I've always felt the rampant conspiracy theories that often dominate newspaper headlines were signs that a civilian had spent too much time in the cloak-and-dagger world of the NovaCare Complex. To this outsider, the heavily-guarded access to the Philadelphia Eagles has more to do with the secretive nature of any well-run pro football organization, not the diabolical plots of a penny-pinching mastermind named Joe. Cynical readers eat it up though, and for the front office's part, they fueled that distrust through a variety of actions and inactions.
So when a respected reporter from the Los Angeles Times described a power struggle within those walls from nearly 3,000 miles away -- mind you, not the first instance a conflict of that nature was rumored -- I chalked it up as more of the same. After all, when Sam Farmer's story was filed back in March, who predicted it would serve as the backdrop for the departure of Joe Banner less than three months later?
Given the circumstances, the Eagles team president of 18 years could never walk away gracefully.
Banner was already viewed as something of an ogre by the fan base, every misstep remembered with careful detail, even events he likely had little or nothing to do with -- the franchise's inability to win a championship chief among them. The contentious nickname "Nickels" recently began to take, an homage to fiscal responsibility that mostly sent prominent-but-aging veteran players packing when their contracts were up for renewal. His association with the other unpopular kids (Lurie, Reid, Roseman) didn't do him any favors, either.
But after Farmer's entry into the fray, no amount of press conferences or candid interviews will make people forget about the alleged animosity behind closed doors. Never mind that to this day, part of the yarn stands out as particularly ludicrous, that the Eagles were in any position to seriously consider pursuing Peyton Manning. Somebody wanted to push the idea that Banner and Andy Reid weren't getting along, and now that one of them is suddenly out the door, observers are clamoring for Tom Smykowski's 'Jump to Conclusions' mat.
Everyone jump to "Joe Banner was pushed out"
Removed, demoted, dismissed -- whatever makes his exit sound controversial.
I can't refute there was a rift between Banner and Reid, and there's actually a compelling case for there being plenty of truth to that. The two of them became increasingly divided over some of the biggest changes inside the Eagles locker room in recent years, well documented during DeSean Jackson's contract drama, and before Donovan McNabb was ultimately traded as well. Additionally, Banner personally cited losing Brian Dawkins to free agency as a regret, and it's hard to believe anybody on the coaching staff was fully on board with that.
Others would suggest Banner especially strained relations with the head coach when he basically announced to the world that Reid needs to win the Super Bowl in order to earn an extension from the club. With Andy's deal set to expire after 2013, there aren't too many folks who would bother to disagree with that assessment, but it's a vastly different approach than the big guy takes in dealing with the media. A man who has a reputation for constantly shielding his players from criticism could not have appreciated being left under the spotlight to squirm by his own superior.
Chances are it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows in the front office. Still, something isn't quite lining up here. How did Andy Reid, head coach and director of personnel, defeat Joe Banner, chief operating officer and lifelong friend of owner Jeffrey Lurie, in a power struggle? That could only mean Lurie finds Reid more vital to the success of his franchise than Banner, who has been his right-hand man from the very beginning, right?
You buy that?
Critics be damned, Reid is a great coach, but he is an interchangeable piece of the puzzle. Win or lose, eventually he'll move on, and another one will take his place. That person will win or lose, and then another, and so on. All head coaches, to some degree, are propped up or dragged down by circumstances beyond their control, which explains why certain men do poorly in their first job, then win championships elsewhere -- think Bill Belichick -- while others build a trophy case, but can't duplicate the results in a new locale -- a road Mike Shanahan could be headed down at the moment.
Banner, on the other hand, might be one of just a handful of executives in professional sports who could achieve the magnitude of what he did in Philadelphia. He turned a dysfunctional organization into one of the most profitable franchises in the NFL. He is credited for being the key figure in the building of Lincoln Financial Field and the NovaCare Complex. He helped develop a structured front office that fields a competitive team season after season, and he shouldn't have to apologize to anybody for that. Finally, he managed the salary cap in such a brilliant, precise manner, the Eagles never had to cut players or let one go via free agency simply because money got too tight.
If anything, Banner might have been a victim of his own success, because truthfully the Eagles don't need him any longer. The franchise will have a license to print money long after he's gone. There are no more buildings to construct. They have a qualified front office in place to handle day-to-day operations. The one football-related job Joe had left, negotiating player contracts and managing the cap, he ceded to Howie Roseman, who was described as a "Banner guy" when he was promoted to general manager in 2010.
When you look at it from that perspective, it almost makes sense why Banner would be pushed out the door: he made himself obsolete. That ignores the fact that he and Lurie are pals, and everything the owner has, he owes to Banner... but it is controversial!
The final goal Banner had left to accomplish was delivering the Lombardi Trophy to Philly, but obviously he recognizes now that was always out of his hands after a certain point. Banner will never lace 'em up, and he'll never grab a headset and call in a play to the quarterback. While he may know how to assign a dollar value to a player, he's not a full-time talent evaluator, so he's not going to set the depth chart or run the draft, either. He hired people to do all of that for him. That was never his area of his expertise.
Which is why I don't understand why anybody would doubt the sincerity of his motivations. What can he do here to bring the Eagles closer to that elusive Super Bowl championship? Apparently nothing, so why not embark on a new endeavor while he's 59 years old and up to the task? The fact is, even if the Birds finally reach football's pinnacle in the immediate future -- anytime over the next five to ten years at least, and perhaps for far longer -- Banner's work over the past two decades will have been instrumental to that end, no matter where or how he lands next. You can't take that away from him.
Maybe there was a power struggle, maybe there wasn't. I haven't had the luxury of being one of the shadowy figures lurking around the hallways at the Birds' facilities, trying to catch Lurie, Banner, and Reid hatching their next evil scheme. I do have my own theory though: Joe Banner, not Andy Reid's camp, was responsible for the leak in the LA Times story, and in making the head coach look strong on his way out, he did his last great deed for the Eagles franchise.
Given his history here, I'm not so sure that's any less plausible.