As NFL teams end their seasons, whether after the regular season or the playoffs, it is a time of change—the one and only constant in the business of football. And while there are many stories to cover these next few weeks and months—and I will be doing so here—there is one team that stands out for the way it changes annually, often seemingly for the sake of change alone.
There are a few organizations in the NFL that always seems to be a year away from being a year away, and the team that embodies this the most is…the Cleveland Browns. And, they are at it again.
In recent years I have not only resisted jumping on the bandwagon criticizing the Browns for their continued incompetence, but have been complimentary of their efforts. I have noted that whatever we think of owner Jimmy Haslam and his penchant for quick firings, at least he is willing to do—and spend—whatever it takes to (hopefully) get it right.
But now, after another “one-and-done” coaching staff and “two-and-done” front office, I can’t support Haslam and the Browns anymore. Trying to “get it right” is one thing; constant turnover with different factions empowered or disempowered is a recipe for failure. And, now looking back on this decade of misery for Browns fans, their failures are the only constant the team has.
Moneyball first movers?
Haslam made a bold move a few years back in hiring former baseball executive Paul DePodesta as a senior executive with the team. DePodesta was one of the first movers in recognizing the value of quantitative analytics in decision-making in sports, having done so in Major League Baseball for years. DePodesta was famously portrayed by Jonah Hill in the movie Moneyball, and my favorite scene had him facing the wrath of the old-school baseball scouts. They are berating DePodesta (renamed Peter Brand in the movie) for being enamored with a prospect who doesn’t pass the eye test for power, speed, etc. When confronted with all things he can’t do, DePodesta meekly retorts: “Well, he gets on base. Who doesn’t want that?” Boss.
With their hiring DePodesta I was again swimming against the “they don’t what they’re doing” tide, and in praise of the Browns. My reaction was this: Their previous ways weren’t working; why not go outside the box and hire a difference maker in another sport? Although a decade or so behind baseball, many NFL teams had hired analytics staff, whether publicly or privately. The problem with analytics in the NFL, and this is still the case today, is that most employees in that area do not have the power to meaningfully implement change in coaching decisions and personnel evaluation. But the Browns, I thought, were changing the game. They were appearing to empower DePodesta and seemed a first mover in changing NFL decision-making with a new approach from senior management. As the lead character in Moneyball, Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), said: “Adapt or die!”
However, following the bold hire of DePodesta on the management side, there was no similar forward thinking in hiring on the coaching or personnel side. The coaches hired under DePodesta’s leadership have been the same traditional, old-school coaches that privately, and sometimes publicly, have no use for analytics. First there was Hue Jackson who, while setting records for on-field futility, never appeared to buy in to the analytics theme. And then there was Freddie Kitchens, hired and fired in 2019, who seemed to be about the least forward-thinking coach a team could have.
Even more impactful was the mismatch between DePodesta and the front office player evaluation staff. Although there was buy-in from former general manager Sashi Brown, Brown’s tenure was short-lived and he seemed to lack both power and resolve to impose strategy on Jackson and his coaching staff. And upon Brown’s dismissal, the Browns’ selected John Dorsey, one of the NFL’s most respected college scouts, to lead the front office.
I have known John for 20 years, working with him for 10 of those, and his is, without question, a committed and talented personnel evaluator. Having said that, he would be one of the last people in the football business that I would think could be co-opted to evaluate players using “new-school” models. John has been bird-dogging players in his own way, with proven success, for over 30 years; he was not going to change his stripes in his late 50s.
John’s hiring made me believe the Browns have seemed to moved away from the analytical leadership that was supposedly there with DePodesta. And John doubled down on that with his coaching staffs, first retaining Jackson and then replacing him with Kitchens. Those coaches, like Dorsey, are not going to let a former baseball quantitative expert tell them how to scout or coach.
But, alas, come 2020, Jackson, Kitchens and Dorsey are gone, while DePodesta remains.
Back to the Future?
Now, the Browns are once again conducting a coaching search, but this time it is led by—you guessed it—DePodesta. The senior executive that we thought was empowered to run the franchise all along may now actually be doing it. Or not.
Amid the news that DePodesta is in charge, reports also indicate that the new coach and general manager will not report to DePodesta but directly to Haslam, suggesting an organizational chart with three direct reports to the owner.
This news tempers some of my optimism for the Browns, but at least DePodesta gets to—we think—handpick the leaders of the football operation. Leaders that will—we think—buy in to what DePodesta is selling and—we think—coach and manage with those principles in mind.
As it seems every year, we are back to where we started with the Browns.
We have been left scratching our heads about the Browns in recent years, wondering whether they are (1) building through the draft and sacrificing the present for future sustained success, as it seemed when they were acquiring picks before this year; or (2) taking a “win now” approach as they did this year in giving up assets to acquire players such as Odell Beckham and Olivier Vernon. Beyond the zig-zagging on team-building, we are left to wonder about the man behind the curtain. Was Paul DePodesta in charge all along, simply unable to impose his will in establishing an analytically-based football operation? Or was he there (or not there) in name only, while the traditional old-school football types did what they always do, for better or (mostly) worse? Now—we think—we will truly find out.
Pick a lane
My advice to the Browns, which is hopefully better advice than that of the homeless man who suggested they select Johnny Manziel in the first round of the 2014 draft, is to pick a lane and go all-in. If Haslam felt and still feels strongly about DePodesta, he needs to truly empower him. If the Browns are going to be what they purported to be when they hired him—first movers with leadership steeped in statistical analysis—then they should go all-in on that and trust and support DePodesta in leading that strategy.
Successful organizations (and people), in sports and in business stand for something. We may not like what they stand for, or the way they do business, but we know what they fundamentally are. In contrast, unsuccessful organizations (and people) meander in and out of different courses, often failing simply due to lack of clarity of purpose.
The Browns have been the latter, but they once again have an opportunity to be the former. I hope (again) that they don’t waste this opportunity and (again) start over this time next year. Upon the firing of Kitchens, I tweeted that I wondered who the Browns would hire in 2020 to fire in 2021. I hope they prove me wrong, I really do.
Adapt or die.
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