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Patience with the Browns and analytics: While We’re Waiting…

Cleveland Sports

On Monday, just 13 days before the start of the 2016 NFL regular season, the Cleveland Browns became a slightly worse team by trading their punter and a seventh-round pick for a different punter and a fourth-round pick. And thus sparked the great/terrible experience of Punter Trade Twitter.

Don’t get me wrong: The Cleveland Browns won’t be a good football team in 2016. They were 3-13 last season, lost several important players earlier in the offseason, and replaced them with mostly unproven rookies. But unless you’re Jim Tressel, you probably don’t think an elite punter is worth even a full win over a season’s worth of football games. And so, if you can move up three rounds in a draft because of an exchange of punters, you probably make that trade 10 times out of 10.

This pretty clearly does mean, of course, that the Browns now have the slightly lesser punter for this upcoming football season. That seems apparent in the exchange of draft picks! But, because it’s a punter, it *really* doesn’t matter a great deal. That’s the biggest thing here.

If there were a baseball or WAR equivalent for punters, they’d be treated somewhat similarly to a team’s fourth- or fifth-best reliever. It’s kinda fun to have a good one—on a good team. But usually, it’s not that vital and there’s not a humongous difference between the sport’s best and worst. And on a bad team, although punters have a larger role and make more punts, having a good one is somewhat irrelevant.

But because it’s the Browns, because it’s the NFL, and because it was a rare-ish trade of punters, the story became a sorta big deal. Yes, it’s easy to point out Andy Lee’s lack of hustle in Saturday’s preseason game as an immediate precursor to the deal. Hue Jackson directly called him out for not trying. But the trade makes just as much sense without that Shaqtin-worthy lowlight.

Here’s where I have two questions for Browns fans and Browns Twitter going forward:

1) When do you think expectations should change for this team to be contending again for a playoff spot?

2) Why do we need to talk about *analytics* as the over-hanging narrative for every single roster move?

On the expectations game, I think this is a dead-on point from Jared Dubin:

The Browns will probably win less than four games again in 2016. Entering 2017, they’ll hopefully see further development from this year’s crop of youngsters, but they’ll have a whole new batch worth again. They have an extra first-round pick from Philadelphia and an extra second-round pick from Tennessee. Those should be valuable players and long-term assets.

Which means that 2018 is the likely most realistic target for expectations. By that time, the team will likely have drafted a new quarterback for the future. There will hopefully be new and better playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. And with the way the NFL schedule works, you have to eventually sneak up the ranks somehow against fellow fourth-place AFC teams.

But is it so bad that this new Browns regime is deciding to actually do a full rebuild? Many of the past regimes didn’t turn over the roster as significantly as this past offseason. And this has led to so many bad and worse football seasons. Whether the team has Paul DePodesta in charge of strategy or not, this strategy seems commendable.

Yet, every subsequent move, statement or play by the Browns seems to spark some new decree on the topic of football analytics. I particularly enjoyed Jordan Zirm’s April article calling out lazy journalists for their tired clichés about stats and the Browns. The Browns are rebuilding and rebuilding isn’t a guarantee of anything. This doesn’t have to be about analytics.

And it’s the same thing in the NBA too. Just because James Harden loves to draw fouls, Dwight Howard disappointed some people in Houston, and the Rockets had a bad defense doesn’t mean that analytics is bad as a tool in franchise development.

Hue Jackson is a football coach with a ton of experience. He coached in college football for 14 years and has now been in the NFL for 16 years. He likely has lots and lots of opinions about how best to coach football. Yet because of this, a little media tiff in June about the scheduling of padded practices suddenly became just the latest “War on Analytics” (h/t The Ringer, even though I strongly disliked this link).

A front office can work with analytics-empowered strategy minds *and* experienced on-field coaches with strong opinions. It shouldn’t require a Linear Algebra course to do that basic math. It’s more similar to behavioral psychology, communication and organizational management, instead. There’s nothing preventing the Browns front office from becoming one of the league’s best.

That is, assuming everyone has the right mindset. Rebuilding isn’t easy and it requires patience. In the NBA, the Philadelphia 76ers tried and tried to tank. But in a sport with only 12 active roster spots, selling intangible hope and lottery balls wasn’t working well enough. With 53 roster spots in football, no one single player can impact a team’s franchise quite like a LeBron James. But hope is still possible, too.

There’s reason to be encouraged by the 2016 Browns offense. There’s reason to be encouraged by Hue Jackson, a football coach who deserves a long leash and a legitimate opportunity to turn this around. And there’s been success with analytics thinking in every sport in the world. This can certainly work. And even if it doesn’t, it doesn’t have to be the fault of analytics.

Meanwhile, here are some sports profiles that I enjoyed over the last few weeks:

  • Chris

    The Browns at least had a chance with Lee on the roster… BUT NOW!?!?! Poor Joe Thomas.

  • RGB

    #TeamSnark is advocating patience, based on the Infinite Monkey Theorum.

    Given enough draft picks, and infinte time, a FO will eventually draft a Super Bowl winning team.

  • Pat Leonard

    Right?

  • Ryan

    Isn’t the Jaguars the most recent example of a tanking blueprint in the NFL? Painful process, but looks a lot like what we’d want the Browns to look like in 2-3 years.

  • Natedawg86

    or the Raiders….

  • BenRM

    I’m on board with the rebuild. I think they’re going about hoarding picks the right way. I think Hue is probably the best coach they’ve hired since Davis. The only thing I’m unsure of is how good they are at picking players. That’s what we’ll have to wait and see.

    …And feel free to put me on #teamwhocaresaboutpunters.

  • Harv

    Agree that an embrace of analytics does not preclude the role of coaching. But I would add:

    – the most important people in the org are those who who are competent in identifying and procuring talented football players. If the org doesn’t include those people, or they are not empowered to get those players, it really doesn’t matter which or how many assets you accumulate. We saw this with Banner in the 2013 “most important draft in Browns history” or his use of the Trent Richardson trade asset. We saw this with Chris Grant with the Cavs. Getting a 5th rounder for Dumpster Mingo was sweet, a 4th for any punter chuckle-inducing. But if those are used to move up and snag another bust, it’s all heat, no light.

    – Hue Jackson is not a proven HC, any more than Pettine was after his first 7-9 season with a roster equal or worse than Jackson’s Raiders team. His record as a coordinator tells us nothing about his skills running a team; Norv Turner and Bud Carson were hall of fame-level coordinators but as HC were mediocre at best. Let’s put him to his proofs before anointing him, let’s see how this team starts forming in the next year or two. Our desperately wanting the Browns to finally have The Guy has nothing to do with whether Hue is in fact The Guy.

  • tigersbrowns2

    good post , HARV … in paragraph 1 : “the most important people in the org.” also have to be competent in identifying a real good HC as well … big difference in getting the first / top guy on your list & the guy who is 7th on the list … and as far as paragraph 2 : you never know … but Hue appears to be very prepared & very confident … and he was already a HC , so he knows what’s goin’ on.

  • tigersbrowns2

    hi BEN … i liked 11 of the 14 draft picks … i’m still waiting to see what becomes of WR r.louis , devalve & kessler , as high draft picks were used on these guys. i’m willing to give kessler a pass because hue sees something in him.

  • RGB

    RIP Dee Dowis.
    Probably my favorite college football player ever.

  • Hopwin

    Analytics:

    Never punt! No field goals! No PATs! Therefore ditch the punter and the kicker!

    Actually I think all three statements above are indeed supported by analytics.

  • CB Everett

    I mean we are on the same team buddy (#TS) but what happens if, our monkeys have no arms and can’t spin the draft pick wheel?

  • RGB

    Prehensile feet?

  • CB Everett

    Now you’re being downright Team Sunnyside.

    In what magic, fairy tale world would we ever be blessed to get drafting monkeys with eyes, arms or prehensile feet?

    Dream on…

  • swig

    You also free up two roster spots! That’s not even analytics, just basic math.

  • Hopwin

    More than that, if you don’t do special teams you don’t need special teams specialists!! No more gunners!

  • mgbode
  • mgbode

    I’ll miss Marlon Moore

  • Garry_Owen

    And everyone knows we’ll only be kicking off one time a game!

  • mgbode

    “never punt” and “no field goals” are not supported by analytics and I don’t think “No PATs” are either under the new NFL rules

    but, less of each? certainly

  • JM85

    Hue Jacksons’ here baby.

  • Hopwin

    Quit half-assing your analytics. Get all in or get all out!

    NEVER PUNT! NEVER SETTLE FOR FG! NEVER TAKE ONE WHEN YOU CAN HAVE TWO!! RAAAAARRRR!!

  • Harv

    d-d-damn straight. If ever an org of pointy heads had the freedom to go deep in the petri dish. it’s right now baby. Belichik is so excited at the thought he has Fat Mike Lombardi crawling in the duct work like Jason Grimsley, planting listening devices. Yo Sashi, if some plaster dust falls on your desk do NOT look up, grab the laptop and roll toward the supporting wall.

  • Garry_Owen

    Thank you! Now I have a name for my fantasy football team: “Huge Action’s Hair Baby.”

    Too bad I don’t play fantasy football . . .

  • CB Everett

    “Belichik is so excited at the thought he has Fat Mike Lombardi crawling in the duct work like Jason Grimsley”

    Awesome. Purely awesome.

  • mgbode

    Hahahahaha. Yeah, there’s a reason it was Grimsley, not Colon who was climbing through the ceilings.

  • tigersbrowns2

    LMAO !! …

  • Pat Leonard

    I love DeValve if he can stay healthy, but so far that hasn’t looked too promising. For those who miss Jordan Cameron pre-concussions and want a tight end who would be split out a lot to create mismatches, DeValve is your guy.

  • Pat Leonard

    We’re going to disagree heavily with each other on the roster quality of that Raiders team compared to last year’s Browns team. Check it out: http://www.ourlads.com/nfldepthcharts/archive/124/OAK

    If you’re looking for NFL starter quality players, you’ve got LT Jared Veldheer, LG Stefen Wisniewski (since then, moved to center), DE Lamarr Houston, DT Desmond Bryant, and maybe DT Richard Seymour (he was right at the end of his career). Darren McFadden was on the team, but injured for most of the season. I think we can all agree, that was the worst roster to ever achieve a non-losing season.

  • RGB

    And it’s only Tuesday.