Moneyball II: Analytics, The Cleveland Browns and the Sam Hinkie/Paul DePodesta Switcheroo

There’s a scene in The Dark Knight where Alfred explains Gotham’s crooks hiring of Joker to Bruce Wayne, “You squeezed them. You hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”

Perfect explanation by Alfred of the Joker’s hiring, right!?

But can’t that quote double for the NFL’s most desperate franchise too, the Cleveland Browns? Earlier this year they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand, Paul DePodesta – the baseball exec whom with Billy Beane resurrected a broken Oakland A‘s team to four straight playoffs. By using advanced stats like OBP and WAR, they were able to exploit baseball’s deficiencies – finding value in overlooked players because of their lack of star appealing numbers (home runs, RBIs, Wins, etc).[1]

For example, why overpay Johnny Damon when you can find other players that do the same thing but cheaper?[2]

Moneyball II: Analytics, The Cleveland Browns, and the Sam Hinkie/Paul DePodesta Switcheroo

But here’s the problem, it worked for DePodesta (the new Browns Chief Strategy Officer) because baseball is simple – it’s actually just a game between the pitcher against batter. That’s why pitchers like Greg Maddux were able to thrive, even without great speed or nasty sinkers, sliders or curveballs. All he had to do was outduel the batter. Once stat execs like DePodesta adjusted for batter plate patience (OBP) and defensive errors, the Analytics Era was underway.

Football though is complex, depending on what type of scheme (3-4,4-3, read option, West Coast, etc) you run, some players may not perform as well. Von Miller in the 3-4, fantastic! You want him wrecking havoc all over the field, not knowing where he’s coming from. But as a 4-3 end, what a waste, “So Von is lined up on left, let’s run it to the right!”

And we get DePodesta’s strategy – build through the draft, strengthen your team by increasing the amount of high picks. But it doesn’t make sense if you don’t follow football’s simple rules.

The Necessity of a Quarterback

First, you need a great quarterback. Think about this for a bit, of the past twenty Super Bowls, eight career mediocre or lousy quarterbacks have participated.[3] Of that group only three have won. Trent Dilfer in 01′, Brad Johnson 03′, and on his last legs Peyton Manning this year. And you could say most likely Brad Johnson doesn’t win that Lombardi in 03′ if Tom Brady doesn’t tear his ACL. So that’s only TWO years every twenty you miiiight have a chance to win a Super Bowl. If you’re lucky.

You have a better chance of winning a Republican Primary as an unknown candidate than winning the Super Bowl. Wouldn’t you rather roll your dice on drafting a franchise quarterback? That’s what made DePodesta’s draft strategy so puzzling. They had a chance to draft Carson Wentz, and basically said, “Nah, we’ll pass! We’ll stick to our super smart strategy of collecting trade chips and stock piling assests.”  I even wrote a piece about this year’s Carson Wentz/Jared Goff debate.

Second, if the people pulling your organization’s strings keep committing boneheaded mistakes, then what good is it if you have a smart strategy. The last time a team tried to do something revolutionary like this, the 76ers tanked three straight seasons, this jokingly happened, and their Joker (Sam Hinkie) didn’t really want to watch the world burn, just the 76ers. Here, look at this:

Boneheaded Mistake 1

Letting a solid free agent receiver walk, Travis Benjamin, just to draft another receiver (Corey Coleman) in the first round. Again, IN THE FIRST ROUND!!!! It didn’t take long for the Chargers to sign him for four years and roughly $6 million/year average – making him just the 25th highest paid receiver. Just remember he finished with 966 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 68 receptions while behind the 25th ranked offense (17.4 pts/game – 30th), and an abysmal quarterback group last year: Josh McCown, Austin Davis, and Billy Johnny Manziel.

On top of that, the Browns made Corey Coleman the first receiver taken in the draft. But is he even the best receiver of this year’s draft? How many WOW! plays does he make in this video? Just four: 0:46, 1:05, 1:53, and at the 3:09 marks right!? The rest of his highlights are just him catching and running around. Compare that to Laquon Treadwell‘s: :29, 1:11, 2:32, 3:17!, and 3:52! marks. Not only does Treadwell have more, but his are better. Way better. You can call Treadwell a monster. You can’t Coleman. So let me get this straight, the Browns are gathering more picks to pick the wrong guys??? Are we sure DePodesta isn’t Sam Hinkie in disguise?

Boneheaded Mistake 2

At what point did Hue Jackson just stare blankly at DePodesta and say, “Hey man. We just took five receivers in the draft, why didn’t we just re-sign Travis Benjamin???” Is it fair to say, five years from now DePodesta will be writing his own Hinkie Apology Letter starting off with, “I am not attuned to this environment, and I don’t want to spoil a decent record by trying to play a game I don’t fully understand.”

And yes it’s true, FIVE receivers in ONE draft. That’s a weird strategy. So not only are the Browns gathering more picks to pick the wrong guys; they’re throwing more picks at their problems hoping something will stick? Can somebody check their management for CTE. Seriously, Will Smith‘s character from Concussion is on the verge of investigation.

Boneheaded Mistake 3

Football in a snapshot, sack the quarterback/protect the quarterback. If you can do one of those really greatly, fantastic. It’s the reason why teams like the 07′ Giants won the Super Bowl. Michael Strahan and the defensive line dominated a heavily favored Patriots by ripping through their offensive line like it was made of paper mache while carrying a mediocre Giants offense that year (ranked 16th).

By not re-signing Alex Mack, a top five center and three-time Pro Bowler including the recent 2016 Pro Bowl, the Browns officially punted on retooling and instead entered full tear down mode. Why not just re-sign Mack which secures one of their strengths (offensive line), pay Benjamin, draft Wentz, and approach their rookie quarterback situation the way Jacksonville did with Blake Bortles or maybe even the Steelers with Ben Rothlisberger? Either let him figure it out and grow his confidence by having two solid receivers to chuck the ball to (the Allen Brothers), or bring him along slowly and manage him until he’s ready all the while building a championship defense (2005 Steelers).

I mean, what’s the hurry? You’re going to stink regardless of who you draft over the next few years. And doesn’t having Wentz start trump having Josh McCown, Austin Davis, or Johnny Manziel start? On top of that, you have at least three years or four to build your team. More than enough time to create a contender, which is all Jimmy Haslam and Browns fans want right now.

Conclusion

Maybe I’m wrong though. Maybe DePodesta has it all figured out, stockpiling assets and trade chips will work out. His vision far exceeds ours. Analytics will save Cleveland. It worked in baseball. It kind of works in basketball. And its worked for the Patriots and all their draft tradebacks over the years, so it has to work in football right? But then again, doesn’t New England have a franchise quarterback… good luck Cleveland.

References

[1] I love the scene where Jonah Hill’s character in Moneyball put it, “Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins.” Perfectly sums up baseball analytics.

[2] Or why would you pay Terrence Howard $8 million to play War Machine, when you can have a just as qualified actor (Don Cheadle) do it for $7 million less, right!? Which in hindsight, worked perfectly. Cheadle is more loose of an actor. I can’t see Howard blending seamlessly into that sidekick role without making it strange. You need War Machine’s role to spice it up a little but not take away from Iron Man’s spotlight. Would you choose, Don “Ocean’s 11, Boogie Nights, Talk to Me” Cheadle, or Terrence “Hustle & Flow, Prisoners, The Brave One” Howard? Exactly.

[3] Chris Chandler, this year’s dead arm Manning, Colin Kaepernick, Rex Grossman, Rich Gannon, Brad Johnson, Kerry Collins, and Trent Dilfer.

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