On Banner, And Lessons Learned

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If you’re like me, you find Joe Banner to be an oddly fascinating study. If so, you’ll especially enjoy the anecdotes that Peter King unearthed about Banner’s final days as boss in Cleveland.

The scene is set around the interview Banner and the rest of the Browns’ brass held with head coaching candidate Ken Whisenhunt this offseason. Whisenhunt interviewed for the same position last year but the gig instead went to Rob Chudzinski, who was promptly fired after a 4-12 campaign. He wanted to know why he didn’t get the job the first time around.

The Browns’ CEO who was in both interviews, Joe Banner, told Whisenhunt he didn’t think the staff he was putting together at the time was “a championship coaching staff.”

Whisenhunt, one NFL source said, was peeved that a man who had never coached and who’d been involved in football mainly on the business side would sit in judgment of his potential coaches.

“Who are you to tell me what makes up a championship coaching staff?” Whisenhunt said, with an edge in his voice.

That scene, another source told The MMQB, illustrated a big reason why owner Jimmy Haslam made the bombshell announcement he made Tuesday, firing Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi after their first full seasons on the job. Haslam became dubious about Banner’s football acumen and during the coach-search process following the firing of rookie coach Rob Chudzinski saw what a potential roadblock to success Banner would be. Add in Banner’s brusque and sometimes confrontational style that rubbed many around the NFL the wrong way, and you’ve got a good read on why Haslam stunned the NFL with the late-morning announcement.

It makes you wonder how the interview between Banner and Chip Kelly went, doesn’t it?

A couple things strike me here. One is the importance of having the proper power structure up top, and how critical a strong head coach is to the stability of that structure. Recent Eagles history proves that point pretty well. When Andy Reid was in firm command, Banner’s influence could only extend so far. He had plenty of say — even when it came to personnel — but Reid had firm enough footing to maintain authority over the football side of the operation. When Reid found himself on shakier ground, the dynamic shifted. Banner and Howie Roseman fought for the power that was suddenly up for grabs. Now three men were pulling in different directions. Many of the moves during this time ran counter to what we had come to expect under a Reid-led team. He had lost control.

An unbridled Banner is not a good thing, as Cleveland discovered. There are business people and there are football people and it’s never a good idea to have one too deep in another’s territory. You need a head coach — and a system — that can keep trespassers from coming over the wall.

The Eagles learned their lesson in this respect, it seems, and arranged their power structure accordingly. Banner’s successor, Don Smolenski, is an integral part of the operation but is not overly-involved in the personnel side of things. Roseman takes the lead in the draft process and is responsible for gathering players that fit Kelly’s criteria, and the head coach shapes the 53-man roster. All three report directly to Jeffrey Lurie.

In Smolenski, the Eagles found kind of the “anti-Banner” in terms of his approach and personality. It’s unlikely his style will ever be described as “brusque and sometimes confrontational.” He works mostly in the background  and identifies well with the fan base.

This is no coincidence. The Eagles are very much aware of the rift that occurred between the team and town, even during some of the franchise’s most successful years. Banner wasn’t solely responsible for this, of course, but his rocky relationship with the fans was emblematic of a larger overall problem. They have put in a great deal of work to try and bridge the divide.

All of this is a reminder of the delicate balance needed within an NFL organization, where a person can be of tremendous value in one environment and a detriment in another.

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