Analytics. Perhaps the biggest buzzword in modern sports. Depending on your audience, its meaning can take the form of whatever that conversant intends—a sort of chameleonized, fit-for-purpose term. One might want it to reference a study of the data behind the play on the field, while another might demonize it to be irreverent of narratives developed about that sport because, well, that is the case. Numbers do not have feelings.
It’s the reason behind the three-point revolution and position ambiguity in the NBA. It’s the reason behind shortened rotations and high-end bullpen arms in baseball. It’s why that one headline on that one website you read is written out the way it is.
Merriam-Webster defines the term as the logical study of analysis. Obviously, a logical approach should be the main goal of every general manager, coach, and even player if they desire to gain a competitive advantage. In sports, however, the analytics buzzword is confined to mean the discovery of data. More specifically, the central focus is thought to be on the implementation of imperfect metrics to valuate player performance on a global level, considering all inputs within a player’s control. These metrics are useful, of course, but do not fairly explain the analytics movement.
In 2016, the Cleveland Browns turned to Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta to run their franchise. A lawyer that some may deem underqualified thanks to his decade long NFL resume being confined to cap space. A baseball guy who was once portrayed by Jonah Hill in Moneyball, a film based on Bill James and Billy Beane’s landscape-tilting revolution of baseball statistics. Skepticism was fair, but not in the method it was received. The entire league revolted, deeming their numbers voodoo to be without merit within the confines of the gridiron. The main qualm was that quantification of performance is much more difficult in a 22-man dance that hinges on individual battles, versus a sport that is solely based on the results of pitcher versus hitter. Of course, this is not an unfair position—it is categorically more difficult to quantify what happens on a football field.
The critics, however, missed the mark on their classification of analytics.
Look back to when Brown and DePodesta were given the keys to the Browns franchise. At their first media scrum, they attempted to drive home the point that analytics was about far more than numbers. Despite their efforts to convince the media otherwise, Brown and DePodesta became the poster-children for the analytics movement in football. These efforts included a somewhat long-winded response by DePodesta at their first media scrum. ESPN’s Pat McManamon transcribed the most important piece of his response:
“It’s all about utilizing information to try to create some sort of advantage by making a better decision. That’s really the way I view it. Analytics is not about sitting behind a computer and pushing enter and having it produce an answer. This game is not a simulation. It’s played by real people and because of that there’s just a tremendous amount of uncertainty that surrounds it. For us, it’s about how we use information, how we use data to really get our arms around that uncertainty.”
Fast-forward a couple years—23 months to be precise—to the culmination of a second consecutive fruitless Browns season. The roster had been gutted at the hands of Sashi Brown, much to the dismay of former Browns head coach Hue Jackson. The internal battle flag had been seized by Jackson, undoubtedly downright giddy at the news of Sashi Brown’s firing. Media outlets virtually declared the analytics movement in the NFL deceased, only prolonging the misconception of the movement itself.1
DePodesta survived. A reasonable explanation would be his protected role, behind the scenes and encapsulated from the anti-analytics firing squads. This was universally accepted. Until Yahoo’s Charles Robinson turned the perception of the Browns front office upside down.
“I’m now more certain than ever that chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta has been more influential than anyone outside of the organization understands. I think everyone (including me) has been led astray about the current power structure in Cleveland. Especially where it concerns Dorsey.
Here’s what is clear: Haley believed he was in line to step into the interim coaching job if Hue was fired, and he got that belief from Dorsey and some of Dorsey’s subordinates on the personnel side of the organization. And when that didn’t happen and Haley was fired, he was completely blindsided by it. Which means one of two things – either Dorsey and his subordinates stabbed Haley in the back (which they didn’t), or Dorsey was overruled in the process when it came to his chosen interim. I believe it was the latter, with DePodesta having a more significant hand in the process than anyone realized and Haslam giving the green light to fire Haley. Boiled down, I think DePodesta has more power than most people realize, while Dorsey has less.”
Most had assumed true football guy and draft selection guru John Dorsey was the only one in Browns’ owner Jimmy Haslam’s ear. It was even reported that he would spearhead the search for a new coach, prompting Mike McCarthy rumors to run rampant. Robinson’s article, though, illuminated the former baseball guy’s importance behind the scenes, alleging that DePodesta had a bigger share of Haslam’s ear time. Additionally, the report alleged that John Dorsey wanted to keep Todd Haley but was thwarted by Haslam and DePodesta; signifying a major news dump when considering the Browns future landscape.
It’s possible that the cloak and dagger driver of the organizational bus is Paul DePodesta—chief of vision and strategy. Though these reports about his duties have been largely ignored, the Yahoo piece runs eerily parallel to the information that was distributed at the time of his hiring.
It was never about the numbers, though they played a significant role. The analytics movement was more focused on processing and utilizing information, whether that information be of the black and white variety or reside in the plethora of gray areas that accompany analyzing football.
One thing is certain: The next coaching hire is crucial for the direction of the franchise. Whether the job is given to Gregg Williams or not, Browns fans can rest easy knowing that every avenue will be exhausted with DePodesta involved. Don’t count out anyone for the permanent head coach gig, including Freddie Kitchens. The gathering of data and willingness to consider every option will not confine the search to inside-the-box options. As DePodesta put best when brought aboard in 2016, “I have experience in things that are unpopular.”
- Except that they also praised the Philadelphia Eagles use of data metrics in interesting ways on their Superbowl run. A weird time in football journalism. [↩]