Frank Ryan brought analytics to Cleveland 50-plus years ago
By Thomas Moore
The Cleveland Browns are emphasizing analytics as they rebuild the franchise, a notion that scares some people. But it is nothing new, as former quarterback Frank Ryan was using analytics in the late 1960s.
The Cleveland Browns are entering their second season with an analytics focused front office of executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta.
While there are still holdouts who think what the Browns are doing is on the same level as witch craft, the reality is that they are embracing a new way of building a football team that has been around the NFL for decades.
Still don’t believe that? Well, then just talk to former quarterback Frank Ryan, who played for the Browns from 1962 through 1968. During his time with the Browns, Ryan put up an impressive résumé:
- A three-time Pro Bowl selection
- Led the NFL in touchdown passes in 1964 and 1966
- Is fourth on the franchise’s all-time list with 13,361 passing yards
- Is third on the franchise’s all-time list with 134 touchdown passes
- Was the quarterback of the Browns last title-winning team in 1964.
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And he also was one of the early adopters of analytics in football, even though they did not call it that back in the day. Ryan sat down for an interview with Kalyn Kahler at Monday Morning Quarterback and explained how he began analyzing opposing defenses in a new way:
"I think it had a lot to do with the way the opposing team lined up. I was interested in the positions and locations of players on the other side, and which plays would have more success based on the information about where the defense lined up. I did that stuff for a while. God, I wonder if I have some books about that around here still? I didn’t really dwell on it or depend on it. But in the process of doing it, I automatically picked up on a few tips."
Ryan mostly kept the information to himself and he prepared for each week’s game, but once he moved on to the Washington Redskins for the final two years of his career he found a disciple in Washington head coach Vince Lombardi:
"Lombardi hired an occasional person to help me while I was off playing football. I would get back that night and have the stuff all set up. I think Lombardi paid me a little extra money but not much. He did buy some equipment, several computers. He was just about the best head coach that ever existed and he was very aware that the more detail you had—if you could measure something that happened over and over again—that was an advantage for him to know about. He was interested in the computer. He did pay some money to fund it for it to be done properly."
It may not be on the level that NFL teams are analyzing data today (although it is a fair bet to believe that Ryan used a spreadsheet a some point, a tool that terrifies the anti-data crowd), but it is interesting to learn that he was ahead of his time in the late 1960s.
It is also another example that what the Browns are currently doing is not revolutionary. It may be new in Cleveland or, more accurately, have a new emphasis, but executives, head coaches and players have been looking for an edge for as long as the game has been played.
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Don’t let anyone try to tell you any differently.