Banner has a new fixer-upper in Cleveland

Posted: March 21, 2013

PHOENIX - Joe Banner regards himself as a fix-it man. A problem-solver.

The guy you call when everything goes to hell. The guy you call when the pipes are leaking and the heat's not working and the toilets are backing up and the bank is sending you a stream of foreclosure notices.

"My strength is in building something, putting something together," the former Eagles president and new Browns chief executive officer said in an interview at the NFL owners' meetings.

"If you were in business, I'd be the guy that you'd bring in to bring something back that was headed in the wrong direction, as opposed to somebody who would continue to operate something that was doing reasonably well.

"That's just what I do better. I recognize that. I think Jeff [Lurie] recognized that. So it was the right time to move on."

Banner stepped down as the Eagles president last June. Less than 2 months later, the Browns' new owner, Jimmy Haslam III, hired him to help fix his hapless franchise, which has had only two winning seasons and made only one playoff appearance in 14 years of expansion existence.

The reason for Banner's exit from the NovaCare Complex depends on whom you ask.

Lurie said at the time that it was all part of a 2-year executive succession plan that was fully endorsed by Banner. Said his friend of 40-plus years was looking for "one more challenge."

Others, including me, believe a bigger reason for his departure was that he lost a power struggle to then head coach and executive vice president of football operations Andy Reid, who would eventually lose a power struggle to a 4-12 record.

Banner said he basically became expendable.

"We had been planning for a while for the promotions of Don [Smolenski] and Howie [Roseman]," he said. "Jeff and I knew they were really good, and that at some point, we would get to the point where there wasn't room for everybody. And that was the reality. That was what happened."

With the Browns, Banner has the complete power he didn't have with the Eagles. Haslam owns the the team, but Banner runs it for him. Everyone reports to him.

"In Philadelphia, Andy reported to Jeff even though we worked really closely together," he said. "It's a fairly significant difference.

"We have a team of people that work together just like we did in Philly and try to collaborate and drive consensus. But the fact that both the head coach [Rob Chudzinski] and general manager [Mike Lombardi] report to me, obviously, is different."

While Banner's role in personnel decisions with the Eagles always was a popular topic of debate, the fact of the matter was that Reid had the final call.

But as the team's chief contract negotiator and salary-cap manager, Banner often was able to influence personnel decisions. Case in point: the 2011 contract stalemate with wide receiver DeSean Jackson.

Banner didn't want to re-sign Jackson, at least not for the money Jackson and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, thought he was worth.

The immature Jackson let his contract problems influence his play in 2011 and became a locker- room cancer. He caught only four touchdown passes and the Eagles, who went into the season with Super Bowl aspirations, finished 8-8 and didn't even make the playoffs.

Shortly after the season, Roseman replaced Banner as the team's main contract negotiator. He brought a kinder, gentler approach to the negotiating table, re-signing Jackson and All-Pro running back LeSean McCoy, another Rosenhaus client, and signing offensive tackle Todd Herremans and defensive end Trent Coles to extensions.

In fairness to Banner, it should be pointed out that the reason the Eagles were able to sign those players last year, and the reason they went into free agency this year with $40 million in salary-cap space, was because of Banner.

He predicted 2 years ago after the NFL signed its new collective bargaining agreement and extended its television contracts, that the cap would stay flat through at least 2014, and go up only slightly in '15. He structured many of the team's player contracts with that in mind.

In Cleveland, Banner has been hands-on with respect to the Browns' offseason personnel decisions. It is thought that one of the main reasons he hired Lombardi, who once worked for the Eagles and had been working for NFL Network for the last 5 years, was because he won't object to Banner's involvement in personnel matters.

"I'm re-energized," Banner told the Daily News. "It's exciting. It's a big challenge. It's, obviously, totally different than what I was doing at the end in Philly, where we kind of had established things and set things up."

Banner and Lurie appear to have kissed and made up after exchanging some verbal punches earlier this year.

In January, Lurie publicly accused Banner of besmirching Roseman's good name after a report that several Eagles head-coaching candidates, including the guy they eventually hired, Chip Kelly, didn't want to work with Roseman.

The report, by CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora, quoted an unnamed source as saying Roseman was "drunk with power."

Subsequent media stories suggested Banner was La Canfora's source.

"If there are league sources that are really based in Cleveland, that's not right," Lurie said after hiring Kelly. "We see through it all."

Banner responded by suggesting that Lurie might want to find himself a good libel lawyer. "Any implication that I had anything to do with [La Canfora's] story is completely false, outrageous and borders on libel."

But that was then and this is now. Now, Banner said he and Lurie have talked things out and are buds again.

"It's good," he said. "I spent some time talking with him the other day. I was with him after he played golf. We were commiserating about how he played.

"[Our relationship] is different [now]. We were together for 18 to 19 years. Now we talk occasionally, text occasionally. So it's different, but it's friendly.

"We've been friends for 44 years. We've been too close for too long to let a moment like that change the long history that we have."

Banner acknowledged that he wouldn't even be in the NFL today if not for Lurie, who brought his childhood friend to the Eagles with him in 1994 when he bought the team from Norman Braman.

"I'll always be incredibly appreciative of him," Banner said.

Banner said Lurie's hearty recommendation of him to Haslam last summer was instrumental in the latter's decision to hire him as the Browns' CEO.

"If Jeff hadn't given the recommendation he did to Jimmy, I wouldn't be running the Cleveland Browns," he said. "Jimmy said he probably wouldn't have felt comfortable partnering with me if Jeff hadn't said the things to him that he said.

"I understand what people are speculating, [about the relationship between Banner and Lurie]. But the reality is we've been way too close for too long. I'll never not be appreciative of the opportunity Jeff gave me."


On Twitter: @Pdomo


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