Rich Hofmann: No signs of Eagles conspiracy at Banner farewell
THE PRESS CONFERENCE was over and Joe Banner was bouncing between a series of one-on-one television interviews and a stint on the team website when he stopped to talk. The Eagles' president is leaving the club after 18 years. He says it is to seek one last professional challenge, either an NFL franchise turnaround, or putting together a group to buy a team, or some such adventure. Some people believe him. Some don't. The search for hints of a lost power struggle, or a conspiracy aflame, has begun in earnest. And as Banner said, "I don't mind the searching. I worry when you find it."
THE PRESS CONFERENCE was over and Joe Banner was bouncing between a series of one-on-one television interviews and a stint on the team website when he stopped to talk. The Eagles' president is leaving the club after 18 years. He says it is to seek one last professional challenge, either an NFL franchise turnaround, or putting together a group to buy a team, or some such adventure. Some people believe him. Some don't.
The search for hints of a lost power struggle, or a conspiracy aflame, has begun in earnest. And as Banner said, "I don't mind the searching. I worry when you find it."
He laughed a little, but he was in a different mood for him, at least publicly – more reflective, a little bit emotional. Normally pretty quick with a detailed, bullet-pointed answer, Banner could not handle a question about his legacy with any deftness at all.
The practice facility, the stadium, the slaying of the salary cap, the black hat he wore whenever coach Andy Reid needed protecting from a tough personnel decision – it is all on Banner's resume, along with the grooming of his successors, Don Smolenski and Howie Roseman. Listening to him talk about it all, it sounded as if he had made himself a little bit obsolete.
And then, later, he said, "Maybe it should have happened 2 or 3 years ago."
From a distance, it was easy to wonder exactly what Banner was getting out of the job anymore. To think back on the phone conversations from the time when the Eagles were trying to get their new stadium – passionate, detailed discussions on the various proposed deals and their timing and the politics of the thing – was to remember an engagement with an advocate supreme. He lived to make the case for that stadium. There did not seem to be anything, more than a decade later, to rival that kind of challenge.
There was that, and there was the illness of his son, Jason. The family recently detailed in an Inquirer story the decision for Jason to undergo brain surgery as a treatment for epilepsy, and the successes they have experienced. It was clearly an emotional period in Banner's life.
So you saw him a little less, and you wondered. He is 59, and he has made a lot of money, and he has a deep commitment to the City Year program, and you wondered. When he signed his last contract in 2010, you figured he would keep the job for as long as he wanted it. But you always wondered if he still wanted it.
"But, you know what?" he said. "I was comfortable. I loved it. I wanted to win a Super Bowl. There were some things going on with my family where we didn't need any more change. But I think the question of whether it should have happened a little bit earlier is valid. Because I was probably, mentally, in a place where it could have happened earlier than a couple of weeks ago."
He says this is not happening because his public image has worn him down, or because it has worn down owner Jeffrey Lurie. That image was never lower than when the team botched the Brian Dawkins negotiations a few years ago, and Dawkins went to Denver, but Banner has always been willing to take the heat for tough decisions about veteran players, decisions ultimately made by the head coach.
Asked if his ability (or inability) to be one of the franchise's public faces anymore was part of the calculus here, Banner said, "I don't think of it that way, and [Lurie] has never articulated it to me that way. There's a mixed view of me in the public. Some of it is sinister and some of it is appreciative. I think I'm generally thought of as, at least, being effective, and with some other aspects of it being questioned …
"I deserved some of the hit for Dawkins. You do this for 18 years, you do a lot of contracts, you deal with a lot of issues, and some you don't do the best you could have. I put Dawkins in that category. I don't think it erases some of the other successes … but it was a conspicuous moment that I did not handle the best I could have. It affects how you're perceived."
So all of that swirls around – along with a brief March report in the Los Angeles Times that Reid was ready to quit if he did not receive more personnel control – and it fuels the talk of a power struggle. It is hard to know. We have seen Reid win a power struggle before, over then-general manager Tom Modrak, but that was a long time ago. So many years after Super Bowl XXXIX, coming off of an 8-8 season, this coach cannot possibly have the same clout today.
It seems as if the organization is giving him everything it can this season because it knows just how precarious Reid's position is, but it is not clear how that might translate into shoving Banner aside. What has Reid gained? He really did already pick the players – and now he doesn't even have Banner around to catch the flak anymore.
At the press conference, watching Smolenski choke back the emotion when he talked about Banner, you could only wonder about the swirl of feelings. If this really is Banner's wish, his wish for a last great professional adventure, well …
"It's because we're not going to be together anymore," Banner said, and then his voice caught. "That's why I'm emotional about it. We were in each other's offices for hours every day. We traveled on the road – if you bumped into us on the road, it was Don and Howie and I out having dinner. We have all of these routines and all of these shared memories that carry an intensity that a lot of people don't get a chance to experience in their lives, just because of the nature of what this is. And soon, we won't be together anymore."
This might be naive, but it rings true. As Banner walked away, I did not see a knife in his back.