Incompetence is Dangerous

Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN Cleveland and ESPN 850 WKNR as he has done for the past 30 years for various outlets. During his tenure, the team that has struggled, moved, and come back as an incompetent mess. Becoming overtly critical is an understandable development in his coverage—the Browns have certainly earned it even if the most recent regime change has only been at the helm for just over a full year.

Issues with Grossi, however, stem from when he meanders away from being a critical eye, deciding to dump on everything and anything the organization does. Rather than make attempts to learn the new ways of the NFL, he reverts to lowest common denominator hot takes as an attempt to skewer the team. Far too often, he ends up skewering himself instead.

His latest writing starts off with a logical premise: The current Browns regime will be judged in large accordance to who and when they draft a quarterback. It is a difficult decision and will consume many hours of their pre-draft analysis. They might even decide to wait for the 2018 NFL Draft if they are not confident about the current prospects.

Then, the train jumps the rails, smashes into a line of cars, and starts a forest fire that takes out a few thousand acres of woods.

Look, it is understandable that some of the modern ways of thinking about football through advanced mathematics is not Grossi’s preference. WFNY’s Mike Hattery wrote an interesting think-piece about how the age divide lends itself to such differences. There is a large audience that would prefer to have their football consumption exclude the math that would enjoy such material to read. Old dogs. New tricks.

However, Grossi’s combativeness crosses the line from willful ignorance to incompetence. While using “spreadsheets” as a pejorative is lazy enough, he went even further on Friday as he spread of dangerous lies about both an ESPN colleague and the Browns front office as he decided to escalate his war against analytics despite still not demonstrating a knowledge of what the term means in accordance with the NFL. Like it or not, Grossi still has large platforms that spread his message to the masses. As such, he has a responsibility to not be so reckless.

Brock Osweiler Trade

Barnwell “has served as a quantitative consultant to both MLB and NFL teams.” Although there is no mention that Barnwell has served as a consultant to the Browns, the circumstantial evidence is that he has, or does.

After all, Barnwell, who speaks the language of the Browns’ current regime, using terms like Pythagorean triangulation and Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) systems, apparently was the one who first conceptualized the idea of the NBA-like, salary-dump trade for Houston Texans quarterback bust Brock Osweiler.

The Cleveland Browns did break from NFL convention when they acquired Brock Osweiler from the Houston Texans along with their second-round selection in 2018 and sixth-round selection in 2017 for the Browns fourth-round selection in 2017. The trade was reminiscent of the NBA or MLB trades where a team acquirescompensation to take on a bad contract. With Paul DePodesta serving as the Browns chief strategy officer and the incredible amount of cap space available to the team, such trades should not be a surprise.

Grossi goes on to unfairly infer that Barnwell is working with the Browns. The only circumstantial evidence he displays is that the Browns front office is familiar with the same terms such as DVOA. I am not quite sure what the fourth-grade mathematics of Pythagorean Triangulation have to do with NFL front offices, but perhaps there is a usage for the square of the hypotenuse being equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides of which is not common knowledge.

If the Browns do not employ Barnwell as a consultant, they certainly read him and respect him. For on March 9, they shocked the sporting world – except for Barnwell – by doing what he recommended 2 ½ months earlier.

At NFL meetings in Arizona, the Browns failed to fully explain the origination of the unconventional trade.

So it’s not unfair to speculate that the concept originated with Barnwell. Which would mean the Browns are outsourcing major decisions to a football analytics columnist and podcaster with no practical experience in football scouting, coaching or team-building.

Through these lines, it is obvious that Grossi has decided his outcome and is scurrying to find whatever components might fit to force the narrative on his audience. Despite his statement, it is unfair to speculate on the origin of the concept and to further insinuate that the Browns are outsourcing major decisions to an ESPN writer.1

There is a possibility that someone in the Browns front office read Barnwell’s article about a potential trade for Osweiler. If that happened (and there is no evidence portrayed to suggest it did), then the idea would still need to be vetted by the Browns front office. The positives and negatives of such a deal would have to be weighed and debated to ensure that everyone agreed the direction was one they wanted to pursue. Let alone the negotiations with the Texans that would need to take place to complete the deal.

The final deal was also a net positive for the Browns. Whether or not they keep Osweiler on the roster, they obtained additional draft capital with the only price being to owner Jimmy Haslam’s wallet.

No. 1 overall pick

It’s easy, right? Use the No. 1 pick on pass rusher Myles Garrett and then go to work on the tougher challenges. At least it seemed simple, until Bill Barnwell struck again.

Again, if Barnwell is not an official consultant to the Browns, he obviously has their attention. So we must assume they have, and will, consider trading the No. 1 overall pick.

Why must we assume that Barnwell has the attention of the Browns front office? Let alone read with so much respect that anything Barnwell writes we must assume the Browns will consider as an edict they must follow. If the Browns did have this level of franchise direction changing respect for Barnwell, then why wouldn’t they have hired him as they did with Kevin Meers?2 When Eno Sarris of Fangraphs writes, should we assume the Cleveland Indians front office will do whatever he says?

Again, Grossi’s lone piece of evidence was that the Barnwell suggested trading for a contract such as Osweiler could be a smart play for a team like the Browns with ample cap room. If all that is required for the Browns to make a move is for someone to write about it before such a move is made, then you are all welcome for the Browns selection of Joel Bitonio. Apologies for the Justin Gilbert selection.

“Analytics? Don’t get me started,” Williams groused at a recent charity event – favor taking the physically elite Garrett to jumpstart their anemic pass rush.

I think the overwhelming consensus among football people is to rubber-stamp the pick on Garrett, and then figure out the quarterback quandary.

Ah, analytics – the very definition of paralysis by over-analysis.

Grossi make an attempt at using the word analytics as a weapon rather than making even a meager effort at understanding the nuance from which it is derived. In a WFNY interview with Jacob Rosen, Trey Causey defined football analytics as “the rigorous application of data and the scientific method to football to inform decisions and maximize the chances of winning as many games as possible.”

Football analytics take in data from scouting reports, measurements from the NFL Combine, statistics from play, and discussions with football people (as Grossi would call them) to determine the best course of action. There has always been some form of analytics in the NFL from as writers such as Paul Zimmerman to coaches such as Jimmy Johnson and front office people such as Ernie Adams. Anywhere there was someone attempting to achieve a deeper quantitative understanding of the game, analytics was there.

Someone also should tell Grossi about the expected No. 1 overall prospect Myles Garrett. Reports are that the Browns have given Garrett an astronomical grade by using those same analytics that he pans. But hey, that wouldn’t fit his narrative.

  1. He also manages to get an under-handed dig in at Paul DePodesta as well by referring to people with no practical experience directly in football being part of a decision-making team despite the success in plenty of other sports bringing in outside experts. []
  2. Meers was a football analytic researcher for Harvard that the Browns hired on as director of research. []