Tankology 101: How Sashi Brown rebuilt the Cleveland Browns, and nearly destroyed them
Where he went wrong
What Sashi did wrong was to go too far. In particular, some of his moves had the primary effect of weakening the 2016 and 2017 teams without generating much salary cap savings, which caused the Browns to become radioactive to players around the league and especially their agents.
The Joe Haden case was pivotal. The team did not save much money by cutting him, because a lot of his money was guaranteed. Sashi cut him anyway, and as a result, the team still had to pay $7 Million in 2017 against the cap. This $7 Million discount made it possible for the otherwise cap-strapped Steelers to sign Haden. No team would ever allow a star player to go to their arch rival, never mind paying most of his salary in order to allow him to do so.
Essentially the Browns gave $7 Million to their archrival in order to save $4 Million of cap space. They saved more money for the Steelers than for themselves! No Cleveland fan is going to be excited by saving a relatively small amount of salary cap if it means bolstering the already dangerous Steelers to make them one of the best teams in the NFL. Even worse, it signaled to players agents that a long-term deal with the Browns was a bad idea.
Another Sashi move which had the primary effect of weakening the team in a key area to ensure a bottom-5 finish was to deliberately rid the team of veteran quarterbacks. Josh McCown, Robert Griffin III nor Brock Osweiler were retained for 2017. As mentioned, once the Browns agreed to assume Osweiler’s contract, they were committed to pay his salary, so no cost savings occurred by getting rid of him. Moreover, Hue Jackson apparently did not have confidence in either Cody Kessler or Kevin Hogan. Hence the disastrous decision to start DeShone Kizer was made. That was another key step towards a 0-16 season.
These and other similar deals greatly weakened Brown’s credibility, and had he remained with the team in the 2018 off-season, it might have killed major free agent deals. If you remember the debacle of 2014, in which six or seven head coach candidates turned the Browns down, the 2018 off-season might have been even worse, although this time it might have involved players rather than head coaching candidates.
Another problem was that Brown was just not a good judge of talent and could not draft. You can be really great at math and statistics, but there is still a human element to talent evaluation and scouting that cannot be replaced by analytics. One of the most inexplicably bad decisions occurred in the 2016 draft when he selected four wide receivers from one of the weakest drafts for the position in recent memory.
Analytics is supposed to be a value-based approach which favors maximizing talent rather than drafting to satisfy positional needs. Simply put, you are supposed to draft the “best player available” rather than drafting for position, especially when your team is weak and needs help anywhere it can get it.
Corey Coleman, Jordan Payton, Ricardo Louis, and Rashard Higgins were not impact players, although Higgins is a valued possession receiver. To create roster space for this bunch, the Browns had to cut Taylor Gabriel, a valuable No. 3 receiver, to create roster space. Gabriel is a good-but-not-great receiver, but he had more yards in the past three years than all four of these weak draft picks combined. Needless to say, that is a pathetic performance. After working hard to accumulate draft picks, you can’t turn around and waste them.
Brown evidently failed to account for the true negative impact of his questionable football moves. Namely, if you prematurely cut the contracts of players who can still play, it has a tangible impact on the future cost of players. It probably increases the dollar amount by which the team would have to pay free agents to sign with the Browns. For example, many observers including Bill Barnwell of ESPN estimated the Browns had to pay Jamie Collins and Kevin Zeitler a significant premium to get them to come to Cleveland, probably in the range of 30 percent. The moral issue also increases the probability that good players like Jason McCourty and Danny Shelton will request to be traded. Those effects needed to be included in Sashi Brown’s (now Paul DePodesta’s) spreadsheet.
DPD reached out to Dusty Gwinn of Mad Dog Sports for comment on the effect of front office malfunctions on the “loser’s tax.” As a player’s agent, Gwinn was reluctant to confirm the numbers used by Barnwell, but admitted, “I would suspect there is some truth to that position and the best path to a championship ring is always alluring.”
Had the Steelers gone to the Super Bowl with Haden, the humiliation might have been too much to bear. It could have literally destroyed the team, by creating a mutiny among the players and making free agent signings much more difficult.
As it was, 0-16 was a disaster but the Browns were able to climb out of it as the Haslams finally came to their senses and fired Sashi Brown and then hiring John Dorsey and finally drafting the right quarterback in Baker Mayfield. That probably restores some confidence that the Browns have a future, and there could even be a wide receiver willing to sign with the Browns.
The most positive consequence of going 1-31 was that the Browns had the first pick in the draft both years, allowing them to draft Myles Garrett and Baker Mayfield. Dorsey chose Mayfield on the basis of Mayfield’s unusual ability to make decisions very quickly, resulting in one of the quickest releases in the NFL.
Sashi Brown probably would have relied more on measurables such as height, weight 40-yard dash, and stats. Although we can’t know for certain until Brown writes his memoirs, it may be speculated that he had bought into the hype surrounding Sam Darnold from the time he was recruited by USC in 2016, where he was one of the most impressive freshman quarterbacks ever in terms of his size, arm strength, and accuracy. At any rate, Brown was going to take his chances on a franchise quarterback in the 2018 draft, but he never made it that far.