Former Eagles president Joe Banner is doing a weekly Q&A with Inquirer Eagles reporter EJ Smith. This week, the two discuss Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon being linked to head-coaching openings, how the Eagles discuss Jalen Hurts’ play internally, and how the organization stacks up against the others in the division.
EJ: Jonathan Gannon’s name has been floated as a potential candidate for a head-coaching job this offseason. What do you make of that?
JB: I don’t think there’s any chance that he’s on anybody’s short list. I don’t think there’s any chance in this moment in time that he’s a serious candidate to be a head coach. I could look really bad and eat those words, but I don’t think I will. That doesn’t mean that isn’t his future. We’ve spoken about how positively he’s viewed in a league that tends to be quite critical and critique-oriented.
We don’t even know if he’s solved the problem that created terrible performances against opposing passing attacks. How, all of a sudden, is he now a head coach? I do think he has the respect of people from a character and intellect perspective to suggest his future could very well be as a head coach and a very good one in the NFL. It’s totally possible and believable. The fact that he’s there right now, based on the way this defense has played this year and it’s his first and only year as a coordinator, I would be very, very surprised.
This happens, when you’re on the team side, way too often. Somebody kind of throws something out, it’s kind of intriguing enough that a few other people start discussing it. Before you know it, people are talking about it as if it’s a real possibility. For better or worse, I don’t hedge my bets. I’m not staying gray. I don’t believe he’s a serious candidate for any team right now that is open or likely to open and I don’t think it’ll change this year. That said, I totally leave it on the table for where he could easily take his career over time.
EJ: I feel if Brandon Staley was having more success with the Chargers it could have helped his candidacy, but I don’t see Staley having the Sean McVay effect for a guy like Gannon, who shares some similarities. Plus the Eagles’ defensive production has been uneven this year.
JB: That’s the difference with Staley. Staley was, at least in my opinion, significantly overachieving. His talent was B-level and he got them to play at an A-level. He took the level of talent and collectively made them even better than their individual talent. If you’re looking to hire a head coach that’s been a coordinator, that’s a top-of-the-list thing you’re looking to see. I don’t think we can say that with Gannon yet. I hope we do soon.
I don’t think we can view this as just some compelling, hard-to-miss success with the way he handled this defense this year. I’m scared to death to see what happens when they go into a game and a team decides, ‘We’re just going to come out and throw the ball like crazy, try to get the lead and see if Jalen Hurts can lead a comeback.’ Frankly, I’m surprised no one has tried that strategy, but part of it is because they’ve been playing backup quarterbacks. That’s what I would be doing even with a backup quarterback.
EJ: What do you make of the way Jalen Hurts has played in the last two games?
JB: I feel like what I’m seeing in the last couple of weeks is the coaches going, “We know what he can do in the run game, let’s start to challenge him a little bit more in the passing game and see how he responds.” I think so far he’s done that reasonably well.
We’re still not seeing him beat man-to-man coverage, we’re not seeing him make really tight-window throws, and we’re not seeing him get blitzed at a high rate. I don’t mean to be critical, I keep saying as a player, you can’t do more than what the coach asks you to do in any given week. I think he’s done that well the entire time.
That’s different than saying I’m comfortable predicting that he’s their quarterback for the next 5-to-10 years. I like how they’re managing it and how they’re expanding it to keep testing him a little bit more in the areas he hasn’t proven himself yet. So far I think he’s rising to the occasion, but the hardest things for any young quarterback to do are around the passing game and reading the defense and processing quickly. Those things are hard. I think we’re seeing things that are hopeful, but the toughest, most important questions we still haven’t seen enough to answer with a lot of confidence. That really is the key to everything when you ask where they stand.
He’s played better in the last couple weeks in the passing game, and that’s definitely encouraging.
EJ: Because of the nature of this one-year audition as a franchise quarterback, the Hurts evaluation is typically the first thing we all discuss after each game. How does the public conversation and the frequency in which we have it compare to the way Howie Roseman and Jeffrey Lurie discuss this yearlong evaluation?
JB: Realize, every week you have personnel meetings to kind of update your evaluation of everyone. It’s coming up in all those conversations. You also have conversations, mostly driven by the head coach, about how you’re going to play the game this week and who is playing and how much. That conversation includes the quarterback every week.
Periodically, they’re probably having a much deeper conversation, but not weekly. That’s really the biggest difference between the public, the media and what goes on [inside] teams. Like you said, there’s this kind of constantly churning conversation about this. Bad teams can do that where they’re just like a roller coaster, one week the guy’s the MVP and the next week he’s getting cut. I hope one of the things we [do] in this column is try to be more even-keeled.
These conversations go on as part of the normal course. This is a particularly important decision, so it’s probably getting discussed somewhat more frequently. I can’t speak for Nick [Sirianni], I don’t know him, but I can speak for Howie and Jeff, they are not having a moment-by-moment, pass-play-by-pass-play kind of discussion or new debate about where they think he’s at. They’re trying to accumulate as much data as they can to make an informed decision.
They’re not swinging up and down with every good game or bad game or good possession or bad possession. If they are — and I know Jeff and Howie well enough to know they aren’t, but on teams where they are, it’s a formula for disaster.
EJ: The Eagles’ playoff odds have increased significantly in the last week and some have suggested they’ll be a tougher out in the playoffs than the other wild card teams. Do you put any stock into that notion?
JB: No. I wouldn’t want to play — even though they just lost — I wouldn’t want to play San Francisco right now. I wouldn’t want to play Indianapolis. I’m talking about lower-seeded teams that really scare me.
The Eagles create problems because what you have to prepare for defensively is not what you’re used to seeing. So in that sense, you’re creating a short amount of time to do a lot of work and that can be a little challenging. But if you’re just talking about a team that’s playing so well, I personally, if I was some other team, I wouldn’t be looking at them any different.
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Everybody who makes the playoffs is a good team and you have to have the appropriate humbleness or you’ll be sitting there after three hours and be pretty shocked about what happened. They’re still playing basically, not literally, basically the same defense that gave up [an] 80% completion rate in five different games earlier in the year. Because they haven’t played strong quarterbacks or really, really good teams recently, we don’t know if that’s been fixed for the defense. Honestly, I don’t think it has been.
If that’s the case, let’s say it’s Tampa Bay with such a dynamic passing game with such a great quarterback. They’re probably saying, ‘I hope we play the Eagles.’ If we’re talking about a different team that’s more likely to be a lower-scoring team that’s more run-oriented, then you’re viewing the Eagles as a more difficult opponent. But if you have a sophisticated, established passing attack with a quality quarterback, I would think the Eagles are one of the teams that you’d rather play.
EJ: We just saw Washington get blown out on national television and the Giants seem to be spiraling to end the year. How do you think the Eagles compare to the rest of the NFC East in terms of potential tied both to the way the teams are run and the young players in place?
JB: If you compare them [the Eagles] to the Giants and Washington, it’s not even close. I know they’ve taken a lot of criticism, some of it I agree with and some of it I don’t, but the Eagles are a very solidly run organization and maybe better. It’s partially because of their aggressive attitude about things and their willingness to risk being wrong to take big swings that aren’t just wild swings but informed risks.
The fact that they view every position area of player acquisition as a chance to get better — I mean it was a huge deal that the Giants traded back in the draft for the first time in like 10 years. That’s a massive disadvantage to your team. The Eagles are doing the exact opposite. They’re looking at the 53rd spot on the roster and just making sure they shouldn’t be finding somebody else to use that spot on because they just have this attitude where every single incremental improvement, every available cap dollar, every late draft pick, has value. That’s very smart.
The other thing they do is recognize that once you get past quarterback, the way the front office can make the biggest difference in how well the team does is by building two dominant lines. The Eagles also do that. These are huge positives and they’re really not shared with the teams they most immediately compete with. [The Eagles] don’t have as good a batting average as you’d like in their recent drafts and they haven’t had quite as high a hit rate on free agents as they did a few years ago.
I think if you’re looking at the league, there’s a number of teams that you probably say, whether it’s from a talent perspective or recent success in evaluations, maybe you’d rather have. If you look at the division they’re in, I don’t think they’re at any disadvantage to any of those teams and I think the Giants and Washington specifically, they have a significant advantage.