F rom the moment he purchased the Eagles from Norman Braman in the spring of 1994 and spoke of winning “multiple championships,” it was clear that Jeffrey Lurie didn’t spend a then-record $185 million to be a one-hit wonder.
He was intent on building an organization that would be the league’s “gold standard.” He wanted a team that would compete for the Lombardi Trophy year after year after year.
What he wanted to be was the San Francisco 49ers. The Niners, who were owned by Eddie DeBartolo Jr. at the time and run by team president Carmen Policy, dominated the NFL in the ’80s and early ’90s. They were the kings of sustainability.
They had won five Super Bowls from 1981 to 1994, and made it to the NFC Championship Game four other times. In 18 seasons from ’81 to ’98, they made the playoffs 16 times.
About a year after buying the Eagles, Lurie and his top lieutenant, Joe Banner, made a trip to the West Coast to spend some time with Policy and DeBartolo and pick their brains. For Lurie and Banner, it was like traveling to Tibet to learn the meaning of life from the Dalai Lama.
“Carmen said something that influenced me dramatically, and that I would later pass on to [current Eagles general manager] Howie [Roseman],” Banner said. “Carmen said, ‘I view the [salary] cap like a poker game, where everybody sits down with the same amount of chips to start, and the winner is decided by who makes the biggest bets on the right hands.’
“That was, to me, brilliant insight. For the years that I managed the [salary] cap and the years that I worked with Howie, we talked about that story regularly and lived by that story. It was a crystallizing analogy that I can tell you, 25 years later, still is affecting the way the Eagles manage the cap.
“The question for us always was, what’s the best allocation? Because if you go into a poker game and bet a lot on the hands you lose, you’re going to lose your money quickly. If you bet a lot on the hands you win, you leave the table with the most money.’’
The Eagles used that approach to become one of the league’s most successful teams in the early 2000s. In an 11-year span from 2000 to 2010, the Andy Reid-coached Eagles, with Banner expertly managing the salary cap, made nine playoff appearances, won six division titles, and made it to the NFC Championship game five times before the Super Bowl window of opportunity finally slammed shut.
Much to Lurie, Banner, and Reid’s chagrin, they never were able to win a Super Bowl during that period. But they found a little bit of solace in the fact that at least they were in the hunt nearly every year.
Even though the Eagles finally won a Super Bowl two years ago, Roseman’s goal today is no different than Banner’s was in the early 2000s — make the right bets on the right players at the right positions. Keep the window of opportunity open as long as possible. Give yourself a chance to win every year.
“Somebody asked me the other day, if I looked ahead the next three to five years, what team do I think is in the best position for significant sustained success,” said Banner, who left the Eagles in 2012. “At the risk of showing my bias, I said the Eagles.
“For me, it’s simple. There are five keys to success in this league: quality personnel decisions, quality coaching, quality quarterback play, and strong offensive and defensive lines. The Eagles are in a position for at least the next five years where all five of those boxes should be checked. I can’t say that about any other team in the league.”
Another former NFL executive, Andrew Brandt, agreed with Banner’s sunny Eagles forecast.
“This is a well-managed team with excellent coaching and the guy you want at quarterback,” said Brandt, who was the Green Bay Packers’ chief contract negotiator and cap expert for nearly a decade and now is the executive director of the Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law at Villanova Law School. “The future looks bright. But they’ll be the first to tell you that you can’t rest your laurels on that.”
Since returning from exile four years ago after Chip Kelly’s firing, Roseman and his personnel people have done an excellent job of building the Eagles’ roster. They’ve drafted well, brought in difference-making free agents and done a good job of managing the cap.
That last part has gotten a little easier in recent years, thanks to significant $10 million to $12 million annual increases in the cap. Another big bump is expected soon when the players and owners come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement.
“When I was managing the cap, we had a stretch where the cap barely went up for a few years,” Banner said. “In fact, for the first year of the current CBA [in 2011], it didn’t go up at all.
“But it was manageable then if you were smart about it and had more than a one-year plan. And it’s very manageable now.
“At most positions, the top-paid players are making a lower percentage of the cap now than 10 years ago. And that’s helping every team in the league have more cap room than they should, including the Eagles.”
The cap increases, along with the fact that the Eagles had a quarterback — Carson Wentz — on a rookie contract, has allowed Roseman and the Eagles to re-sign many of their top veterans and invest in the free-agent market more heavily than in previous years.
The Eagles’ Super Bowl team two years ago included several key players who were acquired via free agency, including wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, right guard Brandon Brooks, running back LeGarrette Blount, safeties Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins, linebacker Nigel Bradham, cornerback Patrick Robinson, defensive end Chris Long, Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, and several others.
This year’s team also has a large batch of players acquired in free agency. Besides Jeffery, Brooks, McLeod, Jenkins, and Bradham, they added wide receiver DeSean Jackson, defensive tackle Malik Jackson, defensive end Vinny Curry, linebackers L.J. Fort and Zach Brown, and safety Andrew Sendejo.
“As the Eagles proved two years ago, it’s possible to win Super Bowls now with a roster than includes a lot of free agents,” Banner said. “Used to be, to win a Super Bowl, you had to draft really well and then re-sign those players. That’s still very important.
“But in the past, if you tried to build a team through free agency, there just wasn’t enough money to do it, even if you were good at it. Now you can. The Eagles are one of a limited number of teams that seem to have recognized this.”
Brandt, who worked as a contract adviser for the Eagles for a couple of years after leaving the Packers, isn’t quite as bullish on the strategy of signing free agents as Banner is, even with the ever-expanding cap. But he acknowledged that it has worked for the Eagles.
“I have mixed feelings on that because, in some ways, free agency is the price you pay for not drafting well,” he said. “Ideally, you want homegrown players to fill your most important spots.
“I think we’ve seen with the Eagles of 2011 and the Redskins of several different years that you can’t win with a roster stocked with free agents. But if you fill them in along with your homegrown players, that’s fine. Some of the free-agent deals the Eagles have done, like Malcolm Jenkins, have been home runs. But there have been some losses along the way too.”
Something else that has changed in Eagleland thanks to the salary-cap growth is a willingness to restructure contracts. Roseman has restructured considerably more deals than Banner ever did when he was running the team.
The modest cap increases back then made restructuring risky. Teams that made a habit of pushing money into the future often found their cap clogged with “dead” money from players no longer on the roster three or four years down the road.
Roseman doesn’t want to rely too heavily on contract restructuring to create cap space. But it’s clearly become an acceptable part of his cap management strategy.
“They’re moving with the time,” Banner said. “What might not have been considered a particularly smart strategy back then makes a lot more sense now. You have to be open-minded about the best way in this moment to do things. And that’s what they’re doing very well.”
Over the last couple of years, the Eagles have restructured the contracts of many of their top players, including tight end Zach Ertz, left tackle Jason Peters, right tackle Lane Johnson, and McLeod and Bradham.
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox’s cap number is scheduled to soar from $11.9 million this year to $24.9 million next year. Roseman almost certainly will restructure the All-Pro’s deal.
Some other possible restructuring candidates after this season: Ertz (his cap number jumps from $6.3 million this year to $13.2 million next year), defensive end Brandon Graham ($3.5 million to $13.4 million) and Malik Jackson ($2.8 million to $10 million).
The Eagles have just four players with a 2019 cap number above $10 million — Jeffery ($14.7 million), Brooks ($12 million), Cox ($11.9 million), and Jenkins ($11.4 million).
Next year, they have nine. In 2021, quarterback Carson Wentz’s four-year, $127 million extension kicks in. His cap number jumps from $18.6 million next year (the option year on his rookie deal) to $34.7 million in 2021. So there will be some challenges. But that’s going to happen when you have a roster loaded with good players.
“They’re counting on the fact that some people won’t be there, and they’re counting on the fact that they can restructure some of the deals,” Banner said. “And frankly, they’re counting on the fact that they’ll have some good drafts, and some of the guys that will be making a lot of money or already are making a lot of money, they’ll be in a position to replace with younger, cheaper players.”
Wentz’s contract extension shouldn’t put a particularly heavy cap burden on the Eagles as long as they continue to draft well and sprinkle in cheaper labor. Wentz will count $34.7 million against their cap in 2021, $31.3 million in 2022, $36.3 million in 2023, and $32 million in 2024.
“You’re either all in or all out now with quarterbacks,” Brandt said. “There really aren’t any more $15 million to $20 million quarterback deals. You’re either looking at rookie contracts or you’re going all in on a guy. The key for any of these [quarterback] deals is if things go south. For Wentz, that would be a continuation of injuries.”
Wentz’s health will be a much bigger factor with respect to keeping open the Super Bowl window than his new extension, or even his next one. In a quarterback-driven league, he’s one of the best young players in the game. That is indisputable.
But he’s suffered major injuries in each of the last four years, including three involving broken bones. Since his senior year at North Dakota State, his teams have played 68 games. He’s missed 21, including all five of the Eagles’ playoff contests the last two years.
Wentz made major changes in the offseason that he hopes will help keep him healthy. He’s changed his approach to training, nutrition, and sleep.
“How I was feeling during the season the last couple of years, all of that [made me ask]: ‘What am I doing? How can I improve? How can I avoid some of these things?’ If I had been doing some of these things, I don’t think the injuries would have not happened. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. But it just made me look deeper at how I prepare, how I train, how I sleep, everything I do.”
Bottom line: If Wentz can stay on the field, the Super Bowl window likely will stay open for the Eagles for most of his career. If he can’t, well, all bets are off.
Wentz’s new contract extension, or any he signs in the future, should have no impact on the Eagles’ ability to remain competitive.
“By the most conservative estimates, the cap will be at $250 million by the time Wentz’s new deal is over [in 2024]," Banner said. “So this [contract] will prove to be a ridiculously small percentage of their cap, and very favorable to them.
“Obviously, the higher a quarterback’s salary, the less room you have to cover up your [other] mistakes. But it’s nuts to think you can’t pay a quarterback what is soon going to be $40 million and not have a Super Bowl championship team.”
Said Wentz: “It’s always a fine line. For me, I just wanted to get what’s fair for my family and my kids and my kids’ kids. You’re definitely cognizant of [the cap impact of a contract]. But at the same time, those aren’t things for me to completely always worry about. I trust Howie with that kind of stuff.”
Besides having one of the league’s best quarterbacks, the Eagles’ offensive and defensive lines also are ranked among the league’s best.
Roseman, like Banner and Reid, has made the offensive and defensive lines a top priority. The Eagles’ last two first-round picks have been linemen — offensive tackle Andre Dillard this year and defensive end Derek Barnett in 2017. They signed Malik Jackson to a three-year, $30 million deal in the offseason.
“Our philosophy was — and if you look at how they’re building the team now, it hasn’t changed all that much — is that having great lines doesn’t guarantee success, but having bad lines makes it almost impossible to be really successful,” Banner said. “It’s kind of the first thing you have to make sure you have. And then you can go from there. If some of them are veterans and some are young guys, you’ll still have enough cap room to address other areas. Especially if you’re spending it on the right guy.
“Look at Fletcher Cox. They went really aggressive with him (he signed a six-year, $103 million contract in the summer of 2016). That was a great move. Other teams at the time [were thinking] $18 million [a year] for a defensive tackle is kind of crazy. But look at the impact he’s had on that defense.
“They re-signed Brandon Graham in the offseason. Some people were surprised at how much he got [$40 million over three years, $27 million in guarantees]. I wasn’t. I thought he played well last year, and [defensive end] is a priority to them.
“It’s very hard to have a good offense if you can’t protect the quarterback. And it’s very hard to have a good defense if you can’t attack the quarterback. And the key to that is your lines. I’m not saying that that’s all that matters. But that’s your foundation.”