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Paul DePodesta: Criticism of Browns' new ways 'part of the fun'

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NFL executives trash-talk Browns, DePodesta (1:27)

ESPN Browns reporter Pat McManamon examines how the Browns' new approach with Paul DePodesta is being viewed around the league. (1:27)

Paul DePodesta heard the rumblings while standing in line at the Indianapolis airport while leaving the NFL scouting combine.

The Cleveland Browns' new director of strategy wound up near folks from other teams who were not aware he could hear their conversation.

"They were talking trash about me and the Cleveland Browns," DePodesta said at last week's Sloan Analytics Conference at MIT, per Baseball America. "I said, 'All right, this is like 17 years ago in Oakland all over again.' That's part of the fun."

Little could put the Browns' situation in perspective better.

Other teams are scratching their heads at the Browns' management structure, national media is ripping into them, fans are throwing their hands in the air and one free agent who departed (safety Tashaun Gipson) said he's as confused by the team's approach as the fans are.

But the Browns believe they are building a winning team by relying on the draft, and they will stick to their plan.

"I have a little experience in doing things that are unpopular," DePodesta said at Sloan.

In mentioning Oakland, he of course is referring to the "Moneyball" era when Billy Beane and he developed a new way to find players for a team with limited revenues. Bringing a Moneyball approach to the staid old NFL causes major tremors. Especially when the guy involved in guiding it spent 17 years in Major League Baseball, as DePodesta did. Even now, folks around the league will mutter that the Browns' decisions are being made "by a baseball guy."

The chatter increased, though, with the departure of four starters on the first day of free agency, followed by the team signing no free agent of note.

The opener remains six months away, but already folks are criticizing the Browns as an organization that has taken no steps to improve a three-win team, an organization willing to accept losing in 2016 and perhaps even 2017.

The Browns say that no coach -- especially Hue Jackson -- accepts losing, and no player does either. They simply will stick to their plan because they believe in the long run it will pay off.

In past years, new Browns regimes talked about being patient, then spent lavishly on free agents. In his first year as GM, Ray Farmer signed four prominent players, two on the first day of free agency. Mike Lombardi and Joe Banner signed six. Eric Mangini brought in seven, four his ex-Jets. And Phil Savage in his first two seasons signed 15 free agents.

Success did not follow.

This regime's goal is to build through the draft, and stick to the plan. This regime will not overspend for free agents. Instead, it will build with as many draft picks as it can accumulate, save salary-cap room and then spend for a free agent when one or two players makes the difference between making or not making the playoffs.

Owner Jimmy Haslam himself admitted on the day of the season finale in 2015 that this would be a "several-year rebuild."

The Browns concede that all four of their free agents who left had talent and were good players, but they also ask: Would any one of them have made the difference between five and 10 wins?

The approach becomes problematic to fans paying premium prices for a team that might not be premium. The Browns say they will do all they can to win, and as they do, they will build a better team that fans can enjoy for years.

It's also problematic to veteran players such as Paul Kruger or Joe Thomas or Donte Whitner. As players get up in age, they realize they have only so many years left to win. While they understand the concepts behind building a team, they are interested in Sundays being the priority, not the long-term build.

Management understands, but also understands that every team needs some veteran leaders. How the Browns handle a veteran such as Thomas, who could draw a first-round draft pick via trade, will be one of the more important decisions the team makes.

At present, the Browns look like a team that will struggle to match last season's victory total. Jackson no doubt will counter this claim.

But this organization will not veer from its plan. It uses the word "disciplined" for a reason.

“When I was going to the Browns,” DePodesta said, “I had met with the ownership, Jimmy and Dee Haslam, and they asked me, ‘What do you want out of an owner?’

"And I said, 'Well, I'll tell you what I don’t want.' I said, 'If you ever take your kids to an amusement park at Disneyland or whatever, they beg you to go on the big-daddy roller coaster. They beg you. You say, 'Are you sure?' They say, 'Absolutely, I want to go on this thing.'

"So you wait in line for 45 minutes, it takes up a good chunk of your day, you finally get to the front of the line, they eyeball it, and they say, 'Uh, I’m not getting on that thing. Not at all.'

"And that's what happens to a lot of owners. They would say, 'Hey, we want Moneyball, we want this disciplined approach to what we’re doing.'

"But then when it comes time to making that hard decision, they say, 'I don’t want any part of this.'

"I said, 'I need someone who’s going to want to get on the roller coaster with me knowing that it's not always going to be fun. There are going to be parts of the roller coaster that are going to be scary, that are going to be uncomfortable, but hopefully at the end of the ride when we get off, you’re going to want to say, let's do that again.'"