This was quite the surprise. Given the general dysfunction of the (reconstituted) Browns, I wasn’t expecting their owner to go out and get Paul DePodesta, one of the top minds of Sabermetrics and hand him what seems like most of the keys to the franchise. My gut instinct said Haslam would again do what most football organizations do: go hire the Director of Pro Something Or Other from another NFL team, give him a glowing introduction to the media, and start the countdown until he had to fire him.
But Jimmy Haslam did something way different this time, so different that as ridiculous as it may have sounded on its face, there are lots of people saying it’s going to work out and work out well. SI’s Tom Verducci wrote a glowing piece about the move. Yahoo! Sports’ Tim Brown says it’s definitely the right move.
Bringing in DePodesta is fitting.
The main reason Billy Beane and the A’s resorted to the “Moneyball,” or applied Sabermetrics, is that they couldn’t compete financially with baseball’s big money powers. If they have this massive advantage, how do you counter? What do you do when you can’t continue doing business as it’s always been done?
DePodesta, Billy Beane’s former right-hand man is one of the first to go hard after the answer in baseball.
While the NFL’s hard salary cap likely makes money a moot point, the (reconstituted) Browns haven’t been able to compete because of a different reason.
Look at the rest of the division: the Steelers have had the same GM since 2000 and have changed coaches only once, upon the retirement of Bill Cowher. Ozzie Newsome has been running the Ravens since the same time and the Ravens have changed coaches only once, to John Harbaugh. Even the Bengals, whose owner/GM has shouldered his on share of criticism over the years for one thing or another, has had only one head coach since 2003, Marvin Lewis.
Then there’s Bill Belichick and his continuing tenure in New England. Four titles, 6 Super Bowl appearances in 15+ seasons.
Bill Polian’s 13-year tenure in Indianapolis. A bunch of playoff appearances and a championship in 2 Super Bowl appearances.
Tom Coughlin just ended a 12-year run as Giants head coach. Two championships in four years, both over favored Patriots teams.
The Browns have trended in the exact opposite direction during the same time.
One playoff appearance since 2000. Yet, they’ve had 3 head coaches just this decade alone and just as many general managers.
You can’t win in the NFL like that and Haslam, at least now, understands.
The Browns have the financial resources, but have never had another currency as important in the NFL: long-term stability in the front office and on field.
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 7, 2016
I doubt DePodesta was hired to bring the same sort of statistical analysis you see in baseball the on-field football product. As former Ravens head coach, Brian Billick, said earlier:
“You can’t quantify the game of football the way you do baseball. It’s not a statistical game. The parameters of the game, the number of bodies and what they’re doing in conjunction with one another.”
Or in other words, a thousand yards for a receiver isn’t always just a thousand yards. There’s always a deeper story and context to those yards that involve other players. Unlike your shortstop’s fielding percentage or your number two batter’s on base percentage.
Instead, I think SI’s Verducci is right in believing cleaning up the Browns’ organization, not necessarily implementing advanced statistics, will be DePodesta’s immediate job in Berea:
Immediately, though, DePodesta’s challenge is not how the Browns play football as much as it is how the organization is structured and how it evaluates, acquires and develops talent in a holistic manner. With his year scouring for information, Haslam understood that his Browns, long a disorganized mess, were in serious need of organizational repair.
If you’ve seen the Cleveland ‘95 episode of NFL Network’s “A Football Life,” then you’ve seen a glimpse into how Bill Belichick and Ozzie Newsome systematically go about choosing players. Since then, I’m sure both have refined and even further systematized their practices even further. The success of both the Ravens and Patriots are a testament to their practices. Quite a bit has been written about Ozzie and the Ravens and how the front office runs.
I think this is what Paul DePodesta will be aiming for in Cleveland now. With the right mix of philosophy and process, a pledge to the long term, as well as his commitment to data for sound decision making, we may one day look back and see Cleveland ‘16 as the first steps towards a turnaround for the (reconstituted) Browns.