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Sad end to Cleveland Browns analytics era: While We’re Waiting

John Kuntz, Cleveland.com

Happy Thursday, everyone. It’s a new day in Cleveland. Fans are excited about the Cleveland Browns, upset at the Indians, and meh on whatever the Cavaliers are doing with their lives in mid-January again. Here’s what I’m feeling about the NE Ohio sports world today.

The end of Browns and analytics… With the firing of Sashi Brown, hiring of GM John Dorsey, and subsequent additions of Alonzo Highsmith and Eliot Wolf, the official “analytics” era has pretty much ended for the Cleveland Browns. Sure, Paul Depodesta and Ken Kovash remain in a dedicated strategy department, but it’s an entirely different feel than it was just 21 months ago. Obviously, as a long-time writer about sports analytics and a fan of the Cleveland sports scene, I’ve got some mixed feelings on the whole thing.

It’s completely unsurprising to see the Browns clear house after back-to-back 1-15 and 0-16 seasons. No matter the statistical-friendliness of any organization, such poor performance would naturally lead to some turnover. It’s just unfortunate that it taints the idea of what analytics can be in sports and in football specifically. I hate to see it go that way.

In January 2016, I interviewed Trey Causey about the state of football analytics. He had this incredible, fortune-telling line about how things may go for the Browns: “If they don’t give the staffs enough time to make a difference, again, it doesn’t matter. Adopting an analytical approach on the one hand and trying to reconcile it with a ‘win now’ mentality on the other is likely to fail.”

Many people saw this coming! And yet nobody seemed to ever really cover the “analytics” era appropriately. In April 2016, Jordan Zirm had a great retort to all the lazy journalists categorizing “analytics” as anything foreign they didn’t understand. And ultimately, I think this August 2016 tweet from Jared Dubin summarizes things shockingly well:

Gah, this was all so predictable and Browns-y and it sucks on so many levels. For me, one of them is seeing such bad takes about football analytics live on for many more years to come. Why, Browns, why.

On those old LeBron teams in Cleveland… CBS Sports’ Adi Joseph got me thinking for a while with a tweet on Wednesday:

Upon further inspection, the 2008-09 Cavs – who set a franchise-record with 66 victories – did shoot quite well from three-point range! Their 39.3 three-point shooting percentage was second-best in the league that season. They attempted threes on 25.9 percent of all field goal attempts, good for fourth in the league. And several important rotation players shot pretty darn well from long-distance, led by Mo Williams (43.6 percent on 5.2 three-point attempts per game), Boobie Gibson (38.2 percent on 3.8), Delonte West (39.9 percent on 3.6), etc.

In that day and age, many of the Cavs’ big men also did have some modicum of mid-range game. Zydrunas Ilgauskas was raining long twos. Anderson Varejao had a go-to 10-footer. Joe Smith, a late-season addition, rarely played inside at that point in his career. Sure, J.J. Hickson and Ben Wallace couldn’t do much besides dunk, but for that era of the game, the Cavs were fairly stretchy. The entire concept of sharp-shooting tall guys like Kevin Love, Kevin Durant, Kristaps Porzingis, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, etc. wasn’t really around in 2008-09.

Adi’s point was just to say that those Cavs and LeBron certainly could’ve been far more efficient offensively, given what we know now about modern offenses. But damn, those teams sure still were a joy to watch and kicked some ass all over the place up until May.

On the Indians… Twitter was all angsty on Wednesday with the news of Jay Bruce’s three-year $39 million deal to return back to the New York Mets. The Indians lost yet another valuable veteran free agent, which again brought back concern of Michael Brantley’s $12 million contract for 2018.

My main take here is that folks are being a little too dramatic given the state of the the American League Central Division. And from there, everyone should know that the MLB playoffs are a darn crap-shoot. So even though the Yankees and Astros keep getting stronger, the Indians will have a chance in October. That’s all you can ask for in any given season.

On CFP expectations… After five championships in nine years, Nick Saban is sitting pretty as one of the greatest college football coaches of all time. His legacy is almost entirely all about Alabama now, with that whole Miami Dolphins jaunt nearly an entire lifetime of accomplishments ago. No matter what the 66-year-old Saban does now with his remaining Alabama tenure, he can have that job for life.

To me, there’s only one coaching situation that even comes remotely close and that’s the 53-year-old Urban Meyer at Ohio State. In his first year, the bowl-ineligible Buckeyes went 12-0. Since then, it’s five-for-five on making signature bowl games. It’s eight total losses in six years. Sure, there’s only one College Football Playoff championship appearance, multiple Clemson losses, and a handful of regular season disappointments, but Urban’s been as good as anyone not Nick Saban could ever be at any location. He’s as good as they reasonably come, ever.

There’s still some eerie feeling in the back of my head on all it all may end. Expectations are almost too high in Columbus. In no other football town besides Tuscaloosa is a New Year’s Six bowl victory the baseline default in any season. If Urban ever has a down season? And then maybe a New Year’s Six loss after that? I have just a creepy feeling that the expectations may cave in over time. Urban isn’t as safe forever as Saban. I’d hate to ever see it end, but it just feels funky to me on how it can’t last forever.

Moving on up… Wishing all the best to Joel Hammond, Cleveland Indians social media who is leaving after five years for The Adcom Group, and Dave Cameron, long-time FanGraphs writer who took a job with the San Diego Padres. Big fans of both these folks and passing along a hearty congratulations on the new transitions.

  • tsm

    I wonder what offer, if any, then made Bruce. Would much rather have him than Brantley.

  • Garry_Owen

    I looked a couple of months ago and saw that in the history of WFNY, ol’ Garry is the 2nd most frequent commenter. Of all time. Behind the Mighty Bode, and I am no Bode. This was humbling, and eye-opening. I’m not going to say “problematic,” but I’m also not not going to say it. I’m not an alcoholic (I don’t think), but I imagine there is a day where someone looks down at their shaking hands while holding a bottle, sees that the top shelf elixir he previously drank has turned into rot-gut solvent, and makes a change. This might be me, allegorically.

    But you keep fighting the good fight. I am ever so weary (and guilty) of constant negativity, that I appreciate your upbeat outlook (and would tend to move that direction, myself, if I could stay true to desired character). Anyway, you keep doing you.

  • tsm

    Some of you have said it quite well and in great detail, so my short version is that analytics definitely have a place, but they are just a piece of the puzzle one is trying to assemble, not the entire puzzle.

  • BenRM

    Agreed that the coaching was also a total failure.

  • tigersbrowns2

    great post ! … i have much respect for every single regular poster on this site & i realize i’m not everyone’s cup of tea … i personally don’t care what anyone thinks.
    i love the Browns , that’s why I’m here.

    you are one of the good ones , so stay involved … thanks.

  • mgbode

    eh, I don’t think that is quite correct. analytics is more of a wrapper around everything else. a way of assembling the puzzle, to use your analogy.

  • Steve

    Its too bad the Browns couldn’t have came out and honestly said “everybody, heads up, we’re going to stink. No really, even by normal Browns standards this is going to be bad.”

    I have no idea why people thought an absolute tear down was going to have success immediately. C’est la vie. I’m excited to hire and tried and true football guy like Jeff Fisher instead of zigging when everyone else is zagging after the 2018 season blows up.

  • Steve

    As many times as you say it, its not going to make it true that Sashi was only legal counsel before he got the head job.

  • Steve

    “I won’t hear you when they’re cut at the end of August at the very last possible minute when there’s not time to replace them ”

    Only if your goal is to scratch out four wins and get the 5ish pick instead of the first.

    The problem with the current evaluation of the Browns analytics strategy was the assumption that they were trying to win these last two years. Like the Astros, Cubs, and Sixers, they weren’t. And that paints all the decisions in a completely different light.

  • tsm

    You assemble your puzzles your way, and I will assemble my puzzles my way:)

  • tsm

    You must have recently read about all the “parties” in the bay area where the nerds who couldn’t even talk to a girl in h.s. are now rich, middle age and catered to by “youngsters”

  • tsm

    Agree. This was a complete tear down designed to maximize draft picks and cap room. Now whether this was the right thing to do is a completely separate issue.

  • Steve

    Worth noting that the projections have Brantley at almost a win better than Bruce in 2018.

  • RGB

    I was willing to give Sashimetrics one more year, especially since I read somewhere that he was open to adding a veteran football presence to the staff.

  • Steve

    Anything short of giving them the chance to pick the QB they want was always going to be too short-sighted.

  • Any fondness for Brantley left me a while ago. Shouldn’t have been on the playoff roster, and shouldn’t have been brought back. Definitely would have preferred to still have Bruce in a Tribe uni at this point. Brantley is Sizemore Redux.

  • mddawg

    Hue went to Wentz’s pro day, if he’d wanted him the Browns would’ve picked him. In the Athletic article on the Haslam’s it’s pretty clear that Hue controlled the QB room rather than the analytics guys.

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