Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
Out of left field: The Browns put a lawyer in charge of football operations and named a baseball analytics expert to a high-level football position.
Only a team whose record is so bad as the Browns’ can these moves be viewed as progressive, intriguing, even fascinating.
The alternative is more misguided coaching and GM hires and criminally negligent player acquisitions.
In other words, why not? Could it get any worse?
Don’t answer that.
I see the unconventional restructuring of the Browns’ football operation, which was conceived by president Alec Scheiner and sold to owner Jimmy Haslam, as bizarre at best and insane at worst.
Of course, some of the most brilliant ideas in American history were considered insane at the time they were hatched and presented.
It is more than a shuffling of roles and titles. It is a paradigm shift in the way the Browns evaluate players, hire coaches and conduct their draft. They will manage a people business by the numbers, using spreadsheets and algorithms to project future performance.
Once again, how worse can they do trying something different?
Again, don’t answer that.
Moneyball meets Draft Day: The linchpin of this extremely risky endeavor is Paul DePodesta, the Harvard graduate who transformed Major League Baseball by introducing sabermetrics -- or incomprehensible statistical analysis -- into scouting and player development.
DePodesta, 43, started his career as an intern with the Cleveland Indians under John Hart in 1996. After three years, he moved on to the Oakland Athletics as an assistant to General Manager Billy Beane. Their success in using statistical analysis to create a winning team with a low payroll was glamorized in the book and movie, "Moneyball".
DePodesta’s character -- which was renamed, at DePodesta’s request, to Peter Brand -- was played by actor Jonah Hill, who earned an Oscar nomination.
In his most recent position of vice president of scouting and player development of the New York Mets, DePodesta created the talent pipeline that propelled the Mets to the World Series in October.
When DePodesta was named Browns chief strategy officer on Tuesday, it was a huge news story across Major League Baseball and NFL media platforms.
Linked to Scheiner, an avowed analytics proponent, DePodesta will report directly to Haslam on the same plane with Scheiner, the revenue-maker, and Sashi Brown, the legal counsel recently appointed executive vice president of football operations.
The Browns’ release said DePodesta will be responsible for “assessing and implementing best practices and strategies that will provide the organization with the comprehensive resources needed to make optimal decisions.” In other words, he will essentially write the blueprint of the Browns’ new methodology in building a football organization.
This was not some knee-jerk reaction to the Browns’ 3-13 record.
A source with knowledge of a secret business meeting involving Haslam told ESPN Cleveland that, in August, Haslam actually offered a high-level position to former Indians president Mark Shapiro -- an analytics proponent -- last summer. (A Browns spokesman denied it. Shapiro, now president and CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays, did not return a phone call for comment.)
DePodesta played football at Harvard and wanted to work for an NFL team, but the sport wasn’t ready for his concepts, so he turned to baseball. He helped build five different organizations into division winners.
“My focus is to bring whatever experience and perspective I can to collaborate with the team, with the intent of helping us make more informed and successful decisions,” he said.
“Admittedly, there will be an awful lot for me to learn, but I want nothing more than to help bring consistent, championship caliber football back to Cleveland and Browns fans and I look forward to starting right away.”
DePodesta’s defection to the NFL stunned the baseball world. That sport is hailing the Browns for a bold move to transform the staid NFL to the wonders of statistical analysis.
Many NFL teams have introduced analytics into their organizations recently. The Browns did so under former CEO Joe Banner in 2013, but Scheiner now has persuaded Haslam to go all-in. It is a transcendent development.
Haslam’s reassignment of Brown, the team lawyer, to chief football authority raised eyebrows. The appointment of DePodesta has left mouths agape. DePodesta immediately joined Haslam on the search committee to find a coach to agree to this radical approach.
Immediate resistance: Banner, who is still being paid by the Browns while serving as an ESPN analyst, raised pertinent questions about Haslam’s surrender to analytics as a means of governing his football operations.
Banner’s major point is the Browns have severely limited their options at head coach by creating a structure that elevates non-football voices to the forefront of every decision.
Banner said, “If it doesn’t work, here’s the why: In baseball and basketball, people are using this system and winning with it, including Paul -- and Paul’s a good hire if you are committed to this. In football, the head coach is massively more important than in those other sports. To do anything that either devalues the coach or makes it harder to recruit the best possible coach ...
“I can’t give you a name [of a coach that would embrace this system]. But the names that we’re hearing -- the [Teryl] Austins, the [Hue] Jacksons, the [Doug] Marrones, [Adam] Gase -- all good coaches. If they hire one of those guys, I think they’d have conflict in a relatively short period of time. They don’t believe in this being as big a driving force as it is.”
An agent who represents some of the most successful NFL coaches and also MVP-type players, said, “They’re going to have a hard time finding a coach.
“You’re in a division where the other coaches are John Harbaugh, Marvin Lewis, Mike Tomlin -- who are arguably creating potential Hall of Fame careers. I don’t know how analytics is going to take the field against those three guys.
“All I see in that division is hard, physical football in the elements. What the Browns are going to need to win is just a complete culture shift away from perhaps all the trinkets.
“Somebody once told me it doesn’t matter how great your ornaments are, you still need a reasonably good looking tree to hold the ornaments.
“Anybody that’s looking at that thing is looking at multiple layers of people trying to have their hand in the football operation. That’s what I see.”
Which brings me back to: Can it be any worse than what they’ve done before?
I don’t want to answer that.