This is the column I wrote for SportsWeek, which most people don't see until a carrier pigeon posts it on the Internet, three weeks after a full moon, or something:
It was a natural question from a Twitter follower to an Eagles reporter, the follower presumably watching Thursday evening’s LeSean McCoy contract news conference live on the Eagles’ website.
“Where is Joe Banner?”
There were chairs on the NovaCare auditorium stage for Eagles coach Andy Reid, running back McCoy, and general manager Howie Roseman. To the side of the stage stood agent Drew Rosenhaus, prominently available for post-conference spin. At signings past, team president Banner has tended to assume that position, there in the wings if you wanted his background, his take on what the team had done. This offseason, you would have better luck finding Terrell Owens at a gathering of investment gurus.
Thursday, it turns out, Banner was at the annual dinner for City Year, the charity for which he serves as co-chair. But the fact remains that as Roseman settles into the GM job, roles are shifting, at least subtly. The quotes from Rosenhaus after the conference announcing the five-year, $45 million extension were fascinating to parse. Rosenhaus trumpeted how important Reid was to getting a deal done with McCoy, who was heading into the final season of his rookie deal, what a pleasure it was dealing with Roseman.
“I think so,” Rosenhaus said, when asked if Reid’s role was larger this time than it would have been in a similar negotiation several years back. “Certainly I can’t speak for him, but in the multitude of deals we’ve negotiated with the Eagles, which are in the dozens since he’s been the head coach, this is the most involved I’ve seen him.”
Rosenhaus added that he “had a chance to visit with Joe Banner, I had a chance to visit with [chairman] Jeffrey Lurie. Both those guys were very involved, too. The meat and potatoes negotiations were with Howie, but this was a team approach.”
A “chance to visit” with Joe Banner? One of the league’s most feared negotiators is now the equivalent of Aunt Sophie, a person you “visit with” when you’re in town? Did Joe serve tea cakes? Was there punch?
A little background. Two months ago, respected NFL writer Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times reported that two league sources had told him that Reid demanded and got more say in personnel matters this offseason. Reid responded to Farmer’s report by issuing a statement saying he had always had complete personnel control – which is sort of true and sort of not true, as I see it. I think the Eagles don’t sign players Reid doesn’t want. Do they always sign every player he wants, though? I’m less sure of that. And there are gray areas of personnel control, such as, say, sitting in on contract talks with key players, pushing for a resolution. That is not something that happened with, say, Bsrian Westbrook, Or Brian Dawkins.
Of course, the idea of a “trending” graphic that features Andy with an “up” arrow beside his name and Joe with a “down” arrow is simplistic, and ignores a few inconvenient facts. The biggest is that it is Reid who is working in the next-to-last year of his contract, which will have to be addressed after the 2012 season, at the latest. And it is Banner who said, more than a year ago, that Reid needed to win a Super Bowl to get another deal.
I don’t think ownership is eager to part with Reid, to start over with somebody else and undo all the stuff that would need undoing -- Jim Washburn, Howard Mudd, Michael Vick, etc. I think one way to look at what’s going on this offseason is that they’ve agreed to do everything Andy’s way, to give him everything he says he needs, to make that one last push. This time, if the Eagles falter, there won’t be a lot of excuses.
But I also think something IS up with Banner, and with Lurie’s angst over how his organization is perceived, by the public and by the players. This offseason, we’ve seen Reid and the folks who handle Reid make an effort to present the coach to reporters in candid, off-camera moments, where there is less throat-clearing and more real conversation. We have seen a lot of former Banner protégé Roseman, who clearly is being marketed as the face of the front office. And we have seen Banner, everyone’s favorite antagonist, not at all.
“We’ve had success working with Howie,” Rosenhaus said Thursday. When I asked the agent if he thought the process of doing a major deal with a returning Eagles player was different now than it was several years ago, his answer began with “Yeah, there’s no question.”
But from that point, Rosenhaus started talking about how aggressive the Eagles are in retaining talent, which, in fairness to Banner, is not a new thing. While the public always noticed the high-profile departures, usually of 30-plus vets, Banner could always quote you stats on how good the team was at maintaining continuity, overall. (Hence, the long-term, below market deals for overachieving youngsters who had years left on their original contracts.) If there had been a 23-year-old Shady McCoy on the team 5 or 10 years ago, when Banner was running all the contract talks, you would have seen him retained, one way or another, for as long as he was at the top of his game. Probably the closest parallel would be the 2002 Donovan McNabb contract extension, which was not bitterly contested.
But under the old thinking, would the Eagles have also signed Evan Mathis, Todd Herremans and Trent Cole, not to mention DeSean Jackson, to splashy new deals this offseason, with a remarkable lack of bruising and stress? I don’t think so. I think for whatever reason, Roseman is running contract talks now, with Banner in the background, and Roseman just comes off as less adversarial than Banner, even if the money he has to work with is roughly the same. You used to hear disappointed departing stars and their agents complain privately that they felt Banner made the dispute personal, that in pushing his perspective, he disrespected and devalued the player. I’m not hearing that complaint about Roseman.
Rosenhaus said he knows the Eagles could have made the McCoy contract a tougher slog. They could have stuck to their guns on the fact that Houston’s Arian Foster, whose deal proved to be the benchmark, had negotiated that contract as a restricted free agent, a crucial difference. They could have made McCoy choose between either signing a contract that was a solid financial notch below Foster or risking injury this season, to possibly end up being franchised, with no long-term commitment at all. They could have pressed their advantage a lot harder.
“He’s part of the family,” Roseman said of McCoy, sitting elbow-to-elbow on the stage. That’s not an image I’ve heard a lot over the years from the Birds’ front office, when talking about those fungible assets that throw, run, catch and kick the football.