Joe Banner: Eagles are threading the needle between contending and rebuilding
"They’re both sort of rebuilding, but you haven’t really thrown in the towel on the immediate future, that’s how I would describe what they’re doing. That’s a tough needle to thread."
Former Eagles president Joe Banner is doing a weekly Q&A with Inquirer Eagles reporter EJ Smith. This week, the two discuss the team’s chances in a weak NFC East, Jalen Hurts’ one-year audition as the Eagles’ starting quarterback, Zach Ertz’s status after being on the trade market all offseason, and the future of Andre Dillard after another underwhelming training camp.
EJ: Jeffrey Lurie said earlier this offseason that this was a “transition” year for the team. It felt like they were on their way to a rebuild, but there are plenty of indications that they believe this team can compete. Do you think that’s the case?
JB: I kind of accept his terminology, because if I was running a team that had a new head coach, a new starting quarterback, and more — still not enough — but more younger players I was planning on starting maybe than a year ago, I would think of that as kind of turning over a new leaf. At the same time, I haven’t given up on this season.
It’s more from a cap perspective. For me, giving up is more like, “Listen, we’re not going to invest a lot in the cap dollars right now because we’re not going to win that much. So let’s save it for next year and the year after and we should have a much better chance to really be a factor.” They’re not acting like that, they’re acting like, “Listen, if a player can really help us and maybe give us a shot to win the division this year, then we’re willing to make the investment and spend the money and keep ourselves in that position.”
Frankly, the division is so weak, you can’t refute that. They absolutely, even with Hurts, they have a chance to win the division. Trying to find the balance is hard. We’ll know two or three years from now if they succeeded. They’re both sort of rebuilding, but you haven’t really thrown in the towel on the immediate future, that’s how I would describe what they’re doing. That’s a tough needle to thread, but probably worth trying in the situation that they’re in. By that, I mean, some older players are good, but probably won’t be around that much longer, like the [Brandon] Brookses, the [Lane] Johnsons, and the [Fletcher] Coxes. You don’t really want to give up on the last phases of their careers where they’ve played so well and probably still have a couple of years to go. So finding the balance probably makes sense in the situation they’re in, but it’s a hard needle to thread.
EJ: It seems the weakness of the NFC East has let the Eagles hang onto the notion that they’re a playoff team instead of embracing a rebuild.
JB: They could basically say, “Listen, we’re not even going to worry about the division, we’re trying to build a team that can win the Super Bowl. It’s going to take us two to three years to do that, let’s run the team as if that’s our plan.” They’ve chosen not to do that and I’m kind of torn because I can see why.
There are enough strengths there, and the division is weak enough that you don’t want to just walk away from the chance to win the division and get into the playoffs. On the other hand, it probably does have at least a little impact on the time it takes to get the team back to where they want it to be. Of course, that’s all dependent on the quarterback, whether that’s Hurts or somebody else that they have to get down the road. None of that’s going to happen in terms of true, long-term ability to compete with the best teams in the league without getting the quarterback position settled.
EJ: What are your thoughts on Hurts? Do you think he actually has a chance to take the role as the long-term starter this season?
JB: I think they’ve made a clear decision that he’s getting a chance here, barring a health issue. They’re really focused on him, they’re giving him all the reps. Just to demonstrate that you are the guy and they don’t expect you to be there this year but you are the guy that has the ability to get up to a level of play that can be a big factor in us getting to the playoffs proceeding and being a serious, realistic Super Bowl team.
With younger guys, sometimes you worry about outside distractions or worry about getting micromanaged or getting pulled and losing his confidence. I think they’re sending him all the right signals, “The job is yours, you’re going to get a fair chance to prove to us it should be yours for a very long time, let’s see what happens.”
EJ: Were you surprised to see them pass on Justin Fields in the draft?
JB: No, I think it was obvious that they saw enough in Hurts that they felt he deserved a chance. They obviously, I think very smartly, accumulated these future draft picks so that if they end up being wrong about Hurts, they’re not at a dead end. They have the ammunition to go try and take another run at it, which I think was very, very smart. There were other teams that probably should have tried to do the same thing that didn’t.
If they need a quarterback, and it looks like there could be some available — just normal NFL guys, not just the draft — they’re better positioned than anybody to get one.
It’s clear, they’re thinking that Hurts could be a starting quarterback in the NFL and be quality, but they’re not sure. So they set themselves up so they could give him a fair opportunity to prove that with all the support that we’ve discussed, and yet still be in a position where if they’re wrong about that, they can still solve the problem, and that that to me is just very smart management of your assets.
EJ: Is it worst-case scenario that Hurts is just kind of ho-hum this year?
JB: Yes. Ideally, it’s really clear cut. Obviously they hope it’s really clear cut that he’s the guy, but either way they hope it’s really clear cut. You’d hate to have it where it’s like “Eh, I don’t know we saw some flashes, and it kind of looked like he could do it, but we also had this and that.”
Believe me, they’ll know so much more, they already do, when making that decision. They already know whether, given enough experience, whether he’ll be a really smart quarterback.
Josh Allen may disprove this, but they know if he’s going to be a reasonably accurate quarterback, or an extremely accurate quarterback. Some of those things that they have to judge long-term, they already know. They’re sitting in meetings with him every day, they’re at every practice, they’ve worked with other quarterbacks. They know how quickly guys pick things up or don’t pick things up. So we’re sitting here speculating, but they already know pieces of the answer to this question that we couldn’t know without being with him on a daily basis that is informing what they’re going to be doing.
EJ: There’s a lot made of his leadership ability and the intangible stuff. How much, if at all, does that play into his evaluation?
JB: Let’s say it’s gray, It’s not totally clear cut. Those are when the intangibles and the leadership qualities can really help you feel like you should stick with him or give him some more time.
He has to prove [he can play] before any of that leadership and intangible stuff means anything. You’re really glad he has it, so if he gets the football part you get both things.
EJ: What do you attribute Zach Ertz still being here to? Are you surprised he’s still here?
JB: I’m surprised he’s still there. I think it does indicate that they believe they can win this year and they’re willing to put the resources into it. We should be careful, because I don’t preclude the possibility that he can still be traded, especially if some other team had an injury and was willing to make a meaningful offer.
But I just thought that, where they are with the cap and as they look forward, with [Dallas] Goedert showing the potential that he’s shown, that it was time to move on and have something to show for Ertz’s time in a trade.
It also appeared that Ertz last year seemed to be kind of frustrated with things. To me, I would have predicted that both parties would probably want and be better served by kind of finding him a new home. We don’t know if that happened because they didn’t get a good enough offer or they never really thought about it that way. His being there still, and even if they traded him, to me, they’re telling us that they think they can win the division this year and they’re not ruling out that they can make a playoff run.
EJ: How do you navigate the relationship side of this with Ertz and Goedert? How do you make sure it doesn’t affect the locker room?
JB: First of all, you hope that any player you have any kind of problem like this with is a really good guy. Somebody in his position could be creating more discomfort and upsetness than he is and I think they know he’s not the type of guy that’s going to do that.
EJ: Andre Dillard had an underwhelming training camp and is now sidelined with a knee injury. Where does he go from here?
JB: His light is nowhere near as bright as it was. The fact that [Jordan] Mailata has done at least a solid job and has been improving, and the fact that [Dillard’s] looked as he has and the few times that he’s played and struggled to stay healthy, I’d be very surprised without injury that we’d see him as the starting left tackle for the Eagles, and I do not think he can move inside and play. I think he becomes a backup and within a couple years probably moves on.
EJ: Does he have any trade value? Maybe a team that liked him in the draft?
JB: If some team really needed a tackle and really liked him the draft, some offensive line coach may convince the general manager that they can fix him. I don’t think it’s huge value but I think there’s at least a chance.
EJ: Quez Watkins has outplayed Jalen Reagor this training camp and may be deserving of a starting spot over him. How much will draft status affect that potential decision?
JB: Unfortunately it shouldn’t be the case, but the fact that Reagor was drafted where he was will give him some extra opportunities, or he’ll be given more room to make mistakes and grow.
I think the Eagles have always been very good at this. Not just because you just got paid or just because you just got drafted high, when it comes right down to it, there will still be a little bit of benefit to being paid more or drafted higher, but I felt like they’ve always done a very good job where you had to make the decision, putting that aside and giving them the chance to win.
If that dynamic continues between those two players, I don’t think they’ll feel like they have to play Reagor just because he was drafted high. If it’s a close call and say one’s a B and one’s a B-minus and Reagor’s the B-minus, you may see them giving them a little more time to develop thinking he may have more upside, but if there’s any consequential gap, I don’t think they’ll be afraid to make the right move and play the better player.