For Jeff Lurie, a singular obsession

Posted: September 06, 2012

Jeffrey Lurie set the tenor for this season on Jan. 3, when he offered an honest and chilling appraisal of his team.

Lurie called 2011 "without question the most disappointing season since I've owned the team," all the while bringing Andy Reid back as coach and setting up a season in which Lurie shoulders an onus unlike any time in his previous 18 years as Eagles owner.

The view from the owner's box has never included such lonely responsibility as it does this season, when Lurie's two-decade obsession with bringing a Super Bowl to Philadelphia approaches its most critical chapter yet.

The absence of a Lombardi Trophy in the Eagles' trophy case has become a punch line for the franchise, although the glare often shines brightest on the coach and the quarterback.

Reid and quarterback Michael Vick - the two most visible members of the organization and the two most responsible to win a Super Bowl - enter make-or-break seasons. Reid's contract expires after the 2013 season, and Vick's contract requires little financial obligation after this season.

For a team that believes it's so close to a championship, the instability of the head coach and quarterback is striking - and emblematic of the delicate time in the franchise's history.

By bringing Reid back for 2012 and a stated unwillingness to extend Reid's contract until after the season, Lurie is as much a central character in 2012 as his quarterback and coach. And it all comes during an unprecedented chapter in Lurie's ownership.

Joe Banner, Lurie's childhood friend and longtime team president, left in June and is expected to take a similar position with the Cleveland Browns. Then Lurie announced the end of his 20-year marriage to Christina Weiss Lurie in July.

Never more in Lurie's tenure has the fate of the franchise seemed so squarely on his back. With the organization potentially approaching a crossroads, Lurie seems singularly responsible for the overriding decisions in the Eagles' future.

Much has changed

On a Tuesday in May 1994, Jeffrey Lurie reached under the podium at a City Hall ceremony, pulled out an authentic NFL football, and tossed it into a crowd of hopeful fans who gathered in the courtyard.

Mayor Ed Rendell held the reception to honor Lurie as the Eagles' new owner. The Eagles still wore Kelly green and played in Veterans Stadium, an eyesore three miles down Broad Street from this introduction.

Lurie paid $195 million, then a record, to own the Eagles. He employed Rich Kotite as his coach; Randall Cunningham as his quarterback; and could take counsel from his wife, Christina, and Banner.

Nearly two decades later, Lurie stood last month on the sideline in Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles' majestic, nine-year-old stadium in South Philadelphia. It was Flight Night, a warm August evening on which 26,200 people came to watch the Eagles practice. Lurie found small souvenir footballs, and just as he had done that May day at City Hall, hurled them as gifts to his appreciative customers.

Much has changed in this city, and much has changed with its football team, since that Tuesday in May 1994. There's a new practice facility and a new stadium. The organization has shifted from a laughingstock to one of the league's model franchises, worth in excess of $1 billion. During the last three months, Lurie announced an immediate succession plan for Banner and his divorce from Christina.

There are two prevailing holdovers from the day Lurie threw the footballs 18 years ago and the night he threw the footballs in August: Lurie himself, and an annual tradition of the Lombardi Trophy's being hoisted by a team other than the Eagles.

"It's kind of the one remaining situation, the one remaining goal, and I think we have the means to do it," Lurie said of winning the Super Bowl. "It is just a question of if we make it happen."

'Substantial improvement'

Lurie acknowledged last week that "this was an offseason like no other." It came after one of the most ballyhooed rosters Lurie has ever employed finished 8-8 and failed to make the postseason.

In what had seemed to be 13 years of organizational harmony between Lurie and Reid, 2011 marked three consecutive seasons without a postseason victory, the longest in Reid's time in Philadelphia.

During last week's annual state of the team address, Lurie said the Eagles must demonstrate "substantial improvement" and that 8-8 would be unacceptable for Reid to return. This was, in essence, an ultimatum for Reid: Win or else.

The "or else" might be more complicated than ever. Banner, a chief decision-maker in the organization, had his responsibilities diverted to general manager Howie Roseman and new team president Don Smolenski, who was formerly the chief operating officer. Christina Lurie became a limited partner with Jeffrey Lurie maintaining controlling interest and 100 percent final decision-making.

The confluence of the two major off-field transactions left Lurie as the lone power broker remaining from 1994. It would be inaccurate to portray Lurie on an island by himself when making long-term decisions about the organization. But it is entirely accurate to suggest that Lurie will singularly make the major decision to shape the Eagles' future.

"It doesn't change. It's always been my decision," Lurie said. "I'm a good listener, and I surround myself with people, and I have really good people around me at all times. It's a very, very subjective decision, and I've always been the one to make it. Whether it is hiring, changing, or whatever, all of those are mine."

More traditional

Even though Reid's control of football matters has not been affected by Banner's departure, Banner was in the room when Reid was hired and was influential in the decision. At the news conference to announce the succession plan, Lurie said the Eagles were transitioning to a "much more traditional structure where there is a GM, there's a coach, and the president is not overseeing contracts and salary-cap analysis." That demonstrates the unorthodox amount of power that Banner held and the relative decentralized power in the current structure.

Reid was adamant that he always reported directly to Lurie - not to Banner - and that his day-to-day interaction with Lurie is unchanged. Reid insisted that he maintained a strong relationship with Banner and also rejected that there were walls created or a power imbalance.

Banner declined to be interviewed for this article.

The difference without Banner is more in structure than in power. Whereas Banner was once partly responsible for contract negotiations, that job now falls to Roseman and his aides. Smolenski runs the business operations, although he maintains daily correspondence with Roseman and football operations, and oversees everything from the organization's budget - which has a direct and significant effect on the football team - to the framework for training camp and game days, which also affects the players and coaching staff. So even though Banner is no longer involved in the front-office decisions, it's not as if a layer has been removed between the football operations and Lurie.

"His door is always open," Reid said of Lurie. "We talk all the time. I understand the business. I understand the demands that he has. I understand the expectations he has for me."

Lurie provides his employees - whether it's Reid, Roseman, or the dozens of decision-makers on the business side - freedom to operate. For football decisions, Reid and Roseman work together, although Reid maintains final decision-making. Reid first noticed Roseman's potential as a general manager in 2007, when he took a six-week leave of absence while his son, Garrett, was in drug rehab. Roseman's responsibilities rapidly increased, and he ascended to general manager to replace Tom Heckert in 2010. Roseman also said he maintains frequent communication with Lurie and tries to promote a culture of "no surprises."

Andrew Brandt, an ESPN business analyst who was a consultant in the Eagles' front office in 2009, remembers a "good" dynamic in the front office. Banner kept Reid informed of business involving players, with Reid dealing directly with the players and Banner dealing with the agent. Bigger decisions, such as whether to sign Vick after Vick's release from prison, required Lurie's attention. But Brandt said that Lurie "truly allows his people to do their jobs without interference."

Starts with the owner

Lurie's decision on Reid and the organization's future would be made easy if the Eagles play as well as he says they can. Despite the excitement generated from offseason acquisitions such as Nnamdi Asomugha and Cullen Jenkins, Lurie considered 2011 a "catch-up year." He said the Eagles have "caught up quite a bit," and gave Reid the benefit of the doubt by bringing him back this season.

Reid's agent, Bob LaMonte, said during training camp that Lurie "stated again and again" that Reid will be coach as long as Lurie is the owner. Lurie quickly issued a statement refuting that assertion and said everyone is evaluated each season. This further brought Reid's future into question, because a coach seldom enters a lame-duck year. Lurie emphasized last week that Reid's status will be evaluated at the end of the year, and it's clear that Reid will either receive an extension or lose his job.

Lurie will make that decision, just as Lurie's fingerprints are on every major decision in the organization - from allowing the team to sign Vick, to deciding that Reid will coach a 14th season.

Much has changed since Lurie purchased the Eagles, but he remains and is still trying to find a way to bring a parade from where he threw those footballs in 1994 to where he threw them in August.

"It's a big emptiness because I feel like we've accomplished everything else," Lurie said. "It is really almost all I think about in terms of the goals and what we try to accomplish."


Contact Zach Berman at zberman@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ZBerm.

 

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