Browns’ ‘moneyball’ strategy scores wins after a few replacements

By Mike Tainer

The Cleveland Browns tried just about everything from 2016-19 in an effort to escape decades of failure: embracing analytics, rejecting analytics, emphasizing character, ignoring character, austere scrimping, lavish spending — and sometimes attempting all of those tactics simultaneously.

Not surprisingly, the rapid succession of 180-degree lurches in organizational philosophy did not make the Browns better. Until this season, that is. The Browns have a 4-1 record, and their balanced offense and fearsome pass rush have them poised to produce their first winning season since 2007 and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

The secret to the team’s turnaround is that it is no longer seeking some secret method for turning things around.

The most recent epoch of Browns futility began when their controlling owner, Jimmy Haslam, hired Paul DePodesta as chief strategy officer after a 3-13 finish in 2015. His front-office exploits for baseball’s Oakland Athletics in the early 2000s were recounted in Michael Lewis’ bestseller “Moneyball” and fictionalized in the feature film of the same name. DePodesta is revered as one of the founding fathers of sports analytics: Alexander Hamilton as portrayed by Jonah Hill, a data-driven maestro of the draft and trade markets renowned for turning short-term sacrifices into long-term dividends.

DePodesta was hailed as the Browns’ latest potential savior (there have been many), someone who could easily rebuild the roster by outwitting the fusty, anti-intellectual NFL establishment. Unfortunately, baseball and football are very different sports, and the Browns installed what looked like a shoddy version of “Moneyball” based less upon statistical research than book jacket blurbs and existential riddles: Saving is spending. Losing is winning. Failure is the ultimate success.

For two years, the DePodesta team engineered trades to acquire draft picks and traded draft picks for even more draft picks in what seemed like an effort to restock the Browns’ nonexistent farm system. The coach, Hue Jackson, like the middle manager of some forgotten regional sales branch, appeared to grow a little too comfortable in an environment where winning was almost discouraged. The Browns were 1-31 over two seasons, an anti-accomplishment even by their standards, but the team’s topsy-turvy messaging made it hard to tell whether the losses were part of a counterintuitive plan.

Haslam, who had burned through three sets of coaches and general managers since purchasing the team in 2012, replaced a top DePodesta lieutenant, Sashi Brown, with a traditionalist general manager, John Dorsey, late in the 2017 season. Dorsey selected Baker Mayfield with the top pick in the 2018 draft, acquired Odell Beckham Jr. in a trade with the New York Giants, and made other moves that signaled a shift in the team’s priorities from “win in some far-flung future” to “win soon.”

Describing what happened next in a few sentences would be like trying to summarize the French Revolution on a cocktail napkin. After a rolling series of boardroom clashes, Jackson was fired, Dorsey gained greater control of football operations, DePodesta donned a phantom mask and disappeared into the rafters, and inexperienced Freddie Kitchen rose from obscurity to become the Browns’ offensive play caller midway through the 2018 season.

Kitchens’ brief tenure unfolded like the sequence in a campus comedy where the lads of Alpha Kappa Chugga lock the dean in his closet and declare every week to be Greek Week. Having finished the 2018 season with a 5-2 hot streak and after earning a little too much preseason hype, the Browns played as if they expected to reach the playoffs through sheer talent and rebellious swagger.

They went 6-10 instead, as Kitchens committed basic strategic blunders, Beckham and Myles Garrett got into on-field altercations with opponents, and Mayfield regressed at quarterback while publicly feuding with the local and national news media. Few teams have ever allowed so little success to go so completely to their heads.

Kitchens and Dorsey were fired at the end of the 2019 season, with DePodesta reappearing from a trap door beneath the stage to introduce yet another cast of characters, led by general manager Andrew Berry and coach Kevin Stefanski.

Superficially, the latest leadership change looks like the result of another boardroom coup, with DePodesta ousting Dorsey’s royalists and inserting inexperienced, analytics-friendly functionaries with scanty résumés in their place. But the newcomers appear more committed to winning games than engaging in thought experiments: They acquired veteran talent in their first offseason instead of using last year’s “Animal House” shenanigans as justification for another “Moneyball”-themed roster purge. Analytics now operate under the hood for the Browns instead of flapping like a flag mounted from the car’s antenna.

It’s tempting to interpret the Browns’ current success as a triumph for DePodesta’s initial vision, though it would also be rather sad to interpret four early-season wins after four years of upheaval as any sort of “triumph.” More accurately, the Browns have finally built a quality roster despite themselves, with some key pieces arriving during the first “Moneyball” dynasty (Garrett, wide receiver Jarvis Landry), many during the Dorsey rebellion (Mayfield, Beckham, running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt) and a few during the current Grand Reformation (offensive lineman Jack Conklin, tight end Austin Hooper).

The 2020 Browns are enjoying success because they are a talented team that executes fundamentally sound game plans each week instead of prematurely boasting of their pending greatness or adhering to a franchise-building paradigm that sounds suspiciously like a multilevel marketing scheme. It’s a simple formula that won’t inspire any intellectual movements or feature films. But it’s working, at least for now.