Banner doesn't mind his banishment
Ex-president of Eagles, Browns still has passion for NFL
SOUTH BEACH, Fla. - Joe Banner wears banishment well.
Seated at a window table inside a Miami trattoria where he knows all of the maitre d's witticisms, Banner is bearded and robust. The shaven, sallow shark who ruthlessly ran the Eagles for 18 years is gone. He enters his sixth decade with dignity.
He and his wife, Helaine, will be empty-nesters in 3 months. They have rented a house near Philadelphia where their youngest, Jon, is finishing school, but they are borrowing a friend's high-rise condo here this entire month. Any given day, Joe Banner might rub elbows with Oprah or J-Lo or Julia Roberts.
It is a place that, in the past, they have used as a weekend getaway. Now, every day is a weekend for Joe Banner, bronzed and beatific.
That's right: He has a tan. It looks darker when he smiles.
That's right: Joe Banner is smiling.
He is happy.
It is almost unnerving, seeing Joe Banner in loose-fitting jeans and untied sneakers, eating $75 veal one block south of Club Madonna.
It is almost unsettling to see him completely at ease.
For 20 years Banner preyed on overmatched agents and groomed money men. He always liked fine food, but, more often, he ordered greasy pizza and stuffed sandwiches to his offices because there always was one more deal to be done.
Now, Joe Banner says he wants to be left alone. He lived modestly when he worked for Jeffrey Lurie, and he will be paid by Browns owner Jimmy Haslam for 3 more years; he says he doesn't need to work.
Almost daily, especially this offseason, he has declined interview requests. He was twice involuntarily removed from franchises, most recently fired as president of the Cleveland Browns. He was let go essentially for making the sort of bold moves now being celebrated in three Philadelphia franchises; moves long clamored for in the other. His retreat has almost been complete.
Earlier this day - in the wake of the departure of Jeremy Maclin and LeSean McCoy and amid the Eagles' courtship of DeMarco Murray - Banner agreed to his first interview since the Browns fired him 13 months ago; an impromptu conversation with a reporter with whom he has no relationship.
"Not sure how she got my number," Banner said, with that ironic chuckle that serves him as self-effacing. "She just caught me on the right day."
Did she ever. Banner was so eloquent that the writer, an accomplished wordsmith, ran it as a Q&A.
Banner wants to let the league run without him, but he cannot help himself. His passion for the NFL occasionally leads him into Twitter spats with the Lowest Common Denominators. It is like watching Bernard Hopkins spar with Bernard Fernandez. Pardon him.
A man cannot he blamed for what he loves.
Joe Banner wrote the book on NFL salary-cap manipulation as the league entered its free-agency era; pulled off some of the more brilliant moves in NFL history; and made "geek" chic, long before Theo Epstein, Sam Hinkie, Bill Belichick and Chip Kelly embraced emotionless evaluations of assets.
Banner adores analytics. He always embraced numbers over affinities and loyalties.
That's why he loves how Kelly is destroying what Banner built. To Banner, growth occurs best through constant, remorseless change.
"Chip has the confidence that he and his coaching staff can prepare the replacement player to play," Banner said. "How many times have we seen a coach start Player X, when most people believe Player Y is better, but Player X has the experience; then, Player X gets hurt, and Player Y finally gets to play, and is clearly better? It happens all the time.
"I've been preaching this for years."
Banner's sermons upset the congregation.
Banner has followed the way Philadelphia has celebrated the cataclysmic changes authored by Kelly, Sixers general manager Hinkie and, to a lesser extent, Flyers GM Ron Hextall in the past 2 years.
"Oh, yes," Banner said.
Does he believe he would have been ridden out on a rail had he and owner Jeffrey Lurie attempted the same makeovers?
"Oh, yes," Banner said. Ironic chuckle.
The Banner/Lurie narrative (inaccurately fueled by talk radio and football columnists informed by their old-boys' network) ran thus:
Two smart-alecky and wimpy New Englanders invaded Philadelphia in 1994 to run the Eagles cheaply, as their personal Fantasy Football team. Lurie effectively made Banner the GM, but Banner was not a "Football Guy," and Banner whittled and weaseled his way into league circles, largely disliked and disrespected, routinely dismissing popular players. This went on until the second coach, Andy Reid, and Banner protégé Howie Roseman played Brutus and deposed King Joe.
It is an image Banner did very little to dispel.
He is a smallish, bespectacled man, gifted with lethal intellect but cursed by his impatience for fools.
In reality, Banner never has been as miserly or as miserable as his detractors painted him - not that he cares much. He understands his massive effect on how sports today is run. He is comfortable with his legacy.
Banner first signed running back Ricky Watters, then cornerback Troy Vincent, to unusual, value-laden contracts as restricted free agents. Watters averaged 1,265 rushing yards, 439 receiving yards, 54 receptions and almost 11 touchdowns in his three seasons, led the Eagles to two playoff appearances and went to two Pro Bowls. Vincent went to five Pro Bowls in eight seasons with the Eagles and, arguably, was the best at his position in team history.
To some degree, for better or worse, Banner helped run every draft, but he was lead man just once: in 1998, when the Eagles took Tra Thomas, Jeremiah Trotter, Brandon Whiting and Ike Reese, and used a second-round pick to acquire Hugh Douglas.
Banner also completed one of the best trades in league history in 2009, when he sent the 28th overall pick and two late picks to Buffalo for Jason Peters, who has since gone to five consecutive Pro Bowls and has been the best lineman in the league.
"We accomplished some good things there," Banner said.
He always says "we," always is careful to credit the rest of the decision-makers: Ray Rhodes, Dick Daniels, Mike Lombardi, Tom Modrak, Tom Heckert, Roseman, Reid.
It is obvious that what Banner misses most is camaraderie; his role in hiring and working with them. He glories in the successes of Reid, who had little practical experience when the Eagles hired him; and Kelly, whom Banner tried to hire in Cleveland. Banner delights in their similarities.
"Neither Andy nor Chip had a list of reasons why their plans wouldn't work, because they couldn't conceive of their plans not working," said Banner, who compares them to Belichick. "They think of everything and leave nothing to chance."
Banner remains in frequent contact with Lurie and Reid; almost daily, with Roseman. Howie and Joe have a lot more free time lately.
Bemused, Banner watched Kelly convince Lurie to unseat Roseman as GM.
Amazed, he watched Kelly blame it on Lurie.
Banner won't comment directly on Kelly's contradiction of Lurie, but Banner relishes the drama. Paradoxically, it is the absence of the drama that has Banner looking so healthy.
"The paranoia - that's the thing I miss the least," Banner claimed.
The least . . . or the most?
It is a Machiavellian league, where smart young men routinely displace their mentors, so Banner's betrayal in Philadelphia, then in Cleveland, was inevitable. He says that he has no burning desire to return to the landscape he helped create, but then he qualifies it:
"Not right now," he said.
But maybe, if the right opportunity opened up.
It is clear that during this time of year, when Banner once mattered most, he wants to make sure everyone knows he is still attentive and relevant.
So, he hits Twitter, usually cautioning against the allure of Jameis Winston, touting Marcus Mariota and defending moves he made in Cleveland and Philadelphia.
He does an in-depth interview on the phone with a stranger.
He has dinner with an old acquaintance.
Banner helped the Falcons hire head coach Dan Quinn last month. He was deposed as an expert witness in Miami in a case he cannot discuss.
Maybe this sort of inclusion is enough.
Considering the image he left in Philadelphia, Banner should be holed up in a shack somewhere in rural southeastern Pennsylvania or northern Ohio, working on his manifesto and devising an algorithm that will inevitably deliver him back to power in some NFL franchise; then he'll show all of you.
Instead, he's sunning and shopping in the footsteps of Versace, Madonna and Big Willie Smith.
Bienvenido a Miami.
Standing on a busy corner in the middle of the dinner hour, Banner looks around him, hands in pockets.
"I love the energy down here," Banner said, as a buxom partier stumbles into him. He grins. "But we'll probably wind up buying something north of here."
Imagine that: Joe Banner and Morty Seinfeld squaring off on the shuffleboard courts at the Del Boca Vista.
A few months after he was fired in Cleveland, Banner spent 6 weeks in Africa with his family, perhaps the last true family vacation, since the kids are no longer kids, really. He and Helaine then spent 3 weeks in Paris.
Joe Banner, on the Champs-Elysees; on the Serengeti; on South Beach.
"You would look at my life over the past 8 months and say, 'Wow, what a great life this guy has,' " Banner said.
You would be right.
That said, Banner is very undecided about what he will do in the future; a future that very well could include an NFL team.
He is so happy and he looks so healthy you almost root against that happening.
For his own sake.