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.