Once the first–team offense is finished with its work in these preseason games, all-pro Evan Mathis walks to the sideline with one thing on his mind.
Watching the scrubs.
“When we come out of the game, we love being able to watch the second team and see them perform,” said Mathis, a first-team all-pro last year. “They’re that good. We love watching them play.”
We’ve all seen Mark Sanchez’s remarkable preseason performance. He completed all but six of his 31 passes in the Eagles’ first three preseason games and led at least two touchdown drives in each game, despite limited action.
Ask Sanchez about it, and the first thing he mentions is his offensive line. Matt Tobin, Dennis Kelly, Andrew Gardner, David Molk and, yes, Lane Johnson.
It’s the Eagles’ second-team O-line, and it’s been just about unstoppable.
“They’ve been outstanding,” center Jason Kelce said. “To tell you the truth, overall in the presason they’ve probably played better than the first team.”
The Eagles’ second-team offense played eight series this preseason and scored six touchdowns. That’s production. That’s 42 points in the equivalent of about three quarters of football.
In the preseason win over the Steelers Thursday night, the second offense even put together an 80-yard touchdown drive against the Steelers’ first-team defense.
“It’s a joy for a team to have a second group like this,” said Sanchez, who has a 112.5 passer rating this preseason. “I know a lot of that reflects on coach Stout [Jeff Stoutland]. He’s very sharp. He has his guys ready each week.
“But those guys have been great. Molk’s done a great job, his first year in the system, he’s really come a long way. Gardner’s played really well, Kelly came back strong from a tough [back] injury, Tobin’s doing great, and then we have Lane right now because Al [Barbre]’s playing [right tackle].
“So it’s a group with a lot of good stories. Guys coming back from injuries, guys making the team for the first time. It’s a really good group and it’s been a real bonus for us.”
It’s a good group and a fascinating one.
Gardner, backing up left tackle while Barbre sits in for Johnson, is with his sixth NFL team but has never started a game.
Tobin, the second-team left guard, spent last year with the Eagles as an undrafted rookie.
Molk, the No. 2 center, was the Chargers’ sixth-round pick in 2012 but out of football last year.
Kelly, the Eagles’ fifth-round pick in 2012, started 10 games at guard and tackle as a rookie.
And then there’s Johnson, working with the second team for now because he’s suspended by the NFL for the first four weeks of the season.
“A lot of times when you see a second-string offensive line, they’re struggling, they’re not really working well together and they’re not doing anything that really translates to what the starters are doing,” Molk said.
“The good thing about what we do, we’re so cohesive. What it comes down to is we’re all friends, we all hang out together, and when we go out on the field it’s probably a different feeling than you get with most second-string lines.
“We’ve been together pretty much the whole offseason, and it’s a unique situation. You can’t hide production, and I don’t know what it is, but Stout says whenever we go out there we have juice. We have a lot of fun and we do it well in the process. We have a lot of pride as a group in what we’re doing.”
The Eagles had no offensive line injuries last year, but that’s the exception.
Before last year, the last time all five starters lasted the entire season was 2006. Before that it was 2000. Before that? We went back to 1990 and couldn’t find another year.
It’s rare. That’s three times in the last 24 years all five guys survived 16 games.
So the better your backup linemen are, the better your team is. The last thing you want is to find yourself with guys like Dallas Reynolds, King Dunlap, Danny Watkins and Demetress Bell running around out there. Like in 2012.
This year, unlike recent years, the Eagles believe they have tremendous depth on the O-line.
A lot of it is untested depth. Tobin, Molk and Gardner have never started an NFL game.
“Dennis Kelly has played well, David Molk has really played well for us at center,” head coach Chip Kelly said. “Really wasn't sure what we had at center when Julian [Vandervelde] went down [with a back injury].
“And then Matt Tobin is a guy we've always been very excited about. He was with us last year on our 53‑man roster and now adding Andrew Gardner, I think there are [four] guys there that have really helped themselves and I think it's giving us some depth and strengthen our team.”
While Johnson serves his suspension and Barbre works with the starters at right tackle, Tobin backs up both tackle spots. Tobin and Kelly can both play guard or tackle. Molk is pretty much exclusively a center, same with Gardner at tackle.
That group will start and likely play into the third quarter Thursday night, when the Eagles finish the preseason with a 7:30 p.m. game at the Linc against the Jets.
“It’s a game, so it’s huge for us,” Molk said. “Preseason, regular season, postseason … it’s a chance for us to go out there and play, so it’s big.”
Johnson won’t count against the 53-man roster once final cuts are made, so the likely breakdown on the final roster is the five starters – Jason Peters, Mathis, Kelce, Todd Herremans and Barbre – plus Tobin, Gardner, Molk and Kelly.
The Eagles could conceivably save a roster spot and release Gardner, since Kelly and Tobin can both back up tackle as well as play guard.
But however it breaks down, it’s been encouraging watching this group perform this summer.
“They are a unit,” Mathis said. “They perform well together. Those guys, every single one of them, they work hard, they communicate well. One thing that might be a little different here than most other places during training is they’re getting equal reps as the ones. Everyone has their opportunity.
“You can’t come here for offseason and training camp and say you didn’t get an opportunity, because they’re going to let everyone get reps and then divide them perfectly evenly throughout training camp, and that really translates into the guys growing together as a unit, making progress together and individually as players. It makes all of us better. Competition breeds excellence.”
Everybody talks about how the backups can learn from the starters. Kelce said in this case, the starters can learn from watching the backups.
“They have great communication and there are a couple guys who’ve been doing it a while and they’ve really brought the younger guys along,” Kelce said.
“They’ve really moved the ball well. They’ve played great. They moved the ball on the Steelers’ No. 1 defense. When you have a two offensive line and a two offense in general moving the ball against another team’s first group, that’s impressive.
“We have a lot of really good depth along the offensive line. Hopefully, we won’t need to use that, but if we do, we have some pretty good guys. They’re fun to watch.”