Will Joe Banner get another chance?

Little big man: In 2008, Eagles president Joe Banner huddled with Andy Reid. His reign in Cleveland was cut short.
Little big man: In 2008, Eagles president Joe Banner huddled with Andy Reid. His reign in Cleveland was cut short. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff)
Posted: March 05, 2014

Love him or hate him, Joe Banner was one of a kind in the NFL.

Perhaps never in the history of the league had someone with so little a football background risen to such prominence.

After nearly 20 years with the Eagles, in which he had significant input into football decisions, Banner was hired by the Cleveland Browns as CEO and given the final say he did not have in Philadelphia.

But his reign lasted only 16 months. After Banner and the Browns fired their second coach in 12 months and hired Mike Pettine following a protracted search, Banner was relieved of his duties by owner Jimmy Haslam last month. He will officially step down in May.

Banner said last week during an interview with The Inquirer that he didn't know if he wanted to return to the NFL. There is some question as to whether he would be given another opportunity to run an organization and make football decisions.

It would be quite the fall, and while other executives with traditional football resumés have been run out of the NFL, there has been a recent run of decision-makers with nontraditional backgrounds who have found themselves on the outside looking in.

Banner, 61, said that he hopes his dismissal after an abbreviated opportunity won't affect how owners go about hiring personnel on the football side of the ledger.

There are still evaluators, like Eagles general manager Howie Roseman, who come from alternative backgrounds, but the number pales in comparison to the growing number of nontraditional executives in Major League Baseball and the NBA.

"I think that's going to be up to each individual owner," Banner said in his first interview since Haslam's announcement. "I do think my not being in Cleveland anymore was contributed to by a lot of people thinking that these jobs are still best filled by somebody with a traditional background. So it's hard to say what will be next."

Banner's perception of why he was ousted seemed to be supported by a story written by Peter King for his website, Monday Morning Quarterback, not long after Haslam's announcement.

Citing a source, King wrote that an exchange between Banner and coaching candidate Ken Whisenhunt illustrated one of the primary reasons that Haslam decided to make a change.

Whisenhunt, who had interviewed with the Browns a year earlier, questioned why he didn't get the job the first time around. Banner, according to one of King's sources, answered that the Browns didn't think he was building a championship coaching staff.

To which Whisenhunt replied, "Who are you to tell me what makes up a championship coaching staff?" the implication being that Banner, who had no coaching or playing experience, had little idea as to what made up such a staff.

Banner didn't want to get into detail about King's story or what occurred in the meeting as he remembered it, but he did say the conversation was not accurate as reported.

Whisenhunt, who was eventually hired by the Titans, said two weeks ago at the NFL scouting combine that he didn't recall exactly what was said during his interview with the Browns. He declined to comment on whether Banner's role - he would report to the CEO - had any impact on his decision not to accept a job in Cleveland.

Asked if teams with nontraditional decision-makers faced obstacles in hiring coaches or front office personnel, Whisenhunt said, "I don't know. That's a good question."

A nonfootball guy

Banner's critics would say the Browns' difficulty in nailing down a coach was subjective. The Eagles, for instance, were able to hire their first choice, Chip Kelly, last January even if Roseman was seen as an impediment.

But Banner also had a long and fruitful relationship with former Eagles coach Andy Reid, although Reid had final say on football matters.

"I enjoyed working with both of them, so that wasn't a big deal," Reid said of Banner and Roseman. "I respect both of them and the job they did. I don't ever look at that. I just look and see if they know how to evaluate, they have an idea about the cap, and they know how to situate that on a three-year plan, let's roll."

Banner said that it was only natural that some traditionalists would see his positions with the Eagles and Browns as taking a job away from a "football guy."

"I'm sure there were plenty of people that thought that my rise in both organizations wasn't deserved because there is kind of institutional thinking that goes on in the league and I don't fit it," Banner said. "I don't fit it in every sense. I'm 5-foot-5. I weigh 130 pounds. The resumé, the presence, the history do not fit what most would define as the right makeup for that job."

And yet, owner Jeffrey Lurie hired Banner, his childhood friend, to initially run the day-to-day business side of operations for the Eagles and eventually allowed him some sway over football decisions. And Haslam put Banner in charge right from the get-go.

Andrew Brandt, who managed the Packers' salary cap and ran football operations from 1999 to 2008, said he was optimistic that forward-thinking owners would be adaptable and that there would continue to be more opportunities in the NFL for those without traditional backgrounds.

"To me it's all about communication, someone who can galvanize the three parts of the football operation, which are coaching, player evaluation and financial management," said Brandt, who now works for ESPN and as an instructor at the Penn's Wharton School of Business.

Banner's background is in financial management. He opened a chain of men's clothing stores in Boston before Lurie called. They made their initial mistakes but continued to take an outsider's approach to running an NFL franchise.

Unlike so many teams at the time, the Eagles placed great emphasis in their scouting on researching character and work ethic in player evaluation, according to Banner.

"Most scouts are good evaluators, and yet even in the first round 50 percent of the picks are missed," he said. "The reason for that is because most teams historically weren't putting as much emphasis on the intangible qualities of competitiveness and work ethic that differentiate between who succeeds in the first round and who doesn't."

In a recent column for King's website, Brandt recalled when he met with prospects at the scouting combine during his Green Bay days and asked them nonfootball questions such as what they did first when they woke up in the morning.

"The coaches would look at me like, 'What are talking about?' " Brandt said. "But I wanted to find the guy that would do 100 push-ups before putting his clothes on, the guy that would study another hour before getting up. And that self-discipline, self-motivation - that's what I was looking for."

Nontraditional GMs

Brandt said he had never wanted to move into player evaluation, although there was natural crossover. The salary cap was implemented the same year Lurie brought the Eagles in 1994, and as Banner became adept at managing the numbers, he became more involved in assigning worth based on performance.

Several other cap experts followed and moved over into player evaluation, although they generally became general managers.

Mike Tannenbaum first worked in personnel departments before the New York Jets hired him to handle contracts. He then was promoted to senior personnel positions before being named GM in 2006. Tannenbaum was fired after the 2012 season and is now working as an agent.

Mickey Loomis worked on the business side with the Seahawks for 15 years and was originally cast in a similar role with the Saints before being named GM in 2002. Coach Sean Payton has final say on personnel, though.

There have been several other NFL general managers with nontraditional football backgrounds, the most famous being Ernie Acorsi. A former sportswriter and public relations director, Acorsi worked in front offices for the Colts, Browns, and Giants for more than 30 years.

Marty Hurney, also a former sportswriter, was the Panthers GM for 10 seasons before being fired in 2012. He is out of the NFL.

Roseman went to law school figuring his easiest path into the NFL would be working with the salary cap. Banner hired him and gave him a low-level job on the business side, but Roseman didn't hide his greater aspirations.

"I think the fact that I didn't have a traditional football background and I thought that I was capable of making these kinds of decisions," Banner said, "helped open my eyes to the possibility that there were other people like me who may be able to do it."

Roseman paid his dues, though, and moved over to scouting. He may not have taken the normal path, something that traditionalists may have griped privately about, but he became the league's youngest GM at 34 in 2010.

Roseman has surrounded himself with a number of evaluators who come from traditional scouting backgrounds. Tom Gamble is his vice president of player personnel and Tom Donahoe and Rick Mueller, former GMs, are senior advisers.

But that doesn't mean he hasn't implemented alternative ways to evaluate players. Alec Halaby has the title of assistant to the GM, but much of his work centers around analytics.

The 49ers, with team president Paraag Marathe spearheading the effort, have been at the forefront of using analytics in the NFL.

"The question with analytics is, yes, teams are hiring these guys, and the business of the organization is empowering them, but is the coaching and scouting side either trusting what they do or using what they do?" Brandt said. "That's what we don't know."

Blindsided

Banner, according to those close to him, was blindsided by Haslam's decision. In his eyes, the Browns were poised for big things. He said he was proud of the Pettine hire, the youth of the roster, the 10 picks the Browns have in what is to be a deep draft, and the $45 million in salary-cap space.

While the Eagles fell short of winning a Super Bowl during his tenure, he said he was most proud of the people he hired in Philadelphia, and Cleveland for that matter. In both locales, the GM and team president were hired by Banner.

There have been indications that Banner could take a job in the NFL office, but he said he hasn't thought beyond the next six months or so.

"My plan at this point is to take an extended period of time," Banner said, "to step back and reevaluate the time I've been in the league and where I am in my life and then make a decision as to whether my future would include the NFL or not."


Banner's Moves, Post-Eagles

June 7, 2012 - Stepped down as Eagles president and served as strategic adviser to owner Jeffrey Lurie.

Oct. 16, 2012 - After helping Jimmy Haslam purchase the Cleveland Browns in August, Banner was hired and named CEO.

Dec. 31, 2012 - Fired head coach and current Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and general manager Tom Heckert.

January 2013 - Interviewed eventual Eagles coach Chip Kelly, but did not offer him a job and later said that Kelly was "too big a gamble." Instead, the Browns hired former Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski as coach.

Jan. 18, 2013 - Hired Mike Lombardi as vice president of player personnel and eventually named him general manager.

Dec. 30, 2013 - Fired Chudzinski.

Feb. 6, 2014 - After a long search, hired former Bills and New York Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as head coach.

Feb. 11, 2014 - Haslam announced that Banner was stepping down as CEO and would be phased out by May. Lombardi was replaced by Ray Farmer.


jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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