NFL

Banner deserves credit from fans

The model Joe Banner established as Eagles president was a solid one.
FOX Sports LEN PASQUARELLI
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AROUND THE LEAGUE

For most of his 18 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, Joe Banner was reviled by many fans of the franchise, and vilified for the club's inability to win a Super Bowl during his time as owner Jeff Lurie's first lieutenant.

GET TOGETHER

It's back to work as NFL teams gather for OTAs. Check out all the familiar faces in different places.

Banner, 59, stepped down as team president Thursday. He was a savvy guy, a front office executive who introduced some new wrinkles — like the actuarial-based assessments of a veteran's viable productivity — to the game. And Banner took much of the heat for coach Andy Reid, perhaps even more of a lightning rod during their time together, for the voracious Philly fans. No doubt, Banner made some mistakes and misjudgments — perhaps most notoriously the decision to let popular safety Brian Dawkins depart as a free agent in 2009 — but more often his personnel calls were on the nose.

Particularly early on, the model he established — identify and draft good players, develop them, funnel them into the lineup when ready and often sign them to contracts years before their current deals expired — was a solid one.

Few of his "early" contracts, which locked in players for deals that ended up saving the team money in the long-run, blew up in his face. For all of that, Banner should have been more appreciated than he was. Now that he is gone, perhaps with some time to closely examine his methodology, Banner will get more credit for what he brought to the Eagles organization and the league.

Banner will work toward assembling a group to perhaps purchase a professional sports franchise, preferably in the NFL.

However, reports that Cleveland and St. Louis might be on Banner's radar are likely erroneous. The Browns said through a spokesman the club is not for sale.

Rams owner Stan Kroenke hasn't acknowledged the rumor with any response. Even with the problems at the Edward Jones Dome, league sources indicate he's not going to bail.

Don't discount, though, the possibility of the Buffalo Bills. While the Bills aren't technically for sale, Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson is 93 years old, and none of his heirs really want the team with his eventual passing.

Wilson's will includes a stipulation that the franchise will be handled by a group of estate trustees, much like the Jets were when Leon Hess died in 1999, with the intention of selling the Bills. At some point, they'll be in play.

*Amid the alternating reports this week regarding Drew Brees, who has the "exclusive" franchise tag and has been absent from offseason workouts, is this from the camp of the New Orleans quarterback: Brees' representatives continued on Thursday night to examine all the contractual nuances of the new offer posited by the club within the past week.

And while there is a framework for a counter proposal, none has been made yet, and it remains uncertain when the next step of the negotiating dance will take place.

One source close to Brees told The Sports Xchange he would be "pretty surprised" if a deal is completed with the next week.

There was, at least as of Thursday, still a good chance talks could leak into July, when the timeline gets compressed and everyone is under pressure to cut an agreement for the record-setting quarterback.

*The continuing availability of some free agent tailbacks like Cedric Benson, Ryan Grant and Jackie Battle has been a source of puzzlement in this space for some weeks now, but one AFC scout who has done some homework on the three did shed some light on the inability of Benson to locate a new team so far.

BLAST OFF

Demaryius Thomas is just one player ready for a breakout season in 2012.

Benson, the scout emphasized, has put the ball on the ground too much, with 12 fumbles (seven lost) over the past two seasons. There is some lack of confidence in his ball security proficiency.

For sure, there are other questions about Benson, including some personal issues, but the fumbles remain a sticking point.

Benson has a lot of things working against him — he is 29, has some tread rubbed off the tires with nearly 300 attempts per year the last three seasons and might not adapt well to playing second fiddle for a team with a younger runner — but the fact remains he has rushed for 1,000 yards three straight times.

Benson lacks long speed and has just six runs of 20 or more yards and one for 40-plus the last two seasons (he had 10 of the former and one of the latter in 2009), but is a power back who might still be able to handle 7-10 carries per outing.

Many of his warts were raised by the talent evaluator, but the fumbles were really emphasized.

*There has been no significant progress in negotiations between Detroit officials and franchise defensive end Cliff Avril, according to sources from both sides.

Earlier this week, Lions' president Tom Lewand seemed to indicate the club preferred the four-year vet sign his $10.6 million tender before any kind of long-term contract discussions would advance, but Avril doesn't seem in any hurry to do so.

The NFL deadline for signing franchise players to multiple-season deals is July 16.

Avril is just 26, had 11 sacks and six forced fumbles in 2011 and is said to be "very conscious" of some of the recent deals for defensive ends and the market at the position.

*If the NFL intends to hire replacement officials, to stand in for its locked-out zebras, it might want to get cracking and demonstrate a sense of urgency.

The regular season kicks off in less than three months. Word is the league has been very deliberate in contacting potential replacements, and that the process could take a bit longer than originally anticipated.

No one can really quibble with the deliberation, since the NFL wants the best arbiters available, but the clock is ticking and replacements must be trained and educated.

According to arena league supervisor of officials Carl Paganelli, Sr., only one of his charges had been contacted by NFL director of officials recruiting Ron Baynes as of Thursday night about possibly working games. One would think that, with officials from the college BCS conferences ruled out, the Arena League might be prime recruiting territory as the NFL seeks to fill its complement of game officials.

That hasn't been the case so far, though. Paganelli told The Sports Xchange that Arena League officials are signed to contracts through the indoor loop's season, which ends with a championship game in early August, but that they are free to leave early if the NFL beckons.

GOIN' CAMPING

Rookies throw on their new gear and hit the field. View photos

*The report from Chicago that Devin Hester's return duties could be curtailed some in 2012, as arguably the best runback specialist in league history concentrates on his duties as a slot receiver, might not be the only instance of a team revamping its kick return game in 2012.

Eagles special teams coordinator Bobby April, whose club ranked only 31st on kickoff returns and No. 28 on punt returns in '11, has been impressed by rookie Brandon Boykin in workouts.

The former Georgia star and fourth-round draft choice, who is the SEC career leader in kickoff return yards and had four kickoffs run back for touchdowns in his career, may be slotted to handle both chores for the Eagles.

Boykin didn't return punts for the Bulldogs until last season, but appears comfortable doing so. Indianapolis, which has long been woeful in the return games (dead last in the kickoff and punt return categories last year), likely will turn to third-rounder T.Y. Hilton to improve those areas.

And undrafted free agent Marquis Maze and fifth-rounder Chris Rainey could handle the return duties in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers want to reduce the workload of 1,000-yard wide receiver Antonio Brown. A former Alabama star, and only 5-feet-8, Maze has been an eye-opener in OTA drills and will battle for a spot on the roster, even with the Steelers seemingly stacked at wide receiver.

As noted here last week, Rainey has impressed with his quickness throughout the spring.

*Who'd have thought that Major League Baseball, which for years lagged behind in drug testing and lived through a period when the use of performance enhancing drugs was apparently rampant, would actually nudge ahead of the NFL now in that regard?

But Thursday, MLB and its powerful players association announced in conjunction, and with little fanfare, that baseball will begin testing for HGH in spring training next year.

The NFLPA, which agreed to HGH testing in last summer's CBA extension, continues to drag its heels and make excuses for why it hasn't moved ahead with the program. By the way, word is some members of congress are just as concerned, perhaps even more so, by the NFLPA's dilatory stance on HGH testing than they are the union's collusion claims against the league.

The NFLPA stall tactics don't seem to be going over very well on The Hill.

Tagged: Bills, Bengals, Lions, Saints, Eagles, Steelers, Drew Brees, Cedric Benson, Cliff Avril

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