Former Browns and Eagles president Joe Banner assesses the flurry of roster-overhauling moves made by Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly, points out the importance of Kelly's sports science work and addresses his own NFL future
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Chip Kelly since he came to the NFL two years ago, it’s that he likes to keep everyone guessing. He’s certainly done that over the past week, with a roster upheaval that has included two player-for-player trades (LeSean McCoy for Kiko Alonso, and Nick Foles for Sam Bradford, with draft picks also included), two new cornerbacks signed in free agency and the loss of top receiver Jeremy Maclin. What is Kelly doing? While the entire city of Philadelphia frets about his master plan, we sought the insight of someone with more than just a keen interest in the Eagles: Joe Banner, former team president. Banner was willfully mum on a few topics—the recent Eagles power restructure that gave Kelly personnel control, and anything related to the Browns, where he spent a year and a half as CEO after leaving the Eagles. But as for the “rather conspicuous” moves he’s been watching Kelly and the Eagles make, he has a verdict: He loves their aggressiveness.
VRENTAS: The Eagles have overhauled their roster in the span of a week. Were you surprised to see so many significant changes in such a short time?
BANNER: I’m surprised, just because it’s out of the norm for the league, but it shouldn’t be. So in that sense, in my mind, it’s good to see somebody using the system and thinking of the team in a way that you can do this. It’s obviously not something you are going to do every year, but I think it’s overdue to see teams working the system this way.
VRENTAS: How is Kelly's mindset different from other coaches and GMs in the NFL?
BANNER: There is a tremendous emphasis put on continuity in the NFL. There is a tremendous emphasis put on people who know how to do what you want them to do. And that is important, but it can become overrated, and then teams become afraid of making moves. I know Chip believes [continuity] matters, too. Anybody in the NFL who has knowledge believes that. But you can take the point too far, and then you get paralyzed. I think Chip saw an opportunity here, with him being relatively still new in his tenure, with a system he is still implementing, to not feel like he was unable to radically change the roster to be more conforming to what he wants he do, and not overrate the importance of continuity. That’s what’s refreshing here. That’s good. It’s smart. More teams should have been doing this sooner. I think maybe you’ll see it become more common now. Not to this degree; this is very significant. But to see more aggressive moves made that still value continuity, but not overvalue it.
VRENTAS: Do you think that stems from his college coaching experience, where you have to retool your roster every year?
BANNER: I think it’s that, but you also hear Chip talk openly about his belief that the only reason you continue to do something the way you’ve been doing it is because there’s a good reason, not just because it’s the way you’ve been doing it. My interactions with him, and my observations of him, are that he tends to look at everything with a new eye, and with a fresh outlook, as opposed to bringing too much conventional wisdom to it. When you are looking at the team with less of an absolute need to have continuity, then you really are open-minded to any move that can possibly make you better. And I think that is a big advantage if they are doing that. Because most teams are very hesitant to do that, and they’ll be able to kind of pick their spots and keep their eyes open for any opportunity.
VRENTAS: Three productive skill players you were part of drafting in the first or second round are now gone: Jeremy Maclin, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson. Would you have guessed none of the three would be Eagles at this point?
BANNER: Well, who's to know? First of all, you are lucky to hit on the three picks. When you pick players, the first thing you do is worry that you hit on them. Then your ability to keep them around, keep them healthy, re-sign them to a second contract—that’s a stretch too. Truly, I think it’s unlikely that you ever envision hitting on all three and being able to re-sign all three. But at the same time, if you asked me or anyone else [last year] if all three would be gone within the next year, that would be a little surprising.
VRENTAS: It’s hard to see what Kelly’s end game is. What do you think it is?
BANNER: I think he is getting players that he believes are very talented that best fit the way he wants to use them. We’ve heard for years that one of the things [Bill] Belichick does is find people who fit what he does. You may think that LeSean McCoy is a very good back. I happen to think he’s a very good back. But it’s safe to assume that Chip thinks DeMarco Murray fits what he's looking for in a back better. He really traded dollars there to a back who may just fit what he does better. I think it’s safe to assume, or he wouldn’t have made the move.
The Eagles clearly made a decision they had to upgrade the talent at certain positions on defense, and I think they succeeded in doing that. And frankly, it appears the initial plan on offense may have been a little bit different from what they ended up doing, which is why I believe if these guys are able to stay healthy, they have actually collectively improved the team quite a significant amount. It looks like he had a plan that had some flexibility, which is a very good thing. When an opportunity presented itself to pick up a player who probably, or at least appears to be, not in the original plan but made the team better, he was able to change direction and get a deal done. That’s not something everybody can do, and it’s a very valuable thing to have in a coach.
VRENTAS: What do you think Kelly sees in Murray that makes him a better fit than McCoy?
BANNER: The fact that he’s not a guy who dances around. And I think in the way that Chip’s offense creates holes, he’s better off with a guy who doesn’t run around. But in most offenses the fact that McCoy is so elusive and can cut so quickly is a huge asset. In Chip’s specific offense, it isn’t as important as it will be in Buffalo, for example. He’s just looking for something a little bit different. He’s looking for a big guy who is going to hit the hole and go. Where LeSean will create some holes, but he’ll also dance around sometimes and not get to the hole. I’m not saying that one is better than the other. It’s just that, originally people thought Chip let McCoy go because he didn’t want to spend an average of about $8.5 million on a running back over the next three years. Well now it turns out he is willing to spend about $8.5 million over the next three years for a running back—it’s just a different running back. It says he prefers Murray to McCoy. It wasn’t about the money; it wasn’t about anything else. He just thinks [Murray] fits better in this system.
The most interesting thing to me that is reflected here that really isn’t getting talked about is his faith in his sports science work. He’s got Murray, [Walter] Thurmond and [Sam] Bradford, three players that, if they stay very healthy, I personally don’t think there is any doubt he has increased the talent on this roster in a meaningful way. On the other hand, all three of them, history says, have a pretty good chance of getting hurt. So he’s basically betting that his sports science work is going to keep those three guys who have a history of missing games healthy. He’s got [Byron] Maxwell and Thurmond now at corner; I think he’s upgraded the corner [position]. He’s got Murray vs. McCoy, and in his mind, he thinks Murray fits the system better. He’s added Kiko [Alonso], so that’s just a pure addition. He’s traded basically half a year of [Nick] Foles and half a year of [Mark] Sanchez for, if he stays healthy, a full year of Bradford. Those are all pretty significant upgrades. Now it assumes they all stay healthy. But that’s what he’s clearly betting on—his knowledge and expertise in this off-field area to increase the chances of these guys staying healthy. And if he wins that bet, I think he’s improved the team a lot.
VRENTAS: On NFL Network on Thursday evening, former Eagles scout Daniel Jeremiah told a story about the Eagles having discussions about drafting Murray out of Oklahoma in 2011. How serious were those talks?
BANNER: It is so easy after someone turns out to be good to say, “Oh, we almost took him.” I hate when people do that. He was certainly discussed, and not just in passing. It was not like we were about to hand his name in or anything, but he was definitely someone we had serious discussions about. That’s accurate. And somebody we had a good grade on. But you can say that about a lot of guys, so I don’t want to 20/20 hindsight the thing. We went from Duce Staley, and then we had Brian Westbook, and then McCoy, and we have kind of always had a second guy with them. The shelf life on running backs isn’t that good, so we weren’t afraid of having a couple really good running backs at the same time.
VRENTAS: Do you think the Eagles would even have the capability to trade up if they wanted Marcus Mariota, based on the players and draft picks they have?
BANNER: That’s a hard question for me, because I do believe [Kelly] loves Mariota, and I do believe he’d love to have him. But I believe his actions here make it less likely that’s his plan. The Bradford move and the giving up of draft picks, as opposed to trying to add them. But I am not ruling it out, myself.
VRENTAS: Were you surprised when Kelly got personnel control after two seasons as an NFL head coach, and that he said the power shift was owner Jeffrey Lurie’s prerogative?
BANNER: I don’t want to comment on that. I’m not going anywhere near any of this stuff. That’s too dangerous.
VRENTAS: This has been a crazy week of free agency, particularly with some of the trades involving big name players. Does it seem to you that teams have been more willing to make bold moves and shake things up?
BANNER: It sure seems like there are more trades. Trades have historically been relatively rare. I remember when I made the Trent Richardson trade [in September 2013, when Banner was with the Browns, Cleveland sent the unproductive Richardson to the Colts for a first-round pick], people were kind of taken aback about how unusual that was. I think that’s true, and now we are seeing that break open a little bit. I think that’s good, and smart. There should be ways teams can improve through making trades, and I think they have been missing that opportunity. Now it seems like a group of them are more open-minded.
VRENTAS: Speaking of the Richardson trade, you have to be pleased with how that one looks in hindsight?
BANNER: You don’t want to be in a position of grading your own trades. It’s impossible to not look like an idiot if you are grading yourself.
VRENTAS: Are you still working as a consultant with the Atlanta Falcons? How did you contribute there?
BANNER: I helped the Falcons on their coaching search, and that was really the extent of my role. I don’t have an ongoing role with them. But I enjoyed having a chance to work with them. Since I did a coaching search a year ago, I had some familiarity with the candidates. I don’t want to get into the private conversations, but I was part of a group, and I’ve known [new head coach] Dan [Quinn] a while, and we’re very excited about his hire. At the moment, I am doing a few sports-related consulting projects. One is a little bit football related, the others aren’t. We’ll see what happens over time.
VRENTAS: Will you look to rejoin an NFL team in the future?
BANNER: No. No. I did it for 20 years, and I had a phenomenal experience. I feel beyond incredibly lucky to have gotten a chance to do it and experience a number of successes and work with a lot of great people. But at some point, it is time to let the next generation take over and step aside, and that’s where I just feel like I am at in my life. The idea of doing some things that keep me a little connected is potentially appealing, but the idea of going back and working for a team is not anything I am aspiring to do.
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