We begin this post with an observation that the Cleveland Browns have been talked about more this NFL season than most playoff contenders across national media, including the Chargers, Texans and probably the Bears (I am not offended, you are!) to name a few. But now it is my turn and I wanted to make proclamation of my own … The Cleveland Browns will make the postseason within the next two years. No, I did not drink the Hard Knocks Kool-Aid, nor did I believe in the large amount of people that considered the team a Super Bowl betting “dark horse” in Vegas THIS SEASON. And I am also not deterred by the soap opera-like drama that took place this season between Hue Jackson, Todd Haley and the rest of the organization. My “hot take” is because of the team’s recent use of an Analytics-based strategy to build the franchise and how it directly compares with an NBA counterpart undergoing a similar revival from the ashes.
Yes, the so-called “failed” analytics-based tenure of former General Manager Sashi Brown and his front office staff will actually lead the Browns to a successful revival of a team whose most recent full season resulted in an 0-16 record. Brown took over the franchise after the 2015 season and a 3-13 record, a team with no winning record since 2007, no Playoff Appearances since 2002 and a 3-18 overall mark since the fateful benching of Brian Hoyer for Johnny Manziel.
This is about the time that I started to follow the Browns a little more because one of Brown’s first hires was Paul DePodesta, the Analytics genius known for having co-built the “Moneyball” concept with Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics, which has proceeded to take over all of Major League Baseball. DePodesta wished to see if this concept could be translated to the NFL, much like how the NBA has adopted similar uses of data and analytics towards building a team, and with the support of owner Jimmy Haslam and his promise of 3-4 years to make it work, Brown and DePodesta began to initiate their “clean slate protocol”.
The duo began by lowballing the team’s free agents during the 2016 offseason, losing top performers like Alex Mack and Travis Benjamin in the process in order to acquire compensatory draft picks. They then proceeded to move down the draft boards in both the 2016 and 2017 drafts in order to acquire future picks, not unlike what DePodesta did during his time in Major League Baseball. Their moves resulted in a number of high draft picks in future years, including 13 picks overall in the latest 2018 Draft, with the goal of building a team that would contend for a longer and sustainable period of time to potentially bring a Super Bowl to Cleveland.
If this strategy sounds familiar, it is exactly what many teams in MLB and the NBA are attempting to do after seeing recent successes of long-suffering franchises like the Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros and the Browns’ most direct comparison, the Philadelphia 76ers, by implementing similar strategies. The strategy appeared to be accomplishing its goal, even though the Browns on the field produced the worst two-year stretch in NFL history. But given the team’s previous history, did fans really have that much to complain about if there was the potential of a brighter future to look forward to? The problem is that NFL fans, unlike fans in other leagues, are not as forgiving when teams are reaping more immediate results from what the Browns did. See the selections of franchise quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson with the picks from the Browns’ original draft positions as top examples.
Therefore, as last season’s historic 0-16 season came to a close, Brown was fired last November and replaced by John Dorsey, a well-respected executive previously of the Kansas City Chiefs. Dorsey did not completely dissolve all of the analytics initiatives from the Brown era, as DePodesta currently remains on his staff overseeing Strategy for the team. Dorsey’s combined use of analytics and conventional scouting practices has resulted in a Browns team composed of players from the last few drafts, along with veterans acquired from trades and free agency. The 2018 team has already shown significant improvement from last season’s historic 0-16 season, with a current 4-6-1 mark at the time of this writing. While not ready to contend for a playoff spot just yet, it does follow a similar path to the Philadelphia 76ers, whose recent success in the NBA after bottoming out is why I believe in the Browns’ playoff potential in such a short amount of time.
Just look at the similarities below –
1. Both Teams were Going Nowhere
For both the Browns and Sixers, they were each stuck in the purgatory of mediocrity as neither franchise could make any significant progress towards a winning record leading into their first seasons under their new analytics philosophies. Each franchise determined that new leadership should be brought it with the hope that the new regime’s philosophies would bring consistent playoff and championship contention.
2. Their Leaders were Analytics-Focused
The 76ers hired Sam Hinkie to oversee Basketball Operations in 2013 and he introduced the franchise (and sports world) to “The Process”, a data-based philosophy of acquiring the best prospects possible and attempt to build a successful team around these assets. But in order to do this, that meant that the team had to lose. And lose a lot! The Brown-DePodesta regime of the Browns had a similar mindset and started to do the same, trading down in drafts to acquire more picks and allowing players to seek other teams in free agency in order to gain more compensatory picks from the league. While a football team would require more assets than a basketball team (22 starting players on-field > 5 respectively), both team’s philosophies were put into similar actions.
3. The Losing was Historic
We all know the Browns’ 0-16 record-tying mark from last season, only the second time in NFL history such a record was achieved, but do you remember how bad Philadelphia was during the years Hinkie was in charge? 19-63 in 2013-14, 18-64 in 2014-15 and bottoming out at 10-72 in 2015-16, the third worst season in NBA history according to winning percentage (.122).
4. The Analytics Executives were Eventually Forced Out
Both Sashi Brown and Sam Hinkie were effectively “forced out” from their positions after (or during) their historic seasons, without being able to see their strategy through to the end. Both were practically exiled by each league because their fellow executives did not approve of their tactics in order to acquire more quality players (i.e. #1 picks) to fill out their rosters. Each ended up being replaced by well-respected and “league approved” executives in Jerry and Brian Colangelo (Sixers) and the previously mentioned John Dorsey (Browns).
5. Each Fanbase Embraced the Losing
The phrase “Trust the Process” became not only a mantra of the Sixers players and team under the Hinkie regime, but the fans embraced the moniker as well, believing their patience would be rewarded by a future championship contender around top picks like Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. They continued to purchase season tickets and support the team at every home game, along with purchasing “Process” branded merchandise, that it became a way to label the city itself. They surpassed a record 14,000 season ticket sales before the 2017-18 season after a 28-54 record the year before. The Browns’ fanbase on the other hand decided to throw a celebratory parade across downtown Cleveland to celebrate the team’s accomplishment in futility at the start of this year, thus proving that for Browns’ fans, there was nowhere to go but up.
6. Each Team Shows Glimpses of Potential Following their Worst Seasons
Remember how I mentioned that during the Sixers’ 2016-17 season, they had a 28-54 record, it was an improvement of 18 games from their previous, historically poor season. The team showed signs of potential when their top players were available to play, like Embiid (13-18 in games he played). The Browns are doing the same thing this season, given that their current 4-6-1 record is putting them on pace for six wins, which would be the most for the franchise since 2014 and second best since their 10-6 record in 2007 (Derek Anderson!).
7. Both Teams Acquired Quality Players Outside of the Draft
In addition, both teams worked hard to acquire additional veteran players to build around their drafted assets. The Sixers brought in veteran guards J.J. Redick and Jerryd Bayless to support their young core of Embiid, Dario Saric, Simmons and Fultz. This combined approach brought about the team’s first playoff appearance in six years and with even greater expectations this season, the team traded for perennial All-Star Jimmy Butler last month (Saric was part of the deal and sent to Minnesota). The Browns underwent a similar approach this past offseason, acquiring veteran starters and leaders like Tyrod Taylor, Jarvis Landry and Carlos Hyde, to provide immediate support and mentorship over the young core led by Mayfield, Myles Garrett and Nick Chubb.
Given all of these similarities, it is not unthinkable to imagine seeing the Browns back in postseason contention, at least above .500 this time next year. If it happens, it will only further cement Sashi Brown’s legacy as the Sam Hinkie of the NFL.
While it appears that we are still a long way from discovering if a complete analytics approach will work in the NFL, like DePodesta wanted to prove, it does show that there is some validity towards “tanking” for high draft picks in this league. But it must be addressed with the caveat that the players selected must gel with the coaching staff, otherwise you are looking at a year or two or more poor performance until the “right” coaches are brought in. Just look at the last three #1 quarterbacks picked in the NFL Draft and see how much each significantly improved their play under a new coaching staff that is determined to work around their skillset (Jared Goff – Sean McVay; Mitchell Trubisky – Matt Nagy; Baker Mayfield – Gregg Williams/Freddie Kitchens).
Will this mean the Browns adopting a “Feeling Dangerous” branding moniker, not unlike the Sixers’ “Process”, to market their attempted ascent? Only time will tell…But they are off to a good start, even it means that the executive who started it all might be long forgotten.