The Cleveland Browns organization, led by owner Jimmy Haslam and team president Alec Scheiner, made a bold and innovative decision to hire baseball executive Paul DePodesta as their chief strategy officer. Traditional football types and disgruntled Browns fans may not feel that it's so bold and innovative right now, but if the organization gives DePodesta a little time, he has a great chance to succeed.
Critics and cynics have given their reasons for why the team is just setting up fans for another era of epic sadness with this move. So, let’s go through and debunk those reasons one by one:
Myth 1: You can’t have a non-football guy evaluate football players
The mantra that non-football people shouldn’t be involved in personnel decisions is flawed. Executives switch businesses all the time. Just because someone is head of sales at a widget company doesn’t mean they can’t transfer their skills to selling a completely different kind of widget. From the start of his career, DePodesta, who most recently served as the Mets' VP of Player Development, has proven he has the ability to see things that others simply didn’t in baseball—he was never a traditional “baseball guy,” and that's what made him stand out. Effective managers bring the same organizational skills and insight to whatever field they choose to attack. DePodesta’s job is to set up the right processes to help the team flourish, not to draw up a game plan that will slow down Ben Roethlisberger. Bosses don’t have to have intimate knowledge of how the people below them do their jobs. As pointed out on HBO’s Silicon Valley, even Steve Jobs was not a real computer programmer.
Why would an owner not want his intellectual capital involved in the most important thing in the building: the football team? The game is very complicated and coaches and former players have a specific understanding of the game that others don't. But smart people can help the football evaluators clarify their vision and make better choices, and that's exactly what DePodesta has done so well in the past.
Myth 2. Analytics aren’t as effective in football
As Michael Lewis explained in Moneyball, the one-on-one competition between a pitcher and hitter makes analytics particularly effective in baseball. So much more happens in a typical football play than an at-bat. But that doesn’t mean analytics don’t belong in the sport. Teams will just have to work harder to decipher the numbers’ meaning. And wouldn’t any team serious about that approach be thrilled to bring in DePodesta to help?
Even though baseball analytics seem like a natural part of the game now, they weren’t always considered so obvious. For a century, it seems MLB teams didn’t take into account that a walk was as effective as a single.. Perhaps big opportunities are hidden in the stat sheets that even the brightest minds in the NFL haven’t seen yet. Who knows...we may be vastly underestimating punters and Pat McAfee could be due for a raise.
Besides, teams are already using analytics to inform both on-field strategy and salary-cap structure. The Browns just want to be better at it than anyone else.
Myth 3: The Browns are stuck with a bad roster
It's true that the Browns don't have a strong roster right now. But that also means that the Browns have a roster with a lot of opportunity. They’re bringing in DePodesta to help the organization pick new players. It’s a good thing that they’re not tied long-term to many of the current ones. The Browns need a sea change and that means gutting the roster.
They’ve garnered negative headlines with their current quarterback Johnny Manziel, but the cynicism could be a gift. Now they don’t have to worry about public pressure as they sit down and focus on finding their quarterback of the future. They have the No. 2 overall pick in this year's NFL draft and will have options other than Manziel.
Myth 4: There are too many cooks in the kitchen
Bill Parcells insisted great coaches need to shop for their own ingredients to build a winner. That won’t be the case for the Browns' new coach. But coaches picking players is risky as well. Just look at Chip Kelly’s brief tenure as Eagles GM. An effective front office should help the coach do his job better.
The NFL is the ultimate team sport. That should apply to the front office as well. DePodesta garnered a reputation as a likable team-first guy in baseball. He’ll join another controversial hire—one-time attorney Sashi Brown who was promoted to VP of Football Operations. With Harvard grad DePodesta and Harvard Law grad Brown, the next coach who comes can be confident there’s plenty of brain-power in the building. And more importantly, he’ll know the set-up and can’t complain if the numbers guys are making personnel calls.
Myth 5: It’s the Browns, so it's bound to be a disaster
Yes, the Browns have had only two winning seasons since they returned to Cleveland in 1999, and they've had eight coaches during that span. But all that heartache has cleared the way for a brand new approach. Historically, dynasties are born out of utter dismay. Teams need to get very bad in order to completely start over.
The 49ers were 2–14 when Bill Walsh took over in 1978. The Cowboys were 3–13 in Tom Landry’s final season before Jimmy Johnson arrived. The Steelers were a laughingstock before Chuck Noll arrived in 1968. After losing in the “Miracle at the Meadowlands” the Giants changed direction and hired GM George Young, who helped usher in Bill Parcells and championship rings.
The Oakland A’s adapted MoneyBall because they couldn’t compete financially. Right now, the Browns aren’t competing with standard football people running the show. Their ineptitude is forcing them to innovate. No 8–8 team is going to try to reinvent the wheel. It can be painful, but sometimes that’s necessary to change.
As for the Browns’ larger history...Earnest Byner’s fumble in the 1987 AFC Championship game has nothing to do with DePodesta or anyone in the building.
Yes, the Browns are taking a risk by giving DePodesta this kind of power. But they’re in a great position to do so. If it pays off, they could be on the forefront of team-building strategy in the NFL. In fact, Hollywood might some day make a movie about this franchise's bold front-office moves, except this time it would be non-fiction unlike Draft Day. Then again, if it was a re-enactment, it’d be a no-brainer to re-cast Jonah Hill as DePodesta. The easy movie jokes alone make the hire worthwhile.
And if it doesn’t work out, at least DePodesta temporarily pushed the “Billy Football” headlines out of the news cycle. For that alone they should resurrect a small statue for him outside the stadium in Cleveland.