Former Eagles president Joe Banner is doing a weekly Q&A with Inquirer Eagles reporter EJ Smith. This week, the two discuss Banner’s take on the Josh Sweat contract extension, the impact of Brandon Graham rupturing his Achilles on the team, and the upcoming matchup between the Eagles and Cowboys.
EJ: Last time we spoke, you said you didn’t expect to see Josh Sweat sign an extension before getting a better sense of his value this season. Why do you think he ended up signing a three-year, $42 million extension now, and what did you think of the deal?
JB: We discussed why I didn’t think there would be a deal and why I actually still think there shouldn’t have been a deal but there is. I don’t know how you really value him. On one hand, he had seven sacks in three years. On the other hand, he had seven sacks in one year and has shown incredible improvement as a consequential pass rusher and was 15 games away from being a free agent.
He [thought] the upside was not great enough to not pass up the opportunity to be financially secure. I’ve never disagreed with any player making that decision, but you should make sure that you’re getting enough guaranteed money in the deal. I don’t think he did that. Personally, I would have waited, bet on myself. I wouldn’t have considered anything unless the guarantees were such an unusually large percentage of the deal that the security it provided me was worth any money I may have left on the table.
Give the Eagles credit, had I been running the team, he was somebody I would have tried to sign. But from a player’s perspective, I just don’t think that deal got large enough, the structure, the guarantee, wasn’t large enough to give up the chance to test the market.
EJ: What about the draft process that led to them taking Sweat? In the last five years or so, we’ve seen the Eagles take chances on guys with serious injury histories, including Sidney Jones, Landon Dickerson, and Sweat. Some have paid off and others obviously haven’t. What do you think of that approach?
JB: I like that approach. We used it in the years I was running the team. The difference is that we were only willing to do that with later picks. People may not realize this, but Jeremiah Trotter is an example of this. Most of the league believed that he was a first-round talent, but he had a knee problem that people thought wasn’t going to fix itself and therefore they thought he’d have a short career. We got him past the midway point of the third round.
You just have to say, “At what point is the upside worth the risk here?” If you were in the first couple of rounds, and the Eagles have done this in the first couple rounds, there’s still enough people on the board that you really like that have a really high chance of being successful without mixing in the injury factor.
I agree with the philosophy, I just think you have to be careful about the degree and when you apply it. My kind of rule was, other than unusual circumstances, I generally wouldn’t do that in the first or second round. After that, depending on the upside of the player, I’d be a lot more open to do it.
EJ: What are you looking forward to seeing in Monday night’s game against the Cowboys?
JB: It’s going to be an interesting strategy test.
The Cowboys, historically, have been a team that likes to run, they run early and often and then use play-action later. It’s one of the reasons I think they’ve underachieved for so long. The Eagles like to come out throwing, get the lead, play aggressive and keep the lead. This game actually sets up for the opposite, which will be interesting to see if the teams actually flip character.
I think the Cowboys should come out throwing. I think that gives them the best chance to score a lot and win the game. Their history says that that isn’t what they’ll do. In their first two games, they made it look like they really switched from a run-first offense to a pass-first offense. Was that just matchups? We’ll know that Monday night. I think that will determine who wins the division, by the way. I don’t think that will just determine who wins Monday night. Either team could win Monday night and still not win the division, but this strategic indication will affect who wins the division this year.
If the Cowboys really have switched to a pass-first team and are going to utilize the quality of their offensive weapons, Dak [Prescott], and the ability to score early and get up in leads, I think they become the clear favorite to win the division. If they revert to the way they’ve been, which reduces the amount of points they score on offense and put more pressure on their defense that it can’t handle, then the Eagles have a real chance to win the division.
EJ: With the loss of Brandon Graham for the season, how important of a test will the next few weeks be for Nick Sirianni?
JB: We will have meaningfully more information than we have now in an area that’s very important for a head coach to get tested, but we won’t have the definitive answer.
You have to also be realistic. With a team coming off a bad season, the first year of a new system and a new head coach, they’re not going to go from bad to great. They’re going to go from bad to hopefully competitive, to good, and then to great. We see the toughness of the upcoming schedule here, we shouldn’t be just sitting here judging the answer to questions about him solely on how many of the next five games they win.
That matters, but we should be realistic. What we’re really looking for is progress. We will get some insight over the next few weeks. We’ll gain a lot of information, but the people thinking that we’ll have an answer in the middle of his first season, unless something really extraordinary happens one way or another, we’re not going to know.
EJ: You’ve been around Graham more than most people. How difficult was it to see him go down with such a major injury last Sunday?
JB: It’s devastating. No matter how well you know him or not, he’s had a phenomenal career and deserves his place in Eagles history. Not just his role in the Super Bowl, which obviously stands out as the biggest moment of his career, but this is a guy that’s worked his tail off since the moment we picked him. He’s been nothing but a positive force even when he’s a quiet leader versus more of a vocal leader.
He’s a really good guy. I don’t need to tell anybody that, it’s been well covered. And who knows, this could be the last year of his career, he’s certainly down to the last couple years of his career. It makes it even worse that at this point, you’d like to see him go out in a flurry and then go and live the rest of the life he dreams of living instead of sitting here having to struggle about how he feels, should he play again, if he’s healthy enough to play again. I feel awful about it.
EJ: What strikes me is how well he handled his early few years when he was labeled a bust and widely criticized. He’s since become a fan favorite and has said he wants to retire as an Eagle. What does that transition say about him?
JB: I thought he was unfairly criticized early in his career. There aren’t many defensive ends who come in and put up big numbers in their first two years. There are some really great pass rushers that weren’t great in the first year or two they were in the league and you need to give them time. I felt like he was playing well in the first year or two even though he wasn’t putting up a ton of sacks when people were critical of him.
What’s interesting is it didn’t faze him or the fans developing a relationship over time. He clearly loves Philadelphia and is highly likely to start and end his career in Philly. It’s now gotten to a point where the same people who were critical of him are now talking about how great he is on and off the field.
EJ: What do you remember about that draft night?
JB: Everybody thought we were trying to decide whether to take Earl Thomas or not, we were actually really trying to decide whether to take Jason Pierre-Paul or Brandon Graham. We were picking a pass-rushing defensive end in that spot if they were available always. It turns out we would’ve been right with either pick. Sometimes that little twist at the end is the difference between hitting on a player or missing a player, in that case, we would’ve been happier with either player. Brandon has stayed healthy longer, been as productive and more of a team leader, but both players turned out to be really, really good.
EJ: A decent amount has been made of Jalen Hurts’ lack of targets to the middle of the field. What do you make of that? Something or nothing?
JB: I put this in the “Keep an eye on it” category. I don’t think it’s irrelevant, I just think it’s far too early to know whether this is a game-plan situation or not. It is an area of high risk to throw interceptions. They may feel like they want him to get some more experience reading the defenses and reading the safeties before they test that area too much. They may see in practice that he’s not accurate in that area. We have no idea why.
The fact that they’re not, if they continue to not do it, will be telling. Doing it over two games, I don’t see that telling us anything other than that we should keep an eye on it. You see it. Justin Herbert in his first game was throwing the ball wherever the hell he wanted to. The Eagles chose with Hurts to be much more careful, which is much closer to the norm with a young quarterback.
The other question for me, I think a lot of the smart offensive coaches in the league are making a point of trying to control the middle of the field. So I put this on the Nick [Sirianni] test list because I do think this is the right strategy. By no means am I saying you always throw to the middle of the field, but I think strong offenses recognize that linebackers and safeties are the weakest people in coverage on a defense.