Former Eagles president Joe Banner is doing a weekly Q&A with Inquirer Eagles reporter EJ Smith. This week, the two discuss Lane Johnson’s announcement that he’s dealing with depression and anxiety, the Carson Wentz trade revisited, and the offseason flexibility the team’s extra draft capital could afford them.
EJ: Lane Johnson announced earlier this week that he’s been dealing with depression and anxiety. You were with former Eagles guard Shawn Andrews, who struggled with depression as well. Based on how Johnson’s announcement was received, how has the conversation about mental health in the league evolved in the last 10-plus years?
JB: It really is indicative of how dramatic things have changed. There was absolutely no compassion about Shawn’s situation. You could argue that there was some criticism and even anger about it. My main message about it is thankfully what everyone else is saying, which is that this is a huge step forward, it’s the right thing for people to be sympathetic or empathetic and be supportive of these — not just players, just people.
Mental health challenges in our country and world are all around us and there are very few people lucky enough, even on a short-term basis, not to go through difficult times with their mental health. The fact that football and sports have the opportunity through their visibility to really change the mindset of anybody following it, puts this in the proper position. It’s a health issue. It’s not just something that someone can flip the switch and overcome.
The fact that players are feeling comfortable speaking about it and the fact that the media is responding in an empathetic way and the fans are picking up on that and reflecting that, I just think it’s great. It’s a great example of the power of what sports can do in a positive way.
EJ: What kind of resources do teams provide for players who deal with mental health issues like this?
JB: I can speak to the Eagles. Very early on, we had some sensitivity to this. I think the mistake we made, even being a little ahead of the curve, you have to appreciate the person in this position and the fear of what they think of the consequences of other people knowing. So if you set up a support system, which we did have to a degree in Philadelphia even years ago, you have to have it set up in a way that the players actually trust the confidentiality of it. They have to be able to access it without anybody else knowing, otherwise you won’t have a program that will be successful.
In Cleveland, we did a worldwide search, and we were lucky enough to find a psychiatrist who was local and we could set up access for players and do it in a manner that they felt comfortable and safe using it. We also did a worldwide search for a psychologist who was actually an employee of the team. At the time, he was working for a cricket club. We ended up hiring him in Cleveland and bringing him in and it was really impactful. This was still eight years ago. He was a full-time employee of the organization, he was great at his job, it was set up so players felt safe and in confidentiality.
EJ: Now that we’re a third of the way through the season, I wanted to ask you about how Carson Wentz has played and how his play has influenced your view of the trade.
JB: I’m not on the bandwagon that thinks it looks like he’s fixed whatever was wrong. I mean from a football perspective what was wrong was his inability to make the decisions at the speed that they need to be made, trusting his vision and then just go. When I watch him play now, it doesn’t look as severe as what we saw last year. I think there’s been some improvement, but I still see a player that’s not processing, visualizing, and making decisions as quickly as quarterbacks need to in order to be successful, especially against more complex defenses.
I think there’s improvements, but for the people on the ‘Wentz is fixed,’ bandwagon, I’m not close to that. I’m still feeling like I’m seeing a quarterback that, when playing against better teams and more complicated defenses, he still has a little hesitation. In this league, you can beat weak teams that way, but you can’t beat strong teams that way.
Has there been improvement? Yes. Is he fixed? Is he somebody I’d be comfortable right now planning to have as my starting quarterback for the next few years? I would not be comfortable, I’d be nervous about it.
EJ: If he continues on the trajectory he’s on so far this season, how does his value as a quarterback change if at all?
JB: His situation was a perfect example of the cliche, ‘It only takes one team.’ His value last year was determined by the fact that there was one team that wanted him fairly badly. Frankly, had it not been for that team, I think what the Eagles would have gotten in compensation would have been dramatically less. His value going forward is likely to reflect the “dramatically less” because that one team isn’t there anymore.
The value they got at the time was more than he was worth then and the way he’s played has not done anything to increase the rest of the league’s view of what his value is, which wasn’t very good, excluding the Colts. We’ve seen this before, where a former coach has a particular player that they really believe in. They created the market that isn’t really the general market. If he were on the market again, even now, his value would be considerably less than what they got, because that was really the case at the time of the trade.
EJ: Speaking of Wentz and the Colts, that pick is starting to look like it could end up in a sweet spot where Wentz could play all year, but the pick will still be higher than some expected. The Miami pick the Eagles have is also looking like it could be a top-10 pick. How significant will this offseason be with these valuable draft assets?
JB: This is rare and potentially transformational. The only thing that should hold somebody back from being extremely optimistic with the Eagles’ long-term prospects here is the question about whether they have a quarterback of the future. If they don’t, are there some in this draft that they can use those picks to get? That’s their big question mark. The big upside is that they have some young players, not as many as they’d hoped, but there are some young players that can be important to the team in the future and what they’re going to build and they have the assets and the resources to add to that group significantly in a reasonably short period of time.
They not only have those draft picks, but they’ll be in considerably better cap space than they’ve been in the last several years. That’s the formula if you use it right. Teams that turn themselves around do it by acquiring a lot of assets, the definition of assets is draft picks and cap room, and then using them effectively and not being impatient. So far the Eagles are doing those things. When we turned the team around years ago, that’s what we did.
EJ: This year’s quarterback class doesn’t have any clear No. 1 prospect and each guy has some concerns. Do you think the Eagles will feel compelled to find their franchise quarterback while they have these assets regardless of the possible shortcomings of the class, or do you think they could try to build a strong infrastructure and answer the question at quarterback later?
JB: The mistake you can always make is picking somebody to theoretically fill a need and the player isn’t good enough. Now you don’t have the player and you didn’t fill the need. It’s especially costly at quarterback, but it’s always a bad idea.
Would I take a little bit more risk for a somebody that I really like, but I’m not totally sure of? At the quarterback position, I do, but I’m not picking someone who I don’t truly believe can be a starting quarterback in the league. Someone that’s capable, when surrounded by the right people, that can take us to a championship.
If the Eagles don’t have someone they’re confident can be a top-tier quarterback, they will focus all their energy in trying to find that, but not picking one for the sake of picking one.
When I was in Cleveland, I don’t mean to bash anyone, but we needed a quarterback worse than you could imagine. We started four quarterbacks in the season and none of them were up to where you’d want them to be. I hate to disparage them, but Geno Smith and EJ Manuel were both available in the draft, and a lot of people, including some in the building were saying ‘Listen, these guys are first-round quarterbacks. We need one, why wouldn’t we take one?’ In my mind, they weren’t guys that I could answer the question, ‘Can this player carry us to the Super Bowl?’
We desperately needed a quarterback, we probably needed a quarterback the most out of the other 32 teams in the league. There were two quarterbacks that many teams had first-round grades on, but we didn’t pick them. I think you’ll see the Eagles do the same thing. They’re not going to pick someone they don’t really believe in. On the other hand, they’ll use whatever assets it takes to get somebody, if they find someone, that they really believe in. That could be one of these veterans if it isn’t someone in the draft.
EJ: Speaking of those veterans, guys like Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, etc., do you think the pressure to use the draft capital could come in there, assuming one of those guys is available to them?
JB: Assuming they don’t have a quarterback they’re satisfied with, they will focus every bit of energy to get it. The problem is, you have to make sure that’s available. The year Andy Reid got to Kansas City, they needed a quarterback, and they went and got Alex Smith. It’s hard to call Alex Smith a bridge, but technically he was a bridge. I think the Eagles will be similar. They will be very, very aggressive in trying to find a top-tier quarterback, if not they’ll pick the players that are available that they think can make the biggest impact with a small bias toward the offensive and defensive line.
If they don’t acquire a quarterback, I suspect they’ll use those picks to accumulate future picks as an opportunity to do it in the future, or use them to acquire a veteran, or as a worse-case scenario, but still fine, pick up three really good players in the first round.
There are many questions surrounding the Eagles, and you should ask us yours! Beat writers EJ Smith and Josh Tolentino will answer many of them on Sunday’s live pregame show on Gameday Central. You can send questions to them here. Then stay with Gameday Central throughout the game for in-game analysis, stats, photos and more.