The NFL off-season is all about planning and preparation, the mental dress rehearsal for the long march that, for the Eagles, begins today when rookies report to training camp.
Joe Banner, the team president, the guy who is mainly responsible for directing the front office in assembling the roster the head coach wants, had a long, exhausting off-season. Two player trades, nearly two dozen contracts to negotiate and execute, some hard decisions on having to move past players, particularly Brian Dawkins, who had meant a lot to the franchise.
"All of it had both personal and professional connections and they were tough decisions, emotionally difficult, and, frankly, a little scary," Banner said.
He knows you probably don't care about his problems, or that it was a tough off-season. What you care about is winning.
In that case, Banner has some good news. He likes the way things came out.
"I feel this year we have the best roster in the league," Banner said. "That's assuming everyone is healthy and standing at the end. You can only make a statement like that on the first day of training camp. After that, anything can happen."
Football is a capricious game. Its most important players can disappear on any play, and its most important moments are not decided best-of-seven. The careful plans and preparations can be blown apart in an instant. But you already knew that.
Banner also said he thought the Eagles had the NFL's best roster in 2003 and 2004 and even last season - "as crazy as it sounds given the way the regular season went" - he said he thought the roster ranked among the top three in the league.
"You get humbled over the years, but since I've been working in the league I don't think the best team has won the Super Bowl any year," Banner said. "You get a ball bouncing the wrong way, a bad call from the ref, a windy day when you plan to throw a lot. You lose once. Even if you get to the playoffs, and it's a year where most people would say you did really good, you don't feel satisfied. There are just too many things out of your control."
In a way, the careful planning, the painstaking structuring of contracts and massaging of the salary cap that goes on in every NFL front office is exactly the opposite of the sometimes random events on the field. David Tyree did not plan to catch a football against his helmet. It just kind of happened.
If you are someone who likes to control outcomes - Joe Banner fits that description - it is a game that can be frustrating to the point of breaking. That hasn't happened yet, though, and owner Jeff Lurie, Banner and head coach Andy Reid enter their 11th season together.
"I'm extremely excited about this team, the most I've been in a long time," Banner said.
Of course, it might not work again. And if it doesn't, the Eagles will hear what they did wrong. If they had spent more money, if they had kept Dawkins, if they had been willing to dispense with their legendary frugality. Of all the criticisms, that argument is the only one that irks Banner. Well, the only one that really, really irks him.
"I work for an owner, and my job is to apply his philosophy. He says that making money as the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles means nothing, it doesn't change his life. But winning a championship would be a thrill that would change his life forever. Executing that philosophy is our focus," Banner said. "As for the rest, we're big boys. Getting criticized for how the team performs comes with the territory. But I don't like criticism of our character, our integrity and our commitment to winning. I can't tell you that doesn't bother me."
A lot of what Banner does is about the money side of things, though. There's no getting around that, and he tries to get the best deals for his employer. This off-season, much of the work has involved trying to foresee the future. If the league and the players union don't agree on a new collective-bargaining agreement by March, the 2010 season will operate without a salary cap.
No one really knows if that will happen or what it will mean if it does. The uncertainty has made this off-season unusual. When the Eagles signed Jason Peters, the contract was written so that some of the future money can be designated as either signing bonus or roster bonus or salary bonus, depending on how the rules are eventually written.
An uncapped year would also mean that players will need six years of service time rather than four in order to become free agents. The Eagles have several key players - including Chris Gocong, Max Jean-Gilles, Ellis Hobbs, Hank Baskett and Brodrick Bunkley - who could be caught when that window closes. It will be interesting to see how the organization approaches those contracts.
"The reality is that everybody's guessing what will happen," Banner said. "We're trying to give ourselves some flexibility down the road that may turn out to be worthless or it may have some value. We just don't know, but we're trying to be as prepared as possible."
The front-office preparation begins to give way to the preparation on the field today. The balance will shift completely in a month and then little matters but those bounces of the football and fickle shifts in the wind.
"It's so hard to win a championship," Banner said. "There's so much more to it than just having the best team."
That's a pretty good way to start, however, and Joe Banner said he thinks the Eagles have the best team. He has thought that before, too, and one of these days he expects it to finally matter in the end.