Former Eagles president Joe Banner is doing a weekly Q&A with Inquirer pro football writer Paul Domowitch. This week, the two discuss the aftermath of Sunday’s badly executed tanking against Washington; where the Eagles go from 4-11-1; what’s next for Carson Wentz; and how much, if any, pressure the league is exerting on teams to fill the some of the vacant coach and GM positions with minorities:
Domo: I’ve been covering the NFL for nearly 40 years. I know teams have tanked games before. But it’s usually done with a little more, uh, subtleness than Doug Pederson used on Sunday when he pulled Jalen Hurts early in the fourth quarter of a three-point game. What was your reaction?
JB: There’s a big difference between what we normally refer to as tanking and what happened on Sunday. On Sunday, they literally threw the game. It’s different to me from a situation where you’re silently rooting to lose and you sit some guys that maybe could have played. I get all that. I have no problem with it. But to get into the game and take clear actions that are intended to lose the game, I hate to sound like some old purist, because I’m not. But that’s not OK in my mind. It’s just not OK.
Domo: Some Eagles fans have suggested there’s no difference between what Doug did Sunday and what the Steelers did by resting Ben Roethlisberger against the Browns.
JB: The way I see it, there’s a difference between not doing everything you possibly can to win, which is the way I view not playing Ben Roethlisberger, versus literally trying to lose, which is how I view benching Hurts. There’s a real difference there. One is a reasonable, defendable practice. I mean, every team rests players if they’ve already made the playoffs. But what the Eagles did was different. They literally tried to lose to improve their draft position. And they did it about as obviously as you could possibly do it.
Domo: Tanking a game would seem to be way above Doug’s pay grade. It seems like the order would’ve had to come from someone higher up the food chain, like Howie or Jeff. What do you think?
JB: I’m hesitant to make an accusation without having a bunch of information. But I can just tell you from my experience working in the organization, this is the kind of thing that would certainly go beyond one person thinking about, discussing, and deciding on. I don’t know whether that happened here or not. But it would surprise me if it was one person – Doug – on his own in all of this.
Domo: I talked to a senior executive in the league office about what happened Sunday night. They are furious with the Eagles. But he stopped short of saying the league was considering taking any type of punitive action against them, like a fine or forfeiture of a draft pick. Are you surprised the league hasn’t even publicly rebuked them?
JB: I’m not surprised, but that doesn’t mean they’re not upset or have not or are not going to communicate their feelings to the Eagles. I’d be surprised if it actually rose to the level of a tangible punishment like a fine or loss of a draft pick. There is enough ambiguity in it that it kind of makes it a little hard to create official consequences. But it stands against everything we’ve talked about. Whether you’re coaching your son or daughter’s 8-year-old tee-ball team or whether you’re running a professional sports team, it just stands against everything we preach. And it’s disappointing.
Domo: Even if Jeff was clued in to this tanking, he can’t be happy with the way it was handled or the stink it’s left on his organization.
JB: Yeah. Listen, he likes to have an organization that he feels is principled and does things the right way. At least in my opinion, in this instance, they didn’t. The repercussions probably have been more than they would have expected or predicted in terms of the amount of coverage and discussion it’s created. None of it’s been good.
Even if he agreed to it and even if he was part of the decision, I’m sure he’s not happy with where it’s led. Because I know him well versus just speculating, he will recognize that there’s been damage done between the organization and the players, and that that’s really dangerous. He won’t miss that. So whether it’s in one-on-one conversations or however it may happen, with him or indirectly with him through other people, he won’t just ignore it. He’ll understand that they have to regain the players’ confidence here and their agenda and their commitment to winning.
Domo: Many of the players were and are upset by what Doug did. Miles Sanders voiced his anger the next day in a radio interview. Hurts was seen on the sideline after he was pulled mouthing the words, “It’s not right.” Veteran players confronted Doug on the sideline after they realized he was putting Nate Sudfeld in the game. One of Doug’s strengths has been the respect he’s had in the locker room. How much has this damaged that relationship? And can it be repaired?
JB: I do think there was damage done. It doesn’t mean it’s not repairable. But it’s going to require some work and it’s going to take some time. I mean, think about it: The players who played in that game could have been seriously injured. I don’t think they would have been willing to risk that if they knew the goal was to lose. I mean, they’re playing the game like, at least those of us that get put on the field to represent this organization are going to try to win.
I mean, if I’m one of the veterans on the team that played in that game, and ended up seeing what happened, I’d be like, I should have told them on Wednesday that my ankle was hurting. If you’re Jason Kelce, if you’re Zach Ertz, if you’re Brandon Graham, I’d be thinking, “What the hell did I go out on that field for? I was risking my health and well-being and it turns out we were literally trying to lose.”
Domo: A couple of reports regarding Carson Wentz last weekend. ESPN reported he plans to ask for a trade and that he feels his relationship with Doug is fractured beyond repair. Associated Press reported a day later that Carson needs time to think about his future, but is hopeful it won’t end in divorce from the team. Where do you think things stand right now between him and the Eagles?
JB: If Carson took some truth serum and talked to us right now, I’m guessing he would come somewhere in the middle of those two reports. He would confirm that his relationship with Doug is very challenged. But players tend to have a loyalty to teams that drafted them. He’s generally had good relationships with the people there. Not without any blemishes, but until this past season, it’s been pretty good.
You’re always reluctant to change. Change to what? You don’t know where you’re going. You don’t know if the grass is going to be greener or not. So I actually think, beyond guessing what he’s actually feeling, the wise thing for him to do is what he’s doing: step back, take a vacation, spend time with your family, clear your head, and then make a rational decision.
He does, in my opinion, have a legitimate reason to be frustrated with the organization. The organization, by the way, also has reason to be frustrated with his performance. Whether it’s gone so far that they need to get a divorce, he’s really the only one that knows that. It is really in his hands, too, by the way. They can’t bring him back and put him into a competition with Hurts.
They could sit down with him and say, “Listen, we believe in you. We trust you. You’re going to be coming into camp as the starting quarterback. We can’t promise you nothing will change during camp. But that’s not what we expect to happen. We believe in you. We think you’re the guy with the upside that can take us where we want to go.”
Would that be good enough? I don’t know. He obviously feels he got singled out and scapegoated, but also probably recognizes he wasn’t playing well. But he also probably believes he was surrounded by a horrible supporting cast and the play-calling often left something to be desired and he wasn’t given the best chance to succeed.
Having said all that, while it wouldn’t surprise me if he ultimately decides he wants to try to make it work with the Eagles, I think it’s less likely than a decision to just try and go somewhere else and make a fresh start.
Domo: Howie Roseman said this week that “change is necessary and change is inevitable to this roster.” He never used the word rebuild, but it sounded like that’s what he was suggesting. When you look at their roster right now, including all of the older players they have and the salary-cap challenges they’re facing, how long is it going to take them to, as Howie said, “get back to being the kind of team that we know it can be?
JB: My answer depends upon to what degree he really believes that they need to rebuild. I mean, they did make some moves to get younger last year. Now, did they get better? I think we all know the answer to that question is no.
If they’re looking at their offense right now, it’s possible they’re thinking, “If we can get all of our offensive linemen back healthy and can get Wentz’s head straightened out, we could be only a spot or two away from having a really good offense.” I don’t believe that, but you could rationalize that. And if that’s what they’re thinking, I don’t think we’re going to see some massive change in personnel. I think we’re going to see what we saw last year -- some incremental moves to get younger, but not some mass movement.
Same thing with their defense. If they’re sitting there and thinking, “Listen, if we keep everybody on the D-line and they all stay healthy for a whole season and we restructure some deals or maybe get rid of one of the older guys like Malk Jackson or Brandon Graham, the linebackers seemed to improve as the season went on. We have to improve the secondary some more. But if we add some younger players through the draft, and by 2022, in free agency, we can both compete next year and also get younger over the next couple of years.”
So, it’s going to come down to what degree they think they need to rebuild. The draft will be a good tip-off. If they believe they’re better than people think and they can fix this faster, we’re going to see them pick somebody that they need right away to help the team have a real chance to seriously compete and win the division over the next couple of years. To me, that would be a corner or wide receiver.
Domo: What would trading down and acquiring multiple picks suggest?
JB: That they are more fully appreciating the degree of the challenge they’re facing. Trading back would say we still think we can get somebody who can help us right away. But we also realize we have to get younger and we’ve got a lot of needs. To me, that would be consistent with recognizing the significant challenge they’re facing.
Domo: Given the Eagles’ 2021 cap situation, is it safe to say they will not be able to sign any free agents?
JB: There are always guys that slip through to the latter part of free agency that you can get cheap and help teams. It’s not an irrelevant marketplace. But I don’t think we’re going to see them making any additions like last year when they signed Javon Hargrave and traded for Darius Slay. I think they’re going to let some older guys go like the (Alshon] Jefferys and the DeSeans [Jackson] of the world. I think they’re going to do some restructurings. They may do some extensions. They may go to Lane Johnson and say, listen, instead of restructuring, why don’t we add two years to your contract, which would lower his cap charge for the year. Or go to Graham and do something like that, though he is older. Or go to Malik Jackson.
The first thing they need to do is get under the cap. They can do it in a way that leaves them room to add some depth. It’s not going to be anything consequential in terms of money.
Domo: If they restructure the deals of some of the older guys rather than release or trade them, wouldn’t that be an acknowledgment that they’re not really rebuilding? That they think they can be in the playoff hunt in 2021?
JB: It would mean their definition of rebuild is less dramatic or extensive than yours or mine. It would tell us that they think they can be good and get younger and better long-term at the same time. And that’s not impossible. Teams have done that. But it’s a challenge. You have to have a really high batting average on who you’re drafting and who you’re signing and who you’re extending and all that other stuff.
Now, remember something. As I’ve said multiple times, their 2021 cap situation is a bigger challenge than it’s been in the past. But it’s nowhere near as bad as it looks on paper. It’s a very fixable problem. And I don’t believe $175 million really is going to be the 2021 cap number. I think the number is going to be higher.
But all of that aside, they do have potentially a whole bunch of (cap) room in 2022. So they can borrow some from that by restructuring, which would create a higher cap charge in 2022 without doing a whole lot damage. I’m sure that will be part of the solution to their problem.
Domo: When people hear the word rebuild, they think it automatically means at least three years of playoff famine and pestilence. But there is typically a 50% turnover in playoff teams every year in the NFL. And now the league has expanded the playoffs by two teams.
JB: The thought that it takes three or more years to turn an NFL franchise around is ridiculous in this day and age. Especially now when we’re going to have this unusual situation where, while the cap may be suppressed this year, because of the nature of the dollars that are coming in on the business side of things with new revenue from streaming and other sources, the cap in 2022 is going to go up quite dramatically.
Now, the league and the union could take steps to level that out a little bit. But if we just deal with what the rules are right now, we’re going to have a very, very wide-open (cap) situation in 2022, not just for the Eagles but for the entire league
Domo: As expected, Doug Pederson has begun restructuring his offensive coaching staff. Neither Rich Scangarello nor Marty Mornhinweg will be returning. The future of passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach Press Taylor also is uncertain. Surprised?
JB: We’ve talked before about the notion of them having too many cooks in the kitchen. This indicates that they agree. That they maybe had too many voices. I wouldn’t be surprised if they eventually bring somebody new back in to give them a fresh perspective. But I think he did what was fairly predictable after watching the offense this season and hearing his comments the other day.
There’s a challenging balance not to have too many voices when it comes to the game. But when it comes to teaching the players, you really want to make sure you don’t have many voices. There’s too big a risk that they’re not all saying the same thing. So I think a consolidated staff will help them on the player-development side. It will provide better clarity for the players as to who their primary teacher is and who their immediate boss is.
Domo: Lastly, there currently are seven general-manager and six head-coach openings in the NFL. The league clearly wants a significant number of these jobs filled by minorities. How involved is the league in the hiring processes of teams? How much pressure is it exerting on teams to hire minority candidates?
JB: This is very tricky, because teams will rebel if they feel the league is telling them what to do. On the other hand, teams want to be very receptive and try to be helpful when the league kind of has a direction it wants to head in and needs their help.
So the league is going to have to maneuver through this carefully. I do know from talking to teams that are in searches that there’s a lot more conversation in terms of keeping the league posted and being open to suggestions they have regarding minority candidates that maybe aren’t as well known that maybe they should be looking at or interviewing. They’re also focusing on coaches that have a chance of getting hired and hiring diverse staffs once they get hired.
The league is on this. We’ll see what happens. It truly is a priority. But they’ve got to be careful to not come off as if they’re telling teams what to do. The independence that teams have on these kinds of decisions is really cherished. If they can walk that line, I think it can be very constructive working between the league and these teams and hopefully make some progress in those areas.