Tankology 101: How Sashi Brown rebuilt the Cleveland Browns, and nearly destroyed them
Tankology 102 — The Oakland Raiders
Tankology has not died with Sashi Brown but will continue to be practiced in one form or another by NFL teams as part of their rebuilding process.
The 2018 Oakland Raiders, to cite one example, seem to be employing methods similar to Brown’s. When Jon Gruden returned to the Raiders, he found himself at the helm of a team with a bloated salary cap structure.
He resolved the problem by trading Khalil Mack to Chicago in exchange for draft choices. He also cut several high priced veterans just as Brown did. Oakland did not finish 0-16 and is drafting fourth rather than first overall. But they have three (count ‘em) draft picks in Round 1 this year. The Raiders are now in the top three actual salary cap space is concerned, along with the Jets and Bills, and should be well positioned for a rebuild in 2019. We’ll see if they can select players wisely or not.
Tankology, Analytics, the Browns and the future
Perhaps the best General Manager would be someone who could create value by trading draft picks like Sashi Brown, but draft like John Dorsey. The Browns might actually be able to have the best of both worlds, given that the Browns have retained analytics expert Paul De Podesta on staff.
Interestingly, Brown was fired not because his trades were bad, but because his draft picks were terrible. Dorsey was fired by Kansas City because they hated his trading of draft picks. Namely, they questioned the value of quarterbacks Alex Smith, and Patrick Mahomes. In retrospect, those were great deals for Kansas City, but fans were calling for Dorsey’s head at the time those deals were made.
Still, much of Brown’s methodology for rebuilding was viable if a bit distasteful. Rebuilding teams should trade back in the early rounds; refrain from offering big free agent contracts and long-term commitments; cut players on the current roster if they are deemed unlikely to contribute in Years 4 and 5 of the rebuild. Future GMs will study what Brown did, but will probably be more careful to consider the full consequences of cutting a starting caliber player. Although it’s the fastest path to creating cap space, the disproportionate impact on the team must also be considered.
In particular, it is a total disgrace in the NFL to go 0-16, and for some franchises, the damage might be severe enough to force the sale of the team, or God forbid, moving the franchise to another city.
A rebuilding franchise has to impose some restraint on how far it will allow active salaries (i.e., the money paid to players who actually suit up and play on Sunday) to fall. The GM ought not to sabotage the Coach, even if it results in obtaining the first overall pick of the draft. Not only is that a shameful strategy, but losing is a hard habit to break, and it may be presumptuous to think that you can just shut off the desire to win and then turn it back on again.
Brown could argue that, in the end, the Browns wound up with Baker Mayfield and that justifies all the pain and heartache to get there. That point could be debated endlessly. This writer doubts whether Brown had the evaluation skills to select Baker over several other very talented quarterbacks in the 2018 draft, but that is just a subjective opinion. Let us just say that the Browns are fortunate to have a player of Mayfield’s ability on the team.
In any case, now that other teams in the NFL have had the opportunity to watch how the Browns did it, there are bound to be copycats, who will use similar methods to rebuild their teams. Hence, Sashi Brown’s impact will be felt in the NFL for a long time, both good and bad. He deserves credit for many of the moves that led to Baker Mayfield and Myles Garrett coming to Cleveland.
Still, let’s not do this again, shall we? Future rebuilding efforts around the league are going to employ Brown’s techniques, but probably in a way that shows greater respect to the desire to win each game.