In this week’s Q&A with Inquirer pro football writer Paul Domowitch, former Eagles president Joe Banner addresses the team’s 0-2 start, the mighty struggles of quarterback Carson Wentz, Fletcher Cox’s contract, the hefty fines the league has levied on coaches for not wearing masks, and other issues:
Domo: So, the Eagles are 0-2. Is this just an early-season hiccup or an early sign of Armageddon?
JB: It’s even worse than 0-2 because of the way they’re playing. You can be 0-2 and feel like the ingredients are there to change it. Or you can be 0-2 and realize you’re not as good as you thought you were.
Domo: How much of their poor start can you pin on injuries?
JB: It would be foolish to blame it on injuries, but it would be foolish to not acknowledge that injuries are a contributing factor. But that’s definitely not the whole picture. I generally tend to defend quarterbacks once it appears they’ve lost confidence in their offensive line. But at some point, the degree of performance, even if your line is playing poorly, you have a reasonable expectation that’s not being met.
I don’t think the coaches are maximizing the things that they could do to minimize the consequences of what’s going on. It’s just two games. So you don’t want to make broad conclusions. But certainly in those two games, there have been significant breakdowns that have given you reason to worry that they’re not just going to go away in a week.
Domo: I understand your point about injuries. but they now have lost three of their five starting offensive linemen with the injury last week to left guard Isaac Seumalo. That’s pretty devastating, don’t you think?
JB: The worst thing that can happen to a team, and the thing you fear most when you’re running a team, is multiple injuries at the same position. So they’ve taken a problem and compounded it.
Here’s the difference for me in this case. It’s only a small number of plays, so I’m not saying this with great confidence. But I actually think (Matt) Pryor (who replaced Seumalo last week) and Nate Herbig played reasonably well last week. The general health and the performance of the offensive line is a big deal and has to get better. But I’m not sure this latest injury to Seumalo adversely affects things all that much.
It obviously affects it in that it moves them closer to having all of their depth decimated. But the losses of (right guard) Brooks and (left tackle Andre) Dillard affected the situation much more than the loss of Seumalo. Not because Seumalo isn’t a good player, but because I think they can plug in Pryor or someone else and still be OK.
Domo: Carson Wentz has put together two of the worst performances of his career. He’s already thrown four interceptions and his accuracy and decision-making have been dreadful. What do you think is going on with him?
JB: It does seem, just from watching him play, that he’s lost some confidence. But that’s a tough call to make without actually talking to him and being in that locker room with him every day. But that’s what it looks like from the outside. I do think both he and the coaches are making a mistake, and have been for a while, in not moving him around. They seem so afraid of getting him hurt that they’ve gone away from things like [run-pass options] that were so successful for him and them in the Super Bowl year. It doesn’t mean he has to move around as much as he did early in his career, but certainly more than he has been recently. Those are things that differentiated him from other quarterbacks.
Domo: Any concern that this is more than a temporary funk with him?
JB: I’m not going to change the view I had when they drafted him that he’d be a really good player. At times, he’s done some really good things and shown he can be a top-tier quarterback. And I still think he will be that over time.
I’m probably a little more nervous about my degree of confidence in that statement right now than I was, say, at the end of last season. But this is a guy who played well from his first game as a rookie. He’s always had some accuracy challenges, even in college. And they seem to be getting worse instead of better.
Domo: If he continues to struggle, can you envision a scenario where they would bench him and go with rookie Jalen Hurts?
JB: I can’t. I can imagine a scenario, which I believe was the plan all along, to increase the use of different personnel packages that would involve Hurts. You saw that briefly last week against the Rams. I don’t think you draft a guy in the second round unless you at least have a plan for a package of plays [with him] and possibly a lot more over time. But I can not picture them sitting Carson down. At any time in the foreseeable future, I can’t picture that happening.
Domo: The Eagles signed Wentz to a four-year, $128 million contract extension last year. It includes $107 million in guarantees. But more than half of that is “rolling” guarantees, which means that if they cut ties with him in 2-3 years, they wouldn’t have to pay them. Can you envision that ever happening?
JB: If you’re asking me if it’s possible, sure it’s possible. But I believed in him when they drafted him. I have believed in his performance generally. It’s been a little more up and down than you’d like. But it’s hard for me to picture them getting to that point.
But we’re talking two or three years from now. A lot can change between now and then, including injuries and Hurts' development. So it’d be foolish to rule that out. But if you’re asking me, what do I expect to happen in two or three years, I don’t expect that to happen. But I’m certainly not sitting here thinking it’s impossible.
Domo: Let’s talk about another Eagles player with a huge contract – Fletcher Cox. Cox’s salary-cap number this year is $22.8 million. It will be $22.4 million next year and $22.3 million in the final year of his deal in 2022. Given the Eagles' cap challenges next year, is there anything they can do with Cox’s contract to create cap space?
JB: There’s only two things they can do to affect the cap. One is to convert salary to signing bonus, which is basically borrowing money from the future. Which helps you in the moment, but it doesn’t really help you. The only other option would be to ask him to take a pay cut on his Paragraph 5 salary ($15 million in 202` and $16.1 million in 2022), which is just normal salary. That certainly would reduce the cap, but I just can not picture them going to Fletcher Cox and asking him to take a pay cut.
So I think the answer is no. I think they have to work around (his contract) and use whatever leverage they have on other contracts. Borrowing from the future with (Alshon) Jeffery and potentially Cox, it’s not risk-free. It’s not an unreasonable thing to do when the cap was going up and they were in a window where they felt they had a chance to win another Super Bowl.
But if people think there’s no consequence and no risk in doing it, I think they’re seeing firsthand that, you may argue it’s worth it, but to think it doesn’t have consequences is just not looking at the whole picture.
Domo: At least five coaches already have been fined $100,000 for not wearing masks on the sideline. Their teams also were fined an additional $250,000. Is the league overreacting?
JB: I certainly understand that it may be uncomfortable and even distracting to coach an NFL football game when you’re wearing a mask. But we’re in unusual times. The league is an influencer well beyond the playing of games. Frankly, I applaud the league for creating a rule, which was created in conjunction with the union, and a whole series of (COVID-related) rules, that are working really well. To be willing to stand up and say, “Listen, these are the rules and if you don’t comply, there are going to be consequences,” that’s the way it should be. Now, that’s a pretty heavy first consequence. But hopefully, it will mean that everybody gets the message and we won’t see it happen anymore.
Domo: Are you surprised there haven’t been any COVID outbreaks yet?
JB; I am pleasantly surprised. I hope it continues. The league people I talked to before the season expected some challenges. They were determined to push through them and go forward. But the fact that we’re approaching the third weekend of games and there have been no (COVID) issues at all is a credit to every player and the rules that were made.
But it’s a long season. It’s going to get harder if the predictions of more cases as we get into the fall and confusion over what’s COVID and what’s the flu arise. But at least they’re starting from a really strong place.