Execution of ‘The Plan’ has always been the biggest problem

Former Executive Vice President of Football Operations Sashi Brown found himself in a peculiar situation when he was awarded the job in January of 2016. Whether through his own desire, or collective group think, the plan was to tear the roster down coming off a 3-13 season and seek the type of base needed for long-term success. A five-year plan was laid out, and the fans, through the media, were sold this narrative.

On the surface, such a plan (“The Plan”) sounds intelligent. With many organizations around the NFL, it likely works. The problem is the Browns never quite figured out they had taken The Plan too far until it was too late.

The situation the Browns were facing was simple: The franchise kept winning three-to-six games a year. It was just average enough to keep hope alive that a winning season was just around the corner. The results, however, were too poor to attract the necessary free agents, and never quite bad enough to get the top three pick for a quarterback-starved franchise. The thought became clear to the organization: The current path isn’t working, and a restart was needed. This was exactly the route the Browns decided to take.

Poor timing

The single biggest problem in The Plan was the timing by which it was set in motion. Think back to 2014 for just a moment. The Browns roar out of the gates to the tune of a 7-4 start and have the AFC North lead 12 weeks into the season. The organization was in a rare position for once. The city was on fire. People were euphoric about the hometown hero Brian Hoyer leading this group to a miraculous season. Despite Hoyer’s below average quarterback play throughout the stretch, fans thought the Browns had solved the position and forgot about rookie first-round pick Johnny Manziel. Then Hoyer played poorly over the next two weeks and the Browns panicked. They threw in Manziel, who was clearly in over his head, and never won another game going from 7-4 to 7-9.

Despite all of the disappointment, the off-season felt promising. The Browns had a core back that crept closer to the playoffs than any group since 2007, and despite the departure of offensive guru Kyle Shanahan and Hoyer, the feeling was general optimism. Then the season happened, and the Browns finished 3-13. Despite a record-breaking season in the passing game, the group couldn’t score enough points, and the run defense was one of the worst in the league. The bleak feeling set in again. The Browns fired Mike Pettine, ushered in an inexperienced front office name in Sashi Brown, and took the plunge to the full tank in order to start from scratch.

The problem wasn’t attempting to restart the process again—the everyday fan could see there wasn’t enough talent to make the playoffs. The problem was the depths they felt were necessary to reach in order to make that result happen. Depths no other franchise in NFL history has attempted to go to.

Slash the roster and trade back

The plan started with a gutting of the roster’s veterans and the acquisition of draft capital. The 2016 free agency period saw the Browns allow Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz, Travis Benjamin, Tashaun Gipson, Taylor Gabriel, Paul Kruger, Karlos Dansby, and Jordan Poyer all leave in one single offseason. Now that isn’t the total list of players the organization cut, but it is the list of those that impacted the Browns or have gone on to impact their new destination. The 2017 offseason was the same situation as Joe Haden, Gary Barnidge, Terrelle Pryor, Demario Davis, Josh McCown, and John Greco were all set free. This equates to 14 names in two offseasons who were set free after contributing in Cleveland, and are now contributing elsewhere.1

Alongside the roster slash was the decision to trade back in the draft in order to collect assets. The Browns went this route in two straight years. Among them were the 2016 trade that allowed the Philadelphia Eagles to come up and select Carson Wentz, and the 2017 trade that allowed the Houston Texans to come up and select Deshaun Watson. These two trades did vault the Browns into a nice situation this offseason—now owners of the No.1 and No. 4 picks in the draft—but also left the fan base wondering if they passed on these franchise quarterbacks they could have simply selected.

In a vacuum, this is true. The Browns desperately need to solve the quarterback position and will once again aim to do so this offseason, but The Plan they had in place called for a complete roster overhaul and the best way to do so is through the draft. The Browns had so many holes from letting players walk that they needed as many picks as possible for the roster to ever stand a chance. The selection of Corey Coleman in 2016 and Jabrill Peppers in 2017 will always be tied to the quarterbacks on whom they passed.

The Plan’s failure

The problem with The Plan was not the overarching idea of it all. The problem was in the execution of it. When the Browns decided they would let 14 base franchise assets walk over a two-year span, they depleted the roster. If you break down each name on that list you can come up with a reason or two that justifies them being permitted to walk. The problem is that you can’t look at just one name; it’s the collective whole that depletes an organization.  They allowed the roster to be occupied by talent that could be replaced at will, and was frequently under-qualified to see an NFL field.

Take this statistic for example: At the end of the 2017 season, the Browns had just eight names on their roster that were also on the roster during the 2015 season. Just two years separated from the 2015 season and the organization employed 45 new individuals, and most of them came from the draft. This equals a very young team, and one that is going to be defunct of the necessary talent on a 53-man roster to compete week-in and week-out.

The turnover is too alarming to ignore. Pundits love to compare the team to other young groups like the Jaguars and Rams, both of which are thriving despite their young age. Consider this:

Despite the poor records each of those teams had just two years ago, each one has at least 20 players who were on the roster from two years prior. The Browns have less than half that. When you have such a small carryover you put yourself behind the odds. Sashi Brown hit on some draft picks in his time here. There is no denying Myles Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, Caleb Brantley, Jabrill Peppers, Corey Coleman, David Njoku, Derrick Kindred, and Joe Schobert have talent and will continue to contribute in Cleveland. The problem is the outlook by which those draft picks had to hit. Those picks had to come in and contribute at a star level for the Browns to see any semblance of success. Brown put the pressure on himself to hit on draft picks at a success rate larger than the norm. When you let that much talent walk away, the need to replace them becomes the necessity.

Sashi forced himself to have to hit back-to-back home runs in the draft, and even if he did a serviceable job with the plan within those drafts, quarterbacks like Wentz and Watson did him in. He put the pressure on himself when he didn’t necessarily need to. A franchise can only have so much turnover before the product on the field runs a risk of winning one game in two years. Sashi didn’t have to let all those names walk. He was the leader of a group who took the risk in slashing a roster to near expansion level continuity. It is no secret they could have won more games, but that fact becomes irrelevant when you step back and realize the unnecessary risk they took allowing this to be a possible outcome.

Where we go from here

“We do feel like we made a great bit of progress but there’s nothing we’re going to do in the spring until it translates to wins in the fall that matters to us. That’s our mindset. We talk about it all the time, we’re not trying to win free agency, we’re not trying to win the draft. We’re trying to win games in the fall. We do look at it, and its coming.” — Sashi Brown on 92.3 The Fan.

Leading up to his firing at the tail end of the 2017, Sashi Brown stood by The Plan while making the mistake of thinking he had more time than he actually did. It was a plan that carried major risk. Jimmy Haslam has many faults in this which have been documented, but no owner should ever tolerate one win over a two-year span. The roster slash didn’t have to go to such lows to accomplish what the group wanted to accomplish, and when they took the risk they had to understand the consequences of the lows.

Hue Jackson, brought in alongside Sashi Brown in 2016, also played a role in the failure at hand. His media blunders and gameday failures are well documented. His third year will be crucial. The biggest problem with the Browns hasn’t been the people within The Plan, but rather the execution of The Plan itself. Sashi did some things well. Hue has also done some things well. The balance is there to find.

For good or bad the success of Sashi Brown’s plan hinges on the impact this offseason has on the franchise. The pressure is immense for new GM John Dorsey. Dorsey and recently hired VP of Football Operations Alonzo Highsmith give the Browns two names with deep experience in the scouting and player selection department. What this means for Andrew Berry and Paul DePodesta remains to be seen. They are trying to find the balance in cashing in their offseason capital, and identifying the high-end talent necessary with a mixture of old school talent evaluation and analytics driven analysis. Sashi Brown can adequately serve as a GM in the NFL, but his timing in Cleveland coupled with his poor execution of The Plan is what did him in.

  1. Mostly. []