The Browns Front Office, Brock Osweiler, and the Age Divide

Paul DePodesta Sashi Brown Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns

There are moments of innovation, moments of change, where the philosophical divides between generations become apparent. While the Brock Osweiler deal is likely difficult to replicate, the essence of the transaction was a Grotian moment in the National Football League’s information revolution.1 While it is easy, retrospectively, to point to actions or moments which appeared to popularize new approaches, the most interesting analysis is evaluating who is left behind.

Over the past 15 years the three major sports have seen a sort of seismic shift that have left many unprepared and uninterested in following. Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have been more visible in their rapid evolution. For a moment, I am going to slap a buzzword on the table: Analytics. If you are picturing Jonah Hill and an excel spreadsheet right now, that is fine. It is not an inappropriate reaction. A narrow interpretation of the term may lead one to picture a group of Yale economics majors locked in a dark room playing on their Alienware laptops.  This sort of analytics imagery has been thrown around after the Browns hired Paul DePodesta and all those Ivy-league Attorneys. Let’s be honest, an occasional abacus joke is just fun.

This confined interpretation simply will not do, however, in describing the nature of DePodesta and analytics role in rebuilding the Cleveland Browns. The Browns are an organization that has been rudderless for decade and has undergone more organizational overhaul than could leave it anything but threadbare. DePodesta’s role was that of rebuilding a decision-making group which did a better job of making informed—and, at times, innovative—decisions. This means seeking any advantage to improve the quality of information and structure upon which decisions are made. Upon assuming the Browns franchise has one star—offensive tackle Joe Thomas—and a lot of questions, in many ways, the Browns followed the approach of the Philadelphia 76ers. A quick bottoming out allowing them to have higher odds of drafting a generational talent. It’s pretty nice that Myles Garrett is sitting right there. Further, the organization acknowledged that the NFL draft is filled with flops and imprecision. Therefore, collecting as many (and high) picks as possible increases their odds of not only adding quality starters, but perhaps also finally solving the quarterback position.

This process, much like Daryl Morey’s approach in Houston, requires patience and is strewn with complexity. This process acknowledges that to truly contend, and do so for a significant period of time, you have to land elite talent. The easiest road to do so in the NFL is through the draft, and on rare occasions a trade. In this vein, the Browns have collected a bevy of picks, bottomed out for a superstar-caliber defender, while continually searching for new ways to build assets to bring in impact talent. Through this prism, the Osweiler trade can most easily be understood. The Browns view second round picks as a major asset—high talent upside at low, guaranteed costs—and were willing to take a major cap hit in order to add another B+ asset to the chest to pursue elite talent.

Through their work, the boys in Berea have been able to amass the following draft capital:

The Browns have the option to take a lot of volume in the high-upside range or condense the assets for a single, elite talent inside or outside the draft. The Osweiler deal was one of opportunism—the Texans needed to clear cap for a potential Tony Romo signing and the Browns struck for a good asset. Part of compiling assets is preparing for when an elite talent suddenly becomes available like a contract dispute. Returning to the Morey-Houston example, take James Harden. A financially tight long-term cap situation in Oklahoma City allowed another team deep with assets to strike and obtain one of the best in the game.

When we speak further, the complexity in these leagues is immense pages on pages of contract rules, compensations rules and transaction rules (which it turns out attorney’s are pretty good at). On its own, trading for Brock Osweiler and a second round pick does not solve any major issue. This, of course, begins this session of Grumpy Old Men.2.

Here’s’s Bill Livingston:

In one way, Livingston is right, this move did not on its own solve the Browns quarterback issues of the past two decades. In another, he is lost. If we were to analyze every individual move based on whether it had solved the quarterback question, no doubt every move would fail because it is an absurd and disingenuous way by which to measure success.

ESPN Cleveland’s Tony Grossi shares Livingston’s rubric: If a franchise quarterback is not acquired, the trade cannot be “brilliant.”

Grossi, like Livingston, likes to throw analytics around as a concept that he seems to understand as a binding column of numbers which by themselves make decisions.

The larger difference, however, is simply age. People like Bill Livingston simply have no interest in understanding the Browns process. He admits as much in this column:

Analytics and I have never understood each other.

Nor does he wish to understand what analytics actually means but rather just to toss it about as jab:

As for how analytics rates the pair, I’m not sure the discipline applies fully in football. Was RG3 the same quarterback after getting hit hard as he was before? Is there an algorithm that takes into account skill attrition through injury?

Good questions, though I expect they are rhetorical and used as a means to trivialize. Analytics are not the practice of ignoring everything but spreadsheets. Indeed, the best analytical organizations are the ones that integrate data with the traditional scouting and health training process. Are we to pretend that career arc-changing injuries do not happen in baseball or basketball? I would make a joke about ivory towers but most of the reporters shredding this Browns trade are resentful of those who attended schools with ivory towers. It’s quite a conundrum.

And lest we think this gap is prevalent only in local media, it’s a problem across the entire NFL. In a recent story penned by CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora, the writer speaks with multiple league executives to discuss the Browns’ recent deal.

First, the more progressive executive.

“I like that trade for both teams,” as one put it.

And then, the “old school” executive from a “more conservative” franchise. (Emphasis on “old.”)

“I hate that trade. I hate it. That’s not a football trade.”

Two professional football franchises make a trade, but because said trade does not fit in with the hollow standards of yesteryear, it’s “not a football trade.” Makes sense, right?

The age divide is mammoth. The Browns implementation of the process may not work out—they do have to use these picks to acquire legitimate talent—but blind criticism without an attempt to learn the nuances of an innovative process is the true enemy of understanding.

My generation grew up reading Bill James, “Moneyball”, “Big Data Baseball” and “The 2 percent.” The older generation largely finds these approaches trite and lacking in good sports sense. “Boys of Summer” is a teriffic story and it’s penned by a legend, but let’s not pretend it’s going to help executives model modern day, competitive franchises. That certainly is an argument for another time, but when it comes to professional sports teams the war is over. Teams spend millions of dollars on collecting extensive information of all sorts. Therefore, a duty of covering a team must be attempting to understand the process they are implementing before blindly castigating it as a technocratic mess.

  1. Hugo Grotius conceptions of oceans as non-possessable property shifted legal notions and made him the father of international law. []
  2. Unfortunately not the hilarious films anchored by Walter Matthau []