Jeff McLane is the Eagles columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He took the time to chat with The Big Lead about his past 23 years at the Inquirer, how Carson Wentz has looked, DeSean Jackson’s potential impact, and more.
Liam McKeone: Thanks for taking the time, Jeff. In your own words, how would you describe your journey from when you first wanted to be in this industry to how you got where you are today at the Inquirer?
Jeff McLane: [It started] when I was younger, reading Sports Illustrated, and kind of falling in love with the written word. A lot of great writers wrote for the magazine back then. I guess it left an imprint. I grew up in the Philadelphia area, so the Inquirer was my hometown paper, and there were writers there like Bill Lyon and Jayson Stark who I got to read on a regular basis. At a certain point, obviously I loved sports and watching sports, but I also liked reading about them [just] as much. In some ways, the writers became… I wouldn’t say heroes, but they were the ones I saw along with the athletes. At the same time, I kind of was like… When I got to college, I looked at the idea of going to law school, but at a certain point, I just figured that wasn’t what I wanted to do. And I kind of started to pursue the journalism/sports writing angle.
I was an English major, so it wasn’t a huge leap for me. I wasn’t a journalism major at Penn State. I had a little bit of a connection with the sports editor at the Inquirer, Tim Dwyer. He had met with me for lunch, I had kept in contact with him for a period of several months, and finally they hired me to be what they then called an editorial assistant. At first, it was the low man on the totem pole. I worked in a lot of various different departments at the newspaper, which was great because I got to learn and see how things were done, not just in sports but in other departments. Eventually they started having me do freelance, like high school stories, a minor event here and there. I was doing a lot of office work too inside: graphics, charts, really anything to help out the sports department. Then I guess at a certain point there was an opening for a city high school reporter, and I got that. Over a period of, I’d say, five or six years, I went from covering high schools to covering colleges, with Penn State football being my primary beat, and then onto the Eagles beat. I’ve been there now for 11 years.
McKeone: Given how unsteady this industry can be, do you have a certain appreciation for being able to stay at the same paper your entire career?
McLane: Clearly, yeah. I’ve been there now for over 23 years. I’ve looked at opportunities and they never worked out or didn’t feel right. I’ve done stuff on the side, whether it be TV or other writing publications, but I have a lot of loyalty towards the Inquirer. It is home, and I love doing what I do. I get to cover and watch football for a living, you know?
McKeone: Was the goal always the Eagles beat?
McLane: When I was first getting into it, baseball was my favorite sport. So I guess the Phillies was kind of my goal, and Jayson Stark had been a hero of mine. At a certain point I just realized that with marriage and kids the baseball beat would have been too much. I had been offered the Sixers beat and the Flyers beat and turned them down because the travel there is almost as bad as the Phillies. I don’t know if I was offered the Phillies beat, but they had mentioned it at some point as a possibility. But the Eagles, I knew, in terms of travel, was something that was kind of doable. And it’s the No. 1 show in town. The Eagles are by far our most followed team in the area. Even when they’re bad they’re still the top story. That’s kind of why I set my sights on the Eagles.
McKeone: The travel aspect is something that doesn’t immediately come to mind for most fans when you look at the different beats.
McLane: Yeah… For the Eagles, there’s six times you have to get on a plane, maybe sometimes less than that. But typically six, maybe seven or eight if there are a couple preseason games you have to fly to. In the offseason, I typically go to the Senior Bowl and the Super Bowl and the owners meetings and the combine… But that’s it. It’s a fair amount. My wife would say it’s a lot. But compared to the other three major beats, it doesn’t compare.
Five Big Things
McKeone: How has Carson Wentz looked, and will he hit the ground running in the regular season?
McLane: Carson has been practicing throughout the summer and he’s had no setbacks coming off back-to-back season-ending injuries– the knee injury in 2017, which was obviously a difficult one to overcome, he missed the first two weeks of last year. At some point last season he suffered a stress fracture in his back and that ended his season as well, but that hasn’t been as difficult to come back from. He pretty much hit the ground running in the spring, hasn’t let up, and– dare I say –he looks as good as he’s ever looked.
He’s four years into this, fourth year with the team, they went out and got some skill position players that should help him as well, he’s got a good offensive line. He got his contract extension in June. Everything is set up for Carson to succeed, and I believe, based upon what I’ve seen and based upon what I’ve seen in the past and also based upon his talent, he should have a really good year.
McKeone: Speaking of those acquisitions, the Eagles acquired Jordan Howard this offseason but also took Miles Sanders in the third round of this year’s draft. How do you see the running back situation panning out?
McLane: Howard, the expectation was that he’d come in and run him a lot on first and second down, use him a fair amount because he’s on the last year of his contract and the expectation being the Eagles wouldn’t sign him to a second contract. But Sanders has really raised some eyebrows at training camp. He didn’t practice much in spring because he had a hamstring strain, so I didn’t really know what to expect, but in the first practice of training camp you were like “Wow.”
You could see it right away. You could see the explosion, the agility, the power, he’s got strong legs. You haven’t seen much of him in the preseason, [but] I think you’ll see a fair amount of Miles on first and second down, maybe even a little third down. But I don’t think they’re going to bury Howard. I think he’s still going to carry the main workload for at least a month. We’ll see how it plays out, but at some point we’ll start to see more of Miles Sanders than Jordan Howard.
McKeone: DeSean Jackson made his return to Philly this offseason. How is his speed going to help open things up for Carson Wentz?
McLane: When you’re talking about taking the top off a defense, I don’t think there’s anybody better than DeSean Jackson over the last decade. And he apparently still has his speed. You see him out there in practice and I don’t see much of a letup. It would be tough to quantify it, but he still looks pretty fast. That will obviously not only give them opportunities down the field but should create a little more space underneath for guys like Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor.
There could be games where he’s almost just a decoy, and there could be games where he’s getting behind safeties and catching balls like he always does, catching touchdowns. They had Torrey Smith in 2017, and he did an okay job.
They tried to replace him with Mike Wallacebut Wallace fractured his fibula in game two last year, so they struggled to find someone to stretch the field. I think DeSean for the most part, while he probably won’t get as many targets and catches as he used to, he will certainly provide that threat.
McKeone: Which rookies have impressed you the most throughout preseason?
McLane: Well, we mentioned Sanders, he would be No. 1. But Andre Dillard, the Eagles’ top draft pick, has looked good. Now, he’s not expected to come in to play with Jason Peters still at left tackle. But Peters has missed various parts of… well, every season, really. At 37 it’s hard to believe he’ll be out there every snap or every game.
If that happens, I think Dillard will be the guy they throw in there. Maybe they slide Halapoulivaati Vaitai out to left tackle, but I think Dillard has already shown an aptitude to play at this level. He’s really athletic, got great feet… The one concern with him right now is obviously understanding how to play at this level, but also he’s got to get a little bit stronger, probably. That won’t take much, but it takes a while to get used to playing against those stronger guys when you go from the college level to the NFL level.
McKeone: From the outside looking in, cornerback seems like the weakest spot on this roster. How will the team look to counter that weakness?
McLane: I would say cornerback is probably their weakest position. I mean, linebacker, but linebacker isn’t anywhere near as important as cornerback. The Eagles scheme, it’s predicated off the front four getting pressure, so that’s typically how they take a little off the cornerbacks. They try to give quarterbacks less time to make plays. The Eagles have a really good pass rush still, but I wonder, at the edges, if they can compensate for Michael Bennett, who was traded, or Chris Long, who retired. Right now, the guys who started last season on the outside, Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby, are hurt– Mills won’t be ready for the start of the regular season, while Darby may be ready for the start of the season.
But if he isn’t, then you have Sidney Jones, Rasul Douglas, and Avonte Maddox in the slot. Those are probably your main three cornerbacks. Each of those guys have played in their first season or first two seasons and started at various times, but there’s been inconsistencies. I think they all have the talent, and at some point you gotta just rip the band-aid off and let them go out there and play. But there will be some setbacks here and there, certainly at that position with the increasingly pass-happy NFL and new restrictions on contact. It’s a tough position. You gotta have a short memory. Unfortunately for Eagles cornerbacks, Eagles fans don’t have short memories.
Five Little Things
McKeone: Favorite stadium in the NFL?
McLane: Lambeau Field.
McKeone: Favorite spot to eat in Philadelphia?
McLane: There’s so many great options… Well, if you’re talking fine dining, Vetri is probably the best place I’ve ever eaten in Philadelphia. If we’re talking… I’m not even going to go cheesesteaks, I’m going to go roast pork, Dinic’s in the Reading Terminal is pretty good.
McKeone: All-time favorite player to interview?
McLane: I’ll go with LeSean McCoy because a lot of times you never knew what he was going to say and, most of the time, he was fairly honest. There were times he was a difficult interview, but when he was good, he was good.
McKeone: What’s one thing about this industry that you wish you knew back when you were starting out as an editorial assistant?
McLane: I mean, it was 23 years ago, so I wish I knew newspapers would go belly-up.
McKeone: What’s one thing about this industry you feel like other people don’t know?
McLane: For me, I cover the Eagles like I’m covering the White House. We’re not fans. I’m sure a lot of sportswriters get frustrated when people think we’re just living out a fan’s dreams.
But it’s a job. One I enjoy and one I’m lucky to do, but it’s also a job and has its pressures and deadlines, obviously. I attack it like a journalist. I try to be as objective as I possibly can, and that means reporting the truth about the Eagles, whether it hurts the team or help the team. It’s not my job to really care about those types of implications.