Cleveland Browns want the influence of analytics, until they don’t
While the Cleveland Browns have Paul DePodesta on their staff, they seemingly block out any advise he gives; the product on the field shows the results.
Flashback to the winter of 2016, as Mike Pettine and Ray Farmer have both been fired from their posts with the Cleveland Browns. Owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam put out a letter stating how things are going to be different, and their first step in that process was to hire Sashi Brown as general manager, add in the brain behind Moneyball Paul DePodesta, and Andrew Berry to lead up the rebuild.
This signaled a new era: the Browns were finally willing to listen to data and analytics as a mode of building a winning roster. Over the past two seasons, we have seen the two teams who use analytics the most in the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots win Super Bowls; this was supposed to be the beginning of greatness.
Until it wasn’t.
This new brainiac front office then set out to hire the next head coach of the Browns. After an extensive search of guys they thought would be the best fit for the team, Brown, DePodesta, and Berry landed on their guy: Sean McDermott. Ultimately, Jimmy Haslam overrode their vote and decided to hire Hue Jackson instead.
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Haslam wants the influence of analytics to change his franchise.
Until he doesn’t.
With Hue Jackson at the helm, the Browns managed to win just three games in the two and a half seasons that he controlled the team. McDermott, on the other hand, went 8-8 in his first year with the team, made the playoffs in year two, and is well on his way to getting back into the playoffs this season as he would go on to be hired by the Buffalo Bills.
Meanwhile, Brown has begun stockpiling draft asset after draft asset, sticking to his plan of keeping player’s guaranteed money within the first two year window when signing free agents and re-signing existing talent, and clearing as much cap space as possible to put the Browns in position to go into a complete deconstruction.
Brown’s plan was genius, and it was being executed to perfection except for one small part of his plan: he was not a talent evaluator. While on paper his plan looked like a slam dunk as the Browns added first round pick after first round pick, Haslam became impatient due to the whiffs on the likes of wide receiver Corey Coleman, Emmanual Ogbah, Cody Kessler, Deshone Kizer, and every day three pick from the 2017 class.
As the 2017 season drew to a close, Haslam pulled the plug on the Sashi Brown experience and instead hired a “football guy” in John Dorsey. He did, however, keep the brains behind the operation in DePodesta on staff as he currently serves in the role of Chief Strategy Officer with the Browns.
Dorsey ultimately got his way and fired Jackson as the head coach halfway through the 2018 season, a move that was a long time coming as he should not have been hired in the first place. Gregg Williams took over and Freddie Kitchens became the offensive coordinator; the rest is history from there as Kitchens would go on to become the head coach and is now off to a 2-6 start with the most talented team the Browns have seen since their rebirth in 1999.
However in the days prior to the hiring of Kitchens, the Browns too brought in a flurry of candidates to consider for the coaching position. Among them was offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings Kevin Stefanski.
In the hours just before Kitchens was officially named as the head coach of the Browns, Stefanski was boarding a flight to Cleveland to conduct his second interview; he was one of the only candidates to receive that invitation.
Ultimately Kitchens was awarded the position over Stefanski, but why was he considered the runner-up for the job beforehand? Because he was hand picked by the Browns’ CSO DePodesta; Dorsey and Haslam again disregarded the coach whom DePodesta and the analytics suggested should get the job and hired the in-house guy instead.
The Browns want the influence of analytics.
Until they don’t.
At the time I was an advocate for the hiring of Freddie Kitchens from the perspective of a fan on the outside. However now seeing the data that the Browns have produced on the field and the floundering being displayed by Kitchens, it seems like it was the incorrect route to take.
Meanwhile the Minnesota Vikings are rolling offensively under the leadership of Stefanski; they are ranked in the top 10 in total yards, total points, 16th in passing yards per game, and top three in rushing yards per game. Vikings’ quarterback Kirk Cousins is grading out as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in football, and the team sits in second place in the NFC North with a 6-3 record.
Overall the Vikings are currently sitting as the fifth ranked offense in DVOA by Football Outsiders as they sit ninth in passing efficiency and sixth in rushing efficiency. Comparatively, Kitchens and the Browns sit 28th in passing efficiency by the same metric and 27th overall in offensive DVOA.
Andrew Berry is now the Vice President of Football Operations for the Philadelphia Eagles (one of the league’s biggest investors in analytics), and Sashi Brown is now the Chief Planning and Operations Officer for the Washington Wizards. DePodesta, while with the Browns, seems like he is under-utilized and locked in a closet in Berea.
Long story short, the process that is now in it fourth year for the Browns would have been much less painful had Sashi Brown been surrounded with solid talent evaluators, and more importantly, if Haslam and Dorsey were to take DePodesta seriously. Two wrong hires later, maybe the Browns will listen to the analytical mastermind within their building.
It is time for the Haslams, Dorsey, and the Browns to open their arms to the influence of analytics, and this time mean it.