Former Eagles president Joe Banner is doing a weekly Q&A with Inquirer pro football writer Paul Domowitch. This week, the two discuss the NFL Network report about the Eagles, Zach Ertz’s future, the Eagles’ devaluing of the linebacker position, the Browns’ offense, the resurrection of the Miami Dolphins, and other things:
Domo: Michael Silver, a reporter for NFL Network, reported a couple of interesting things this week. Said he was told Carson Wentz has sloppy practice habits. More significantly, he said Jeffrey Lurie could “blow things up” if the Eagles don’t turn things around this season. You know Jeff as well as anyone. What’s your reaction to Silver’s report?
JB: I would be very surprised if the second thing happened. In fact, I would be completely shocked. That doesn’t mean there couldn’t be any changes. But kind of blowing it up and making major massive changes, I don’t even think that’s on the table.
That doesn’t mean he won’t be frustrated. That doesn’t mean he won’t be introspective. But he also knows that he does have a group that’s produced some pretty significant success. Winning a Super Bowl. Three straight playoff appearances. Winning 30-plus games in three years. Granted they’ve benefitted from weaknesses in the division. But that’s not something you walk away from easily.
I understand the frustration. They are headed in the wrong direction. And Jeff will recognize that. But I would be very, very surprised if he blew anything up.
As far as Wentz, everything I know, and most of it comes from people in the building, is that suggestions that his work ethic is a problem is just misguided. There obviously are problems, and he’s not playing well. And you could argue about what the cause of that is. And definitely, part of that is just him. But I’ve never heard anyone, including people that have been very critical of him at times, mention his work ethic in any way but a positive manner.
Domo: So where do you think Silver got this from? He does have a pretty good relationship with Jeffrey. You’d think he would’ve run something like this by him before he reported it.
JB: I’m hard-pressed to say who would be telling him that. The only person who would know the latter, or even could imply the latter, is Jeff. That’s not the kind of thing Jeff talks to a lot of people about. Certainly not even his friends.
And it would be very out of character if you watch how Jeff works. He will get frustrated. I’m sure he is very upset about what’s going on, and is baffled by a lot of it, including Wentz’s regression. I mean, you just don’t see this happen where a player reaches a certain level and is young and in his prime and at least right now, healthy, and regresses this dramatically. It’s such a rare, rare thing.
Jeff doesn’t think about blowing things up. He’s much more pragmatic and thoughtful. That sounds to me more like an emotional, knee-jerk thing. And that’s not how he operates.
Domo: Zach Ertz probably will be returning to the lineup next week. You’ve said previously that you thought the Eagles would find a way to keep both him and Dallas Goedert, at least in the short term. But Doug Pederson’s body language seems to suggest he’d prefer to use more 11-personnel going forward. As you know, Zach will be a free agent after the 2021season and has a $12.4 million cap number next year. Do you still think he will be here next year, and possibly even through 2022?
JB: I’ve always been fairly confident that they would find a way to get something done with Zach where he and Goedert would at least overlap for a year or two (beyond 2021). But once emotion gets into negotiations, everything changes. And clearly, emotion has gotten into this negotiation. And that makes it really unpredictable. They may say, listen, we just need to move on and get what we can. Or they may just make him play out his deal. I mean, I don’t think Zach’s the kind of guy who is going to sit out 10 games next year if they don’t give him a new deal.
He’s not a guy who is going to be a disruption in the locker room, even if he is unhappy. He’s an A-plus type of person from everything I’ve been told. So maybe you back off trying to do an extension, have him play out his deal, and at least get another year of the two of them playing together before you have to move on. But again, because of the emotion that has seeped into the negotiations, it’s hard to predict how this will play out.
Domo: With a salary cap, every team has to prioritize positions. You did it when you were here and the Eagles do it now.. One position that both you and Howie chose not to invest a lot of money in was linebacker. That approach is hurting the Eagles right now. The linebackers are the weak link in Jim Schwartz’s defense. They could get exposed badly this week against the Browns’ run game. Your thoughts?
JB: As you mentioned, I also oversaw a period of time where we didn’t put a lot of emphasis on the linebacker position. But we still had the (Jeremiah) Trotters and the Carlos Emmonses, and I could rattle off some other pretty solid players we had at that position. Not Hall of Fame players, but pretty solid players.
But we also had the position as a low priority. What I really believe, and I think they’re paying a price for this, is the league is too good right now. What I mean by that is that the quality of players and coaches is too good to be weak anywhere, including linebacker. They’ll figure out how to exploit it. And if it’s a talent issue, you clearly can’t do a whole lot about it. Occasionally you might be able to come up with some scheme or something else to mitigate it. But that’s about it.
So, you have to be at least solid everywhere. There is literally no position at which you can afford to be weak anymore. You have to always be careful that you don’t fall into the place where a position like linebacker becomes a weakness. Because they’re going to exploit it, and there’s nothing you’re going to be able to do about it.
We’ve talked before about their problems in the passing game. A lot of that has happened against these linebackers. So, while I think the decision to focus defensively on the line and the corners is the right decision, they can’t allow themselves to be weak vs. just-OK at second-tier positions like linebacker. I think they went too far with the de-emphasis of the position.
Domo: You’ve never been a big fan of ground-and-pound football. Like your former coach Andy Reid, you’ve always felt you win in the NFL by throwing the football and then use the run after you get the lead. Which brings us to the Eagles’ opponent Sunday, the Browns. They took a quarterback, Baker Mayfield, with the first pick in the draft two years ago but are averaging the third-fewest passing attempts in the league and lean heavily on their two running backs, Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb. And it seems to be working for them. Would you agree?
JB: Their run-pass numbers are misleading. They actually believe in the same philosophy that the Eagles believe in. In most games, not all, but in most of their games, they come out throwing and try to get the lead. As the game goes on and defensive linemen get tired, they run the ball more and more. In the games where they’ve run the ball a lot, I think you’ll find that a significant amount of those runs have been in the second half.
It will be interesting to see what the Eagles do against them. Teams like the Steelers and Ravens that have attacked Mayfield have done really well in making him look awful. And teams like the Colts and the Bengals who have worried about stopping the run and worried about rollouts and stuff like that, he’s torched them. They want to get the lead, and once they get the lead they know how to keep it with that running game.
Domo: Last year, you were extremely critical of the Miami Dolphins organization. But your opinion clearly has changed. You’ve touted their first-year coach, Brian Flores, as a coach of the year candidate, and even have praised their GM, Chris Grier, who you were critical of last year. What’s changed?
JB: If you could buy futures on teams in football, I’d buy them on the Dolphins. I’m sold on Flores. I think they hired a guy who is going to be a great coach. A real difference-making coach in all senses. And I’m feeling much better about Grier than I did a year ago. It’s still kind of an unfinished evaluation on him. He’s done some very good things. I’m told the meaningful chunk of the credit for finding Flores goes to Grier, which is obviously a huge positive for him. Some of his player moves have been good, and some haven’t. So I’m in a little bit of a wait-and-see mode with him on the talent-evaluation side.
But if you get a really good coach who is kind of like the CEO of the organization, they find a way to succeed and overcome whatever challenges there are. And win. There’s a very small number of coaches you can say that about. They just find ways to overcome all the obstacles and challenges and give themselves a chance to be successful. The Dolphins’ talent has improved a lot in two years. But I don’t look at their talent and say that’s why they’re playing well. I think the coaching and scheme has made a huge difference.
Coaches tend to care a lot about what other coaches think. The coaches that step in and make really difficult decisions in a very short time frame, like Flores did with his offensive coordinator last year, like (Giants coach) Joe Judge just did with his offensive line coach, where they’re not focused on relationships or what anybody else thinks about them but are focused on what they believe in and have the courage and conviction to back it up, that’s what leads to winning. Andy did that back in the beginning with the Eagles. Nobody will ever forget him making George Hegamin push that sled up and down the field in front of the media. He didn’t hesitate to cut guys he didn’t feel fit in.
When you see these coaches make really tough decisions that would be really unpopular even with their own peer group, they have confidence in themselves, and they’re committed to doing whatever is going to maximize their chances of success. I think that’s a really good predictor of the quality of a coach. And Flores has demonstrated that to me in enough instances that it’s at the point of no return. I’m really sold on him.
Domo: COVID is surging all over the country. Many teams that had been allowing limited fans in to watch games, including the Eagles, are having to again play in empty stadiums. Meanwhile, down in Texas, Jerry Jones is planning to ramp up fan capacity for the Cowboys’ remaining home games. While the league acknowledges there has been no evidence of any fans contracting the virus at an NFL game, is this a smart move right now?
JB: I don’t agree with what Jerry’s doing. The amount of income that it produces is meaningful, but not life-changing as far as anyone with the Cowboys is concerned. You have nothing to lose by erring on the side of caution right now with this virus. I wish he wasn’t doing this. It shouldn’t even register a blip on the sacrifice meter in my mind.
Domo: The league is implementing intensive protocols with all 32 team for the rest of the season beginning tomorrow as the number of positive COVID cases continues to increase around the league and around the country. Smart idea?
JB: I’ve been saying this for a while now. I’ve been really impressed with the league and the job it’s done. I mean, there could be a sudden change tomorrow and the season could be in jeopardy at any moment. But I think the things that they’ve done, and the firmness and clarity with which they’ve done them, has given them a chance to keep going.
If they can’t, I don’t think it will be their mistake. It will be a case of us just becoming so overwhelmed by this virus that there will be no way to continue without risking lives. Because nobody is going to make this go away right now.