Joe Banner was sitting in a hotel in New Zealand, about to travel to Hawaii, enjoying a life at least temporarily removed from football, when I tracked him down this week.
Make no mistake, the longtime team president of the Philadelphia Eagles still follows the game as closely as possible, especially with so many of his protegees thriving in the postseason again, but within days of his old pal Andy Reid being handed the Lombardi Trophy, Banner was vacationing literally on the other side of the world. Yet his fingerprints, in some ways, remain all over the most successful teams in the NFL. For the second time in three years, the Super Bowl winner included a brain trust with an abundance of Banner’s former hires, with the Chiefs and Eagles organizations carrying a significant Banner influence. Throw in the Ravens, coached by John Harbaugh, and the Bills, coached by Sean McDermott – both of whom Banner hired in Philadelphia for the first NFL jobs to kickstart their career – and the Banner coaching family tree is in full bloom.
I hadn’t considered these obvious connections until a happenstance conversation with a mutual friend, who mentioned it in passing, which prompted me to track down the man who first hired Reid — now the darling of 2020 — to coach the Eagles two decades ago before he was even on the radar of most NFL decision-makers. I could tell from the strange ringtone that Banner was out of the country, and the 18-hour difference in time zones did little to dampen Banner’s enthusiasm about seeing so many he helped give a start to in this league again prosper at the highest level.
Helping to find Andy Reid
“Of my list of hires, Andy is the one I am most proud of,” said Banner who ran the Eagles from 1995 to 2012, was president of the Browns from 2012 to 2013 and has consulted with the Falcons and other teams on more recent hires. “He had been working in Green Bay for eight years under Ron Wolf, a Hall of Fame GM and they were looking for head coach, too, and he doesn’t even interview Andy. And there were eight other teams looking for a head coach, and not one even took a look at Andy. And to be honest, he blew us away in the interview, and we were sold, and I don’t know how Ron Wolf skipped over him. He hired Ray Rhodes instead and he was gone in a year.”
Suffice to say, Banner was sweating out the Chiefs’ slow start two weeks ago – a constant of their historic postseason – and cheering wildly as Reid’s offense finished the game with 21-unanswered points in the fourth quarter to give Kansas City its first NFL title in 50 years.
“He is truly a superior person,” Banner said of Reid, whom he hired when still just a quarterbacks coach with no experience calling plays or running a football team. “The joy I have for him and his family is very real, and I do take some pride in seeing him accomplish this. We were able to find him, and I wish we could have done it together, but he’s special on all fronts and I’m glad this ends the conversation about whether or not he is going to make Hall of Fame.”
Banner also hired Chiefs team president Mark Donovan – just the fifth person to hold that title in the history of the team – early in his tenure running the Eagles for then novice owner Jeffrey Lurie, Banner’s longtime friend. Banner brought Donovan to Philadelphia from the league office in 2003, where he was working on sales, the beginning of what would be a fruitful career as a team executive.
“He was working in the NFL’s corporate sales department when I started to hear about him,” Banner said. “We made him the head of business and promoted him a few times and he’s become one and he’s someone I recommended for other jobs and now he’s the president of the team that just won the Super Bowl.”
Playing a key role in another championship
Banner’s imprint is on the 2017 champions as well, with Banner discovering and championing eventual Eagles general manager Howie Roseman throughout his career. Banner brought Roseman to the Eagles when no other team would and helped guide him through the ranks of salary cap/negotiator to the top football position in the organization, eventually replacing his mentor. Roseman retains deep respect for Banner for giving him his start and was “instrumental in shaping” Roseman’s views on football and team building, an Eagles source said.
“He was sending letters to every team in the league back then,” Banner said. “He had graduated law school, but he hasn’t even taken the bar yet. There was nothing to do with football in his resume. Nothing. He hadn’t played. He hadn’t been a manager of the football team in college or anything like that.
“He was basically a 25-year old fan. And a few years ago he won the Super Bowl and was Executive of the Year and I helped promote him all the way up to GM and fought for him all the way up. It was not always unanimous, but it’s the same thing as in a lot of these cases with many of these guys we hired – he was just willing to overcome whatever he had to get his start in football …
“All of these people we’re talking about had a conviction in their beliefs and were willing to overcome any hurdle they had to, but they were not close-minded about how to get there. They know how to collaborate and wanted to grow, and they all had really strong convictions in what they believe in.”
Roseman said: “I’m so appreciative of Joe and everything he has done for me. He understood that building a good team that could compete for a championship started with building a great organization full of smart, good people in the front office, on the coaching staff and on the field.”
Taking a chance on a future Coach of the Year
Banner first encountered Baltimore Ravens head coach Jon Harbaugh — 2020 AP Coach of the Year — when he was a special teams coach at Indiana University – not exactly a hotbed of future NFL head coaches. But he was immediately drawn to him, knew he came from an exemplary coaching family and hired him even before Reid was brought in as head coach.
“I sat with Harbs and listened to him talk and knew he was going to be a good fit with us,” Banner said. “We weren’t afraid to make him the defensive backs coach later on, even though he had never done that before because we knew what kind of coach he was. That was part of his desire to eventually be a head coach and he requested the move to DB coach, but we could have said, ‘You’re a great special teams coach, stay there.’ Instead, we let him become a great DB coach and in time he would have been a great defensive coordinator too, if it had gone that way.
“When his opportunity in Baltimore came up, I was most enthusiastic recommending him. I got the first call from (Ravens executive) Pat Moriarty, and I told him, ‘This guy has been a success in everything he’s done and he’s a great leader and I wouldn’t be afraid at all to hire him as head coach.”
Harbaugh has mentioned his respect for Banner to me on numerous occasions, believing him to be misunderstood by some in the league, and misjudged by others. “Joe knows how to build an organization and identify quality people,” he told me years ago when we happened to share a flight to the scouting combine.
McDermott got an audience with Banner when he was barely out of college. Banner didn’t let his age or inexperience keep him from taking the young man seriously.
“He had spent one year at a graduate assistant at William & Mary, that was it,” Banner said. “But you talked to Sean and listened to his vision and heard about the things he had overcome and you could feel his passion. I said, ‘This guy will find a way to achieve.’
“We just had to figure out what position we were going to put him in – either football administration and scouring or on a path to be a coach. And then as soon as Andy got to know him the decision was basically made and he was going to the coaching staff and we were toast in football administration.”
Banner’s coaching network is expansive
There are other less well-known figures who Banner brought on early in their careers as well. Don Smolenski, president of the Eagles, was hired by Banner there back in 1998 as a chief financial officer at a time when he was working for the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League of all places.
Scott O’Neil, the president of the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils was hired by Banner very early on, with the Eagles helping pay his tuition to business school. Banner gave an early break to Sean McDermott’s brother, Tim, who is now president of the Philadelphia Union, as well as Bill Manning, now president of Toronto’s MLS team.
When Banner was with the Browns he urged owner Jimmy Haslam to hire Dan Quinn as head coach, then later consulted for Falcons owner Arthur Blank when he ultimately did hire Quinn, who took the team to a Super Bowl. While with the Browns Banner did manage to make an unusual hire as well, tabbing former Green Beret Brian Decker for what would become a crucial role.
Decker, when with the military, was charged with discovering why only 30-35 of the Green Beret candidates were actually completing the process. Decker came up with a predictive model that raised the completion rate to 70-percent. Banner heard about him through then Browns coach Rob Chudzinski and exec Mike Lombardi, who had visited a military base and come across him.
Decker had several months left on his military contract when Banner locked in on him for an organizational analysis position, focused on finding the most efficient way to structure the organization and essentially running quality control on draft picks.
“Of course, we got fired before he started at the Browns,” Banner said, “but even from our conversations on the hone and his preliminary work ideas, I was blown away. I couldn’t wait to work with him.”
Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam discarded Decker as well after those who hired him were gone. Colts general manager Chris Ballard became aware of Decker through a story on ESPN.com when Banner was working there, and he hired him to oversee how the Colts identify draft picks as a player personnel strategist.
“I don’t know of anyone like him in the league,” Balled told The Athletic. “Fortunate to have him.”
Banner said: “I’m as proud of that hire as much as some of these other much-better known hires. I’ve got to tell you, not only because Chris Ballard is fantastic, but I know Brian is going to kill it in Indianapolis. The combination of those two is going to be deadly, and when people realize what Chris and Brian are doing they’ll be trying to find the next Brian Decker, but I’ve got to be honest, I don’t think he’s out there.”
Coming to terms with his Browns departure
Banner never got a chance to see it out himself in Cleveland, with the Haslams perpetually firing front office execs and coaches. He might not get another chance to run a team himself – though a wise owner should consider that prospect – and seems increasingly at peace with it. But that won’t stop him from living vicariously through the many he helped bring into the league and rooting for them.
“Good ‘ole Jimmy (Haslam) didn’t think I’m worth one year,” Banner said, “and didn’t give me time to develop anything. But two of the last three Super Bowl winners, the president, the GM and head coach, four of those six people I singularly hired before anyone knew them, and two others I contributed to their hiring. I don’t know anyone else who can say that about the top three people in those buildings. And I am still in touch with all of them and I have a great back and forth with all of those people and it gives me a little stake in the game even while I am out of it.”