Cleveland Browns: What is the line between tanking and rebuilding?
The Browns need an analytics answer for the difference between rebuilding and tanking, which can be defined as overdoing the rebuilding process in a way that negatively impacts the team or the game. It goes without saying that in no case would there be a time when the coach is instructed to lose a game. That results in everyone getting fired, and the owner risks losing the franchise.
First, it is a great idea to accumulate draft picks. This is done by trading back in the draft, but it means that this year’s team will not benefit as much as next year’s team. NFL teams are willing to pay ridiculous interest for first-round picks.
For example, the Browns allowed the Houston Texans to move up in the first round in 2017 and select Deshaun Watson, and the Texans surrendered their 2017 and 2018 first-round picks. The Browns selected Jabrill Peppers and that 2018 first-round pick became fourth overall (Denzel Ward). Awesome job, Sashi Brown. They should have continued to do that. Anyway, trades like that benefit the future at the expense of the present. That is a sound rebuilding strategy.
Second, it’s equally necessary to cut out high-priced veteran contracts. The Browns let go of some very good players including Paul Kruger, Alex Mack, Desmond Bryant, Tramon Williams, Karlos Dansby, Dwayne Bowe, Barkevious Mingo, and several others without replacing them. This saved money and also resulted in compensatory draft picks, allowing the team to draft as many as 17 draft picks at a time. That is probably too many.
They should have continued to re-invest in future picks with some of those late-round choices. The system probably cannot handle more than about 12 or 13 rookies at a time, frankly, especially because there are quality undrafted free agents that will be found, and there are always players who are very good from deep teams like the Patriots who really play but get cut and need a home and are attracted to a team with openings.
What the Browns should have done, and probably did do to an extent, is identify how far away they were from a Super Bowl and establish a timeline. So, if it was a five-year plan, everyone who in 2016 would not be able to play in 2021 should be traded or cut. Josh McCown, should be gone. However, Joe Haden, at age 27, was not that old.
That was a stupid move that the coaches opposed and did not really save money on the salary cap, since the Browns were stuck with an $11 million cap charge and only saved $4 million to allow him to play for Pittsburgh.
Where the line should be drawn, in this fan’s opinion, is when the general manager removes a player from the team for the express purpose of increasing losses in hopes of improving the draft position; i.e., “Fail for Cardale” was popular a few years ago, or “Tank for Trevor” in 2020.
If it doesn’t get a draft pick or generate meaningful cap dollars, that move should probably not be made. Creating additional losses may make sense on the computer, but the human element cannot be ignored. That builds a losing culture.
Trust us Browns fans, a losing culture is real and it takes years to turn it around. If you show the players that the general manager is not serious about helping the team win, at least for the duration of the season, that is psychologically damaging and is hard to reverse.
The Joe Haden deal was a case in point. If Brown was thinking of firing Haden simply to improve his draft position by weakening the team to lose more games, that is where the line should have been drawn. However, it wasn’t, the team went 0-16, and both Hue and Sashi Brown were gone, and truthfully they should have gone down together at the end of the season.
History records that after 2017, the rebuilding process was halted dead in its tracks, and the Browns started overspending and trading away draft picks. That was almost equally damaging. But what if they had maintained the course? Thus, as an added bonus, DPD presents how an analytics-driven general manager might have approached the 2018 draft. This is what Hue might have had to work with, had he survived.