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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.

  • RGB

    Yep, I called it.
    The nerds are already bleating how their precious dweebometrics didn’t get enough time.

    https://media.giphy.com/media/YiaadlmEqWiRi/giphy.gif

  • tigersbrowns2

    hmmm … i’m sitting here sipping coffee & wondering how many more days until the draft.

  • RGB

    On a different Browns note…

    http://i.imgur.com/VENWtFS.gif

  • RGB
  • JM85

    Analytics work if the people in charge know what they are doing. The Browns must have forgot that part.

  • tigersbrowns2

    hi RGB … right on cue … are you going to be able to do ambulances / rescue squads the rest of the way ??

  • tigersbrowns2

    never give up !! … keep fighting !! … did you film this ?

  • RGB
  • tigersbrowns2
  • tigersbrowns2

    well , you know there will definitely be an article on this.

  • BenRM

    Jacob, did analytics have to mean fielding the one of the historically worst teams over two seasons in NFL history?

    I feel like there was a way to do this without making some of the really dumb moves that the Browns FO made.

  • MartyDaVille

    Analytics was not the problem. Sashi Brown was the problem. He had way too much power and he was not qualified to use it.

    Sashi did a putrid job of stocking a football team because he cannot identify talent. I completely reject the notion that his plan would have worked if only he had been given more time. He had to go.

  • Chris

    But the real Teflon Goldfish didn’t die in the Piranha tank. He died once he was rewarded with his own fishbowl.

    Tabor won’t make it two years in Chicago.

  • mgbode

    More later at WFNY… but this works here. Tabor wasn’t fired. He left on his own.

  • tigersbrowns2

    HI MARTY … you are 100% correct , but how did he do setting-up the Browns for this year ? he has overseen 2 drafts & C.Coleman & Kizer are the only 2 question marks I see.

  • Chris

    Letting Schwartz walk…

  • tigersbrowns2

    … and you can add Ricardo Louis to the question marks as well.

  • RGB

    Was allowed to leave on his own.
    Semantics.

  • John Ellis

    NONE of our receivers amounted to anything. And it’s easy to continually trade down picks, you simply continue to get 3rd and 4th choice talent. Only Garrett and Coleman were our 1st picks on players of their position. Everyone else was 3rd or 4th choice. And now we’re stuck with the youngest and most inexperienced team, about to add 10 more players of inexperience through the draft.

  • Garry_Owen
  • Chris

    At least I didn’t say Benjamin (meh), Mack (nothing they could have done), or Gipson (wanted out).

  • Garry_Owen

    Good recall. You are correct, sir. Chicago will fire Tabor after the next season, and the Teflon goldfish’s story will end as the muse has dictated. All things serve the beam.

  • Harv

    egg-zactamundo. A receiver’s 40 time, a QB’s height, a D-lineman’s weight are all “analytics.”

    The problem is whether a team knows what analytics to use, what other factors are important and how to recognize those, how to balance analytics with non-analytics, how to build a roster such that it provides an ecosystem for player improvement and team morale, and on and on. Firing the team’s legal counsel as the Analytics Decider/team builder is not so much the death of analytics as a rare lapse into lucidity by ownership.

  • Harv

    huzzah

  • I don’t think this says much about analytics despite what some will say on Twitter. I think it says more about Jimmy Haslam and Sashi Brown and how the Browns make organizational decisions. The issue with Sashi Brown was one of the failings that the analytics gurus have been talking about forever and that’s getting organizational buy-in and keeping everyone involved. Whether you hate Hue Jackson or not, too often over the past two years Sashi was surprising and confusing coaches and the locker room with roster decisions. It’s something that Jake and I talked about on the podcast. Ideas can be amazing and right, but without equally amazing execution via process and politics it doesn’t matter.

    I’ll hear you if you say the Browns don’t need Paul Kruger or Joe Haden. 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 and after they’ve likely established themselves as leadership voices in a VERY young locker room. I think the failing here isn’t all that unique to analytics.

  • Chris
  • RGB

    It was obvious that Sashi had zero people skills. Every player was most likely nothing but a number, with associated stats to him.
    That is a doomed management style.
    His skill set has a place in an organization, but leading it is not that place.

  • tigersbrowns2

    hi JOHN … you are right , but I also see Garrett , Ogbah , Brantley , Ogunjobi , Nassib , Peppers , Njoku , Devalve , S.Coleman , Schobert , Kindred , H.Wilson , R.Johnson , Drango & Z.Gonzalez … young ? … yes , but he did assemble some nice talent.

    also brought in Zeitler & Tretter to shore-up the O-line & Json McCourty & was able to lock-up J.Collins & Bitonio … so it wasn’t all bad.

    along with all the draft picks , there is also a lot of cap space to bring in some veteran talent / presence as well.

  • MartyDaVille

    BTW, let’s take a peek at the 2017 AP All-Pro second team. We have:

    • ahem, Mitchell Schwartz
    • Alex Mack
    • Carson Wentz

    In contrast, let’s look at the Browns on the 2016 all-rookie team:

    And for the 2017 all-rookie team (not announced yet), we might have:

    • Myles Garrett?
    • likely nobody else

    That’s not much to show for having three drafts in two years or whatever snake oil Sashi was selling.

  • tigersbrowns2

    … good post.

  • MartyDaVille

    Those are some major-league harrumphs.

  • tigersbrowns2

    oh yeah , well just wait until the All Late-Bloomer team comes out in 2019 !!

  • tigersbrowns2

    okay , you guys … yes , Sashi deserved to get run out of town … and 1-31 will have people talking mostly about what he DIDN’T DO versus what he actually did.

    I prefer to look at it this way : he did bring in some nice young talent that will be here for a while (see below) … he also brought in Zeitler , Tretter & McCourty , who should also be here for a while … re-signed Collins & Bitonio … but mostly , he has Dorsey & his gang set-up real nice this next off-season … whether you like it or not , Sashi’s fingerprints will be all over this next off-season & Dorsey will be the one who gets to be the hero for the turnaround , because it’s coming.

    I am glad Dorsey is making the decisions this next off-season … credit goes to Haslam.

  • tigersbrowns2

    bright side ? : he drafted better than Ray Farmer

  • Allen P

    that would seem appropriate.

  • KaiHaaskivi

    Will Sashi be the Cleveland Browns version of Chris Grant? If it gets us a winning record (yes, low bar) I’m all for it!

  • BenRM

    Wilson hasn’t played a snap. Not sure how he’s there.
    Peppers was bad. Out of position? Maybe. But bad.

  • Eric G

    Best of luck to Joel Hammond. This having been my first introduction to someone behind the scenes of #indianstwitter, I hope he wasn’t the main driver. Their social media presence is truly fantastic.

  • CBiscuit

    Shudda never let em walk!!!

    (instead of the Schwartz muttering, I think we should angrily mutter that as our mantra for the next several years)

  • tigersbrowns2

    hi BEN … Wilson is there based on the #TeamSunnyside scouting report & Future Hopefuls report. Same for R.Johnson.

    Hard for me to say Peppers was bad , but okay. Sure , he missed on some picks … but again , it wasn’t all bad.

  • RGB

    At UM, Khaleke Hudson has played significantly better than the player he replaced…Peppers.

  • NOPER

    There’s an couple huge problems when applying analytics to football.

    1) there’s 0 control over conditions and no way to ensure any kind of usable replication. Without replication there’s no reliability and the data has no power.

    2) Careers are really short. Half of rookies wont play beyond their rookie deals. Complaining about “win now” in football is dumb because teams don’t get the pleasure of controlling much of the players development and the length of careers demands that you win.

    There’s just not enough time in football to allow for analytics to be a driving force in football. Time and replication are necessary to have a useful sample size that gives you data to work from.

  • tigersbrowns2

    hi GARRY … LMAO , great gif ! I’m thinking I might need to be more like you & only make cameo appearances every now & then. i have been posting WAY TOO MUCH lately & I think the rest of the crew is ready to string-me-up.

    I can’t contain my sunny-ness & I think I may have a problem. Isn’t that the first step ??

  • CBiscuit

    🙁 It’s just like high school all over again.

  • CBiscuit
  • RGB
  • CBiscuit

    If history has taught us anything, though, they will get their revenge against the football guys.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/f19826fb1a0e3198c215d196ab4cd9bf2abf0fa1218df4f9511246f78b30a135.jpg

  • tigersbrowns2

    “hey , yeah … bird , yeah … sing , yeah” … LMFAO !!!!

  • What’s worse: The wing of Tribe twitter being angsty about the mounting losses of roster talent, or the wing of Tribe twitter poo-pooing those losses and saying “What me, worry?” because the division is expected to be exceedingly soft?

    https://media1.tenor.com/images/1359ccb442c9ed7aa8eef1df01935591/tenor.gif?itemid=7551542

    Personally, I know I’d feel a whole lot better if my team looked as strong or stronger than a year ago instead of simply relying on the chances of the rest of the division not being strong. But hey, whatever helps folks sleep at night.

  • Might not have been so bad, really shouldn’t have been so bad, without such an absolute failure of coaching.

    https://media1.tenor.com/images/3163883d7315e33698c8178c229f8129/tenor.gif?itemid=4484828