BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – When Joe Banner looks at the Eagles, he sees an organization led by an executive who many disparaged because he didn’t come from a traditional football background. He sees a coach who no other NFL team interviewed and who would go on to prove many doubters wrong.
Banner sees a core philosophy in team building that emphasizes the importance of cap management and of evaluating players on more than just football talent. He sees a roster with a franchise-caliber quarterback, strength along the lines of scrimmage and a core of homegrown players who were signed to second and third contracts.
The former Eagles president sees players like Brent Celek and Jason Peters, who were acquired during his tenure. He sees owner Jeffrey Lurie, who gave him his dream job. He sees Howie Roseman and Don Smolenski, executives he hired into entry-level positions, who blossomed under his mentorship and who would eventually go on to replace him.
And he sees a team that he can’t help rooting for, despite that it may claim the Super Bowl title that he couldn’t during his 19-year tenure with the Eagles.
“I’ll characterize this carefully: I want them to win,” Banner said this week during a telephone interview. “It will bring up some of my own emotions about how close we came and didn’t get to do it. But, no, I absolutely want to see them win and watch the city go crazy, which is something I dreamed about and wanted to see for so many years.”
Banner, who left in 2012, may no longer work for the Eagles. He may no longer retain a residence in Philadelphia. And his ties to the team and his adopted city may not be as strong as they once were. But there’s still more than enough to link the 64-year-old to the Eagles.
When Lurie bought the team in 1994, the Eagles were a second-rate organization. They were playing in a decrepit, multipurpose stadium, they didn’t have a state-of-the-art practice facility and they had gone decades without sustained success. Lurie hired Banner, a childhood friend from Boston, and they said they would not be bound by conventional thought.
They made their share of mistakes. They endured ridicule from some Philadelphians who saw them only as carpetbaggers and from some NFL people who saw them only as clueless outsiders. But when they eventually got it right, with a blueprint that Banner believes the current regime continues to follow, the Eagles flourished.
The Eagles of Lurie-Banner and coach Andy Reid fell agonizingly short. They lost to the Patriots, 24-21, in the 2005 Super Bowl and it would be the last time the Eagles had played in the title game — until the rematch with New England arrives Sunday.
But Banner said he remains proud of what the Eagles accomplished during his tenure and that satisfaction extends to the current team.
“I still do feel a part of it,” Banner said. “The people that are making these decisions are people that I brought in and helped train. … The philosophy that they’re utilizing is the same exact philosophy that we used when I was there, when Andy was there.
“And that’s not to steal credit, because if you got the right philosophy but you don’t make the right individual decisions as they have, you’re not playing in a Super Bowl. So I feel good about the ideas we brought that laid the foundation for what we did and much of what they continued to do.”
Banner said that he still talks to Roseman frequently. He hired the now-Eagles executive vice president of football operations fresh out of law school and gave him a low-level job analyzing the cap. Roseman would eventually move into personnel and be promoted to general manager by Reid.
It’s not lost on Roseman that he can realize what his mentors came one step from accomplishing.
“Very appreciative of the opportunities I’ve had,” Roseman said Monday during Super Bowl Media Night. “Both of those guys I’ve sent notes to and thanked. Really, it doesn’t end with just those two guys who obviously had the biggest influence on me that are not here today. You know when you’re surrounded by good people, you get to learn more things every year.”
Banner said that he can relate to Roseman, who had never played organized football at any level or had paid his scouting dues in traditional ways.
“He was kind of disrespected through the league as kind of not a football guy,” Banner said. “Went through the same thing myself. Felt like I started chipping away at that with my own experiences, even though some still think I’m not a football guy, I wasn’t involved in the football decisions.
“So I know the roller coaster that he’s been on.”
But Banner said that he would be happiest for Lurie if the Eagles finally won a Lombardi Trophy. They had their professional ups and downs. After Banner stepped down — because, he said, the job had gotten a “little redundant” and he found himself “going through the motions” — Lurie made comments that seemingly placed the blame for the Eagles’ 2011-12 slide at his friend’s feet.
There were many fathers to that failure. But Banner knows as well as anyone the twisting ride Lurie’s been on over the last quarter century.
“I was so close with him all those years and the emotions of getting so close,” Banner said. “I’ve always said the fans should have had a great appreciation of Jeff. Maybe they’re gaining it now because the one thing you want in an owner [is one] who really has no other priority than winning.
“We made good decisions, we made bad decisions, despite how some tried to characterize it, there was never any motive other than trying to be the best we could. He didn’t care about what it cost. He didn’t care about who got the credit. He was what you wanted an owner to be.”
Lurie gave Banner the resources to hire the best people. Sometimes that didn’t mean hiring the obvious choice. Reid, like current coach Doug Pederson, was an outside-the-box hire. Banner pointed out that the same number of teams (8) had vacancies in both years Reid and Pederson were hired and the Eagles were the only ones to interview either.
“At the risk of saying something self-serving, and not just about me, but the group of people I come from, the extent to which football is driven by conventional wisdom and how things have always been done, if more people got on the inside of it, they’d just be totally stunned,” Banner said. “Every industry does that to some extent, but professional football does that to real extreme.”
Banner has helped other teams in coaching searches over the last three offseasons. But he has stayed true to his statement four years ago, after he was shockingly fired by the Browns after just 18 months as their CEO, that he no longer has the desire to work in the NFL.
He’s now, in some way, living vicariously through the Eagles’ success. He wants them to win and he thinks they will on Sunday.
“It’s different than Cleveland where I passionately hope they suck,” Banner joked. And he tries to not look back wistfully on his time in Philly.
“I think it ended the way that it should have at the time that it should have,” Banner said. “I wish I’d gotten more time in Cleveland to kind of prove what I could have done. But as far as the Eagles, other than the indescribable emptiness and disappointment of not being able to win that last game and participate in that parade, I’m proud of what we did.”