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: