Former Eagles president Joe Banner is doing a weekly Q&A during the season with The Inquirer’s longtime pro football writer Paul Domowitch.
This week, they discuss Sunday’s wild-card playoff game against Seattle, Carson Wentz’s huge December, why the Cowboys came up short, the Redskins’ hiring of Ron Rivera, and yet another housecleaning in Cleveland.
Domo: Even after the Eagles fell to 5-7, you never wavered in your belief that they would win the NFC East. What made you so confident about that, even as the injuries kept piling up?
Banner: Usually the season plays out in a way that’s reflective of two combined ingredients. One is who has the most talent. The other is who is the best coached. At any given stretch, it may not look like it, and even the team that wins the Super Bowl is going to have some ups and downs during the course of the year. But there never was a moment where I felt, even with the injuries, that the Eagles weren’t still the most talented team in the division, and they clearly are the best-coached team in the division. That’s what kept me confident.
When you run a team, you learn to at least try not to go up and down with the predictable flows of the season. And as long as I kept feeling like they still continued to have the most talent and the best coaching in the division, it kept me comfortable sticking with that prediction.
Domo: You’ve suggested for a while now that the Cowboys’ defense would ultimately be the biggest reason they wouldn’t win the division. You were particularly critical of their de facto defensive coordinator, Kris Richard.
Banner: I hate to kill Kris. In my opinion, he wasn’t successful as a defensive coordinator in Seattle. And the fact that they moved on from him makes me think Pete Carroll would agree with that analysis. They just weren’t an aggressive defense.
I’m not suggesting you have to blitz every play. But if you’re playing what I would describe as a relatively soft zone on most plays and teams can anticipate that you’re going to do that, it really doesn’t take tremendous skill to move the ball against that. And we’ve seen some fairly weak offenses that were pretty successful against them.
I think they have pretty good talent on defense, though I think they’re probably going to lose [cornerback Byron] Jones in free agency and that will be a big loss for them in my opinion. And they’ve got to upgrade the coaching there. Coaching makes a huge difference. More and more people are realizing it.
Domo: Let’s talk about Carson Wentz. He’s played his best football of the season the last four weeks, despite a ton of injuries to the rest of the offense. Surprised?
Banner: Carson is a top-tier quarterback. I’ve never wavered on that belief. We talked 3-4 weeks ago that the biggest change he needed to make was he needed to go back to playing with the reckless abandon he had played with before his major knee injury [in 2017]. I think he got to the point in the season where he felt he had nothing to lose if he got hurt because they were going south doing things the way they were.
And then he started throwing the ball to these replacement players as if he believed in them. If you don’t trust the players you’re playing with, you’re not going to be very good anyway. You create what I refer to as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fact that he said, “You know what, I’ve just got to throw the ball to these guys like I trust that they’re going to create some separation and they’re going to catch the ball if I throw it to them” created the possibility that they could prove they deserved the opportunity they were getting. And they rose to the occasion probably better than anybody could have hoped.
But had Carson treated those guys as if they were backups and practice-squad players and been afraid to give them a shot to make plays, we’d still be talking about the team that wasn’t doing anything on offense and the Eagles’ season would be over.
Domo: You said last week that the best matchup for the Eagles in the wild-card round would be Seattle rather than San Francisco. And that’s who they’re playing Sunday. Is this a winnable game?
Banner: The easy part of the answer is that I do believe they can win this week. You’ve got to remember they’re playing a team that may have as many consequential injuries as they do. They’ve lost both of their top running backs. Their left tackle, Duane Brown, who is their best offensive lineman by far, isn’t going to play.
And the way they play as far as their emphasis on the run game, the loss of those running backs is at least as costly to them as the Eagles’ losing their top three wide receivers. Losing Brown is even more consequential to the Seahawks than losing [Brandon] Brooks is to the Eagles.
Even with the players they’ve lost, they still match up favorably with Seattle in terms of the quality of the talent. I think the defense should be able to do what they need to to at least slow Seattle down. I think it’s going to be a very tough game and I think it could go either way. But to be playing home against Seattle, which has to come across the country after losing a tough game on Sunday night, I think they have the best chance of actually making it through the round vs. anybody else they might’ve had to play.
Domo: Big changes in Washington. In a very long overdue move, Dan Snyder finally canned his front-office chief, Bruce Allen. And he hired Ron Rivera to be the team’s head coach. Given Snyder’s meddling ways and difficulty keeping holidays straight, is Ron making a big mistake taking that job?
Banner: Ron definitely is walking into a difficult situation. I worked with Ron for years and have high regard for him. Ron, in my view, when he first went to Carolina, put together an exceptional coaching staff to support him. As time went on and some of those coaches left, I’m not sure the replacements were quite as strong.
So it’s crucial that he go back to the drawing board and create a staff in Washington that was as strong as the one he put together in Carolina. But the huge question there is who’s going to be the GM and is Dan Snyder going to let that GM and Ron make the decisions. History says be skeptical.
It sounds like Ron is going to have some input into who the GM is going to be. I can’t exaggerate how crucial that is. They’ve got to find the right person to do that, or Ron will end up being frustrated and Dan will end up not being happy that he made the hire.
Domo: One of your former employers, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, fired yet another coach and yet another general manager this week. What’s the problem there?
Banner: You’ve got an owner there who’s going into his seventh year of ownership, and virtually none of his key employees have lasted more than two years, and many have only lasted one year. I just don’t know how you can be that bad at hiring or that impatient with the people you hired and not give them a chance to succeed.
There’s no third option to me. Either you’re just absolutely terrible at evaluating people and hiring them — and since I’m one of the people he hired, I’d like to think that isn’t the answer — or you’re just not giving people the opportunity and support they need to be successful. And really, if you include the coach he inherited [when he bought the team] and the interim coach, he’s had six coaches in six years as the owner, and is about to hire another one. Same with GMs.
But the same thing has been going on in less visible positions in the organization. He’s been through three or four heads of marketing. This is just the character and culture of the organization. And it doesn’t seem to matter. I mean, did [fired GM John] Dorsey make every right decision? No. Did he deserve to be fired after two years given the moves he made? That’s crazy. I mean that’s really crazy.
When you look around the league and you see other GMs in places like Tampa Bay and Jacksonville, who aren’t on the hot seat, and Dorsey, who is a respected personnel guy, gets the boot after just two years? That just can’t be. And by the way, the players need to know that the head coach is the boss if he’s going to be an effective leader. Why should any player there trust that the coach is going to last more than a year or two? Why should they trust that the general manager is going to last more than a year or two?