Tony Banks is showing potential once again.
The Washington Redskins’ quarterback has stood out in recent weeks, leading three straight wins that boosted the Redskins to a respectable 3-5 at midseason. Mixing good decisions with the strong arm and mobility that always have impressed, Banks is displaying the potential to be the Redskins’ quarterback of the future.
This, of course, has happened before.
In St. Louis. In Baltimore. And, briefly, in Dallas. Banks’ career, in a frustrating though certainly not unique pattern, has been all about potential, never about long-term results. He even jokes that the “potential” label should have expired several seasons ago. But simultaneously he can’t stop thinking the same thing that coaches think:
This guy could be an elite NFL quarterback.
“Definitely,” Banks said recently. “I wouldn’t be calling myself a starter if I didn’t think I was capable of reaching that upper echelon of quarterbacks. Physically I should be there, but my play hasn’t been up to my potential. Once we get those two things on the same page, I’ll be all right.”
Notable among those that agree are former St. Louis coach Dick Vermeil and Baltimore coach Brian Billick. They believe that all Banks needs is several seasons in the same system something he hasn’t had since high school to grow truly comfortable and turn his flashes of stardom into consistent winning performances.
“He had two games while I was with the Rams, where his performance was as good as any by a quarterback in the National Football League,” said Vermeil, now first-year coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. “I always felt if a guy can do it occasionally, if he gets into a system with the right personnel, the right coaching, he can do it consistently.”
So is Marty Schottenheimer’s club the right system? Does it have the right personnel? The right coaching? Can this be where Banks, who has eight games left on a one-year contract, finally finds the continuity deemed essential to his success?
“I would think so,” Banks said. “I really can’t jump to conclusions, because I don’t know what they’re thinking up [in management]. I don’t know if they’ve got their mind set on somebody else, or if I’m making them lean my way, or what.”
Banks’ shuffling began in college. First he spent two years at Mesa Community College in his hometown, San Diego. Then he went to Michigan State, where George Perles coached in 1994 and Nick Saban in 1995.
Banks was a second-round pick by the Rams in the spring of 1996. As a rookie, under Rich Brooks, he started 13 games and passed for 2,535 yards, at the time fourth-most by a rookie quarterback in NFL history. But he also set an NFL record with 21 fumbles and the Rams won just six games. Brooks was fired and replaced by Vermeil.
The next two seasons brought more moments of success. But they also brought just nine victories, injuries to top receiver Isaac Bruce, inconsistency in No. 2 target Eddie Kennison and a few off-field errors by Banks. The errors included Banks bringing his dog to 1997 training camp, missing practice in 1997 when his dog was hit by a car and staying behind in Miami after a 1998 game there. The mistakes and the losses, put together, made him a target for blame.
“He was something of a victim there, I felt,” Vermeil said. “He was thrust into a starting position and didn’t have the supporting cast or the coaching to help him get it done. It was a tough situation. And after things started to go badly, people would just sit and wait for him to do something wrong.”
Ultimately, though, it was the Rams’ collective struggles that triggered his trade to Baltimore in 1999.
“After two years we had won four games [in the 1998 season],” Vermeil said. “I knew we were getting a lot better, but I didn’t know if Tony, with the problems he had had there in two years, if he could get it going quickly enough for us to save the program. If we weren’t strong early [in 1999], we may never have gotten it started.”
The Rams, of course, were strong early and strong late in 1999 strong enough to win the Super Bowl. Kurt Warner ended up being the quarterback, but it was Redskins passer Trent Green who signed the big free-agent deal. Vermeil didn’t want Banks languishing on the bench behind Green (who would blow out a knee in the preseason), so the coach found a few trade options and left it up to Banks. The young quarterback chose Baltimore, which gave up fifth- and seventh-round picks.
“He had some opportunities to get some high draft picks, too,” Banks recalled. “When you’re trying to win some games, you want to get the highest draft picks you can when you’re trading a guy. But I told him I wanted to go to Baltimore. I thought I could beat Scott Mitchell out in a limited amount of time. He set it up for me.”
From the start, Banks and Billick never quite meshed. Banks brought a laid-back attitude, and Billick wanted his quarterback to act with more passion and intensity. Banks, instead of moving ahead of Mitchell in 1999 camp, dropped behind Stoney Case and into the third-string role.
Although Banks since has added “a little more pep in my step” to avoid being perceived by other coaches as nonchalant, he laughs at the spins that have been placed on his demeanor.
“When I was a rookie, I had the same personality,” Banks said. “[People said] ‘Oh, he’s so laid-back. He’s so calm. He has so much poise.’ Two years of losing, ‘Look at him. He’s nonchalant. He doesn’t care. He’s a loaf.’ Then I went into Baltimore and the same things were said about me, and then we went on a tear in ‘99. ‘Oh, he’s so great. He’s calm. He’s always calm.’ The only way to dispel all the critics is to have success.”
The Ravens did go on a tear that year. Banks moved into the starting role against Buffalo on Oct. 31. Baltimore lost that day, dropping to 2-5, but rebounded to go 6-3 down the stretch with Banks starting the entire way. He ended up throwing for 17 touchdowns with just eight interceptions, by far the best single-season ratio of his career.
Banks signed a four-year, $18.6 million contract in the offseason and entered 2000 with the chance to stay in one system for multiple years. He was excited; the Ravens were excited.
The continuity that Billick now believes is crucial for Banks is “what we thought we would have here,” Billick said. “We finished 1999 well, and thought we could use that as a springboard to success in 2000.”
Said Banks: “I was so comfortable with that offense. It was like second nature to me. [But] I kind of overthought some things. … In 1999 I was aggressive and I had a great year. In 2000 I was aggressive at times, but the knock on me was that I supposedly wouldn’t come down to my second, third and fourth [receiving] options. So I spent all offseason concentrating on that. I wasn’t as good at the deep ball once I did that.”
The Ravens opened strong. In Week 2 against Jacksonville, Banks led an incredible comeback, guiding Baltimore from a 17-0 deficit to a 39-36 win. He threw five touchdown passes that day. But when October came, the touchdowns stopped. The Ravens went five straight weeks without one; after starting the first four of those games, Banks gave way to Trent Dilfer.
For a second straight time, Banks’ removal coincided with a Super Bowl victory. This time Banks remained with the team, but he didn’t start again. At season’s end, the champion Ravens signed Elvis Grbac in free agency, cut Banks and let Dilfer’s contract expire.
“It was a matter of being for Tony’s sake as well [as ours],” Billick said. “For him to have come back here would have been difficult.”
Not to mention expensive. Banks’ contract had been designed for him to be a starter. The next team that signed him would not take the same financial gamble. The Dallas Cowboys agreed to a one-year, $500,000 deal for Banks to replace Troy Aikman. There were other offers to be a highly paid backup (at Kansas City, for example), but Banks wanted to prove that he could be a starter.
And in Dallas, Banks had another shot at continuity Cowboys offensive coordinator Jack Reilly had been his coordinator in St. Louis in 1996.
“It was set up, at least in my thinking, for everything to work well for me,” Banks said. “The contract for one year, so be it. That was something I had to take on the chin because of the situation I put myself in. Being in that offense, and being with [receivers] Rocket [Ismail] and Joey [Galloway], I thought it was just a perfect fit for me.”
Until the Cowboys bailed halfway through camp. Believing rookie Quincy Carter was the answer, Dallas cut Banks, who thought he was having the best camp of his career. That day the Redskins were working out Danny Kanell as a potential backup for Jeff George. Redskins quarterbacks coach Brian Schottenheimer had been in St. Louis in 1997, and he didn’t hesitate when Marty Schottenheimer asked him if they should look at Banks.
Banks had grown up a lot since 1997. But Brian Schottenheimer didn’t know that at the time and wasn’t concerned. The decision to bring in Banks, Brian Schottenheimer said, was “just based on talent. His ability to throw the football, his escapability. That in itself gives you a chance in this league.”
Which made Brian Schottenheimer “pleasantly surprised” when Banks showed up in Washington ready to work. Banks was given the starting job in Week 3, when Marty Schottenheimer suddenly decided that Jeff George couldn’t win in the system. But even before that, Banks demonstrated solid work ethic.
“The thing that he’s really impressed me with is his ability to work during the week to prepare,” Brian Schottenheimer said. “Being in the classroom, watching film, taking the playlist home at night, coming back with questions. He’s really preparing himself in a more professional manner than what I remember when I was around him in St. Louis.”
Many NFL quarterbacks struggle until their late 20s or early 30s. Suddenly they seem to “get it.” Could that be happening with Banks, 28?
“You do go through a couple of different levels as a quarterback,” Billick said. “After you’ve been in the league for a few years, things start to slow down for you. Then the next stage is that you really start to understand defenses. Your anticipation may heighten your skills. Tony may be entering that stage now.”
Billick, who speaks highly of Banks despite their parting, and Vermeil, who remains a close friend of Banks, agree that the Redskins quarterback could reach the Pro Bowl one day.
“Tony has phenomenal skills,” Billick said. “A great arm, good vision. All he needs is maturing in a good system.”
Said Vermeil: “I always thought he could [succeed]. I said that to Marty, and I said that to the people in Dallas. All he had to do was get in a situation where he would play enough, where people would believe in him enough for him to become efficient.”
Redskins teammates, for their part, believe in Banks. He has displayed leadership despite his laid-back reputation, and he impressed by persevering when he and the offense struggled badly in Weeks 3-5. Over the past three games he has improved his rating from 54.5 to 76.2, while the offense has increased its average yardage from 184.6 to 260.5.
“He’s not going to give up on anything,” offensive tackle Jon Jansen said. “He’s going to do everything he possibly can until somebody drags him off the field. And there were times when we were dragging him off the field. He’s a competitor, and that’s what’s kept him going through this.”
But Banks might have a long way to go. Marty Schottenheimer agrees with Billick’s description of a quarterback’s stages, but he doesn’t think Banks is quite at the second stage yet.
“He has been so involved in learning this system, which is really different from anything he’s been involved with, right now I think it’s premature to say he’s in the defensive side of it yet,” Schottenheimer said. “He is just beginning to get an understanding of the system the audibles, what plays we like to get out of and what we’re going to go to if we get out of them.”