. The NFL is analogous with the way science and technology were in the early 1800s, with big advances and discoveries mixed in with lots of general ignorance, superstition and traditions followed for reasons unclear. Sometimes I wonder if half the fun of sports is precisely this mystery, the human variability unconquered by science’s careful note taking. Players fall or rise to greatness in clutch situations – in ways that I hope will never be fully understood.
I don’t think Chip’s approach undermines that at all. My theory is that figuring out the measurable aspects of elite performance will simply highlight the purely human epic greatness that makes athletics special (Am I moving the sails yet?).
The biggest news of late is the reportedly imminent suspension of starting right tackle Lane Johnson for testing positive for PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs). Rumors were first reported by Paul Domowitch of the Philadelphia Daily News and quickly confirmed by every beat reporter anywhere near the city of Philadelphia.
Yet, several days later, there is no official word from the NFL (Meanwhile, former Duck Dion Jordan — who showed up at mini-camp looking “like he took an air pump to his arms and shoulders” — WAS suspended formally by the NFL for PEDs.).
That could mean a couple of things — Johnson may be appealing the decision (He can ask for a second sample to be tested, or argue that a legal substance caused a false positive, though these maneuvers have rarely worked in the past.), or the rumors could be simply wrong, though that seems highly unlikely. Several well-connected reporters have “confirmed” the reports, and Johnson has grown massively from his days as a 200-pound HS quarterback to a 317-pound NFL starting lineman, in just six short years.
If and when the NFL confirms the reports, we may never find out what the substance was; the NFLPA contract doesn’t allow official comment, though the Seattle Seahawks PED testings that were positives last year were said to be for Adderall (which also might mask other PEDs).
This was the second positive PED test for the Eagles this year; backup linebacker Jake Knott (who was already struggling to make the team) was unsuccessful in appealing his 4-game suspension earlier this year. But Johnson is no way a marginal player.
He was the No. 4 draft pick overall last year, and started playing as soon as he suited up. He had some trouble the first few games, especially in pass protection, but learned quickly and missed only one single snap all year. The Eagles’ offensive line was remarkably healthy — every starter played every game, with Jason Peters missing most of the Green Bay contest — and that was a big reason for their late surge last year, where they went 7-1 to close out the regular season.
The first four games, which Johnson would likely miss, are not too taxing except the last one against San Francisco. Indianapolis would have been a very tough opponent with a starting tackle out, until ‘stud’ rusher Robert Mathis was himself suspended for taking unapproved fertility drugs. [To get his WIFE pregnant, thus the term ‘stud’. And it worked, too, by the way.]
In fact, if the 49ers’ Ahmad Brooks doesn’t hand the Eagles a loss in Week 4 or injure a skilled player, this might have some benefits for the team. The offensive line is very strong but its depth is almost completely unproven. Journeyman Allen Barbre will likely replace Johnson, and he should be fine. Barbre looked great against Green Bay last year, including his work against Clay Matthews (who was, admittedly, still wearing a club on his arm). And of his seven NFL starts, all have been at right tackle – Johnson’s position.
Coaches have been very positive about reserve lineman Matt Tobin, a 24-year-old Iowa grad picked up as a UFA last year, but no one else has seen him play a single down. Coming off the bench for Barbre — if the Birds pull away in the Jacksonville or Washington games — would be a great opportunity to test their optimism.
Barbre is 30 years old but remarkably athletic. Jimmy Kempski (of Philly.com — the fierce looking commentator on the right, above) did an excellent breakdown of Barbre’s game, and argues that he is great at pass protection but might struggle a bit on running plays, especially setting the edge on his side.
Speaking of Kempski (whose excellent grade-school-style art graced this column two weeks ago), he got into an entertaining ‘beef’ with two national columnists over how high Nick Foles should be rated. Here’s where it ended up, on Twitter, with Kempski and national NFL columnist Pete Prisco going at each other. The pom-poms reference is apparently Prisco calling Jimmy K a cheerleader:
The fight started when Prisco (of CBS Sports) listed Foles as the “most overrated” Eagle, and Kempski sagely noted that Foles isn’t that highly rated at all. He’s a dull, careful, highly successful QB who avoids the limelight – almost methodically.
The real fireworks started after Prisco appeared on WIP (the wildly popular and rowdy Philadelphia sports megastation), where he was eviscerated by football historian Ray Didinger, wielding detailed statistics and his deep understanding of the game. Kempski merely reported on this event but instead of attacking the highly respected Didinger, Prisco went after Kempski on Twitter (Not a great mark of class, that.).
OK, I’ll admit that Jimmy K. put a little mustard on the meat in his description. For example, “Prisco revealed that he really has no idea what he’s talking about.” And his conclusion (quoting West Wing): “Mr. Prisco, with all due respect, just stand there in your wrongness and be wrong and get used to it.”
Prisco also dug himself a hole. Talking about Foles’ ratio of 27 TDs to 2 interceptions, one of the best in NFL history, Prisco said “Anybody in the league can throw two interceptions if they want to. Anybody.”
Really? Then why don’t they? Too boring?
Anyway, the whole argument is fun. Sure it’s silly, but this is the silly season. So, don’t fight it — simply enjoy it!
Featured photo: from video of “Kempski’s Corner”. Jimmy K is on the right.
Mark Saltveit’s newest book is “Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution” (Diversion Books, NY) has been recently released. He is the author of “The Tao of Chip Kelly” (2013) and writes on science, religion, wordplay and political scandals. He is also a standup comedian and the world palindrome champion.
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