The road to 1-24: Browns struggle to maintain structural integrity

Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, left, pledged to be patient with the "multiyear rebuild" guided by the Sashi Brown-Hue Jackson regime. Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy and Dee Haslam marched into unique NFL territory when they established the latest Browns World Order in January 2016.

That’s when the Haslams turned the football operations over to Sashi Brown -- a bright, young, personable lawyer whose background had never been in personnel. In establishing the structure that would give Brown final say over the 53-man roster, Haslam was telling the next coach he would fit in the structure that also would include Paul DePodesta, who also was hired in January 2016 and whose most extensive work background had been in baseball.

When Haslam hired Hue Jackson, he got the coach he targeted and the hot assistant on the market, but he also brought in a coach who was steeped in the traditional style and mores of football.

The Browns set out on a maiden voyage with a traditional coach working with a front office that would rely more heavily than it ever had on non-traditional statistical analysis, or analytics. In time, Jackson would learn that Brown had final say over not just the roster, but all personnel decisions -- including draft picks.

Not even two years later, that structure is staring at a 1-24 record and a roster lacking in many key areas, but with five picks in the first two rounds of the 2018 draft. Jackson desperately seeks a win, while Brown continues to stand by the long-term approach that Haslam said would be a “multiyear rebuild.”

It was no secret when Brown was hired that the Browns would delve deeper into the analytics side of player evaluation. Vic Carucci, who worked in the team's front office before rejoining the Buffalo News to cover the Bills for the 2015 season, immediately tweeted that Brown was heavy on analytics. Those who knew Brown concurred.

The question raised to Jimmy Haslam the night he announced the hiring was blunt: How could the Browns trust personnel judgment to someone whose background was not in personnel?

Haslam believed Brown could do it, pointing to Brown's smarts and experience in different areas of the front office as a salary-cap expert and as legal counsel.

“He’s very smart, very organized, good at systems and processes and an outstanding team player. He’s also very strategic,” Haslam said on Jan. 3, 2016.

Brown was one of former CEO Joe Banner’s hires -- as the team’s general counsel. His responsibilities prior to 2016 included negotiating a $125 million renovation of FirstEnergy Stadium with the city of Cleveland, dealing with corporate partnership arrangements and working on Joe Haden's 2014 contract extension. Brown arrived well-respected in Cleveland from his work with the Jacksonville Jaguars for eight years.

When the regime of former coach Mike Pettine and former GM Ray Farmer went south with a 3-13 record in 2015 and 3-18 finish going back to 2014, Brown stepped into the void.

The hiring of DePodesta as chief strategy officer was questioned by traditionalists but hailed by others who saw the move as groundbreaking and unique. DePodesta’s background in baseball was heavy in analytics. He was key to the "Moneyball" approach instituted in Oakland by Billy Beane, and portrayed by Jonah Hill in the movie. DePodesta’s approach stemmed from sabermetrics, a study of statistical records and performance begun by the legendary Bill James.

Some NFL teams had adopted the use of some form of analytics prior to 2016, but Haslam was not only willing to make it more a part of the team’s approach, he was clearly going to rely on it more than any team had before.

For the Browns, this would either be cutting edge, or the team would be cutting the edge off the cliff on which it had resided while enduring losing season after losing season.

Brown has said the team has not discarded traditional scouting, but is merely using an additional tool in analytics to help judge and find players. A scan of the team’s front-office personnel shows significant hires with analytics backgrounds, beginning with DePodesta.

Haslam explained DePodesta's hiring this way: “His approach and ambition to find the best pathways for organizational success transcend one specific sport and his experience as a high-level sports executive make him a terrific addition.”

DePodesta’s role with the Browns was portrayed as one that would study the entire organization’s processes to determine if there were a better way to do anything. One of his guiding principles came from his time as a White House intern while in college: If we weren't already doing it this way, do you think this is the way we would do it? Baseball people spoke highly of him, saying he was bright, involved, a good communicator and a good listener, and that his transition to football would not meet many hurdles.

He has largely worked behind the scenes since his hiring, but he has become involved in personnel. He said he would take an active role in evaluating quarterbacks, and his quote to ESPN Cleveland that the team did not consider Carson Wentz to be worthy of the second overall pick becomes more impactful with every game Wentz wins.

Ken Kovash is vice president of pro personnel. His background is entirely in analytics and numbers, and his title matches that of Andrew Berry, whose background is in scouting. Kovash and Berry are two of the few front office members in the draft room with Jackson, Brown and Jimmy and Dee Haslam when players are selected.

Director of scouting Mike Cetta first worked for Stats LLC and came to the Browns as an analytics intern.

Kevin Meers is a 2014 Harvard graduate who worked as a research intern for the Cowboys and Browns while he was in college; he is the team’s director of research and strategy.

Andrew Healy was hired from the analytics group Football Outsiders to be the team’s senior strategist of player personnel.

Dave Giuliani and Aditya Krishnan are football research analysts who work on analytics projects.

The more traditional football side includes director of player personnel Chisom Opara, director of college scouting Bobby Vega and director of pro scouting Dan Saganey. All have backgrounds in scouting or coaching. Senior personnel executive Ryan Grigson is the Colts' former general manager.

They work along with 10 scouts, one scouting coordinator, two college scouting assistants and nine other scouting assistants. How heavily analytics weighs into decisions is tough to gauge in every instance; the same system that led to drafting Cody Kessler in the third round also led to drafting talented defensive lineman Emmanuel Ogbah in the second.

But with certain players it’s not hard to see the influence analytics had on their arrival in Cleveland.

The signing of receiver Kenny Britt as a free agent to replace Terrelle Pryor shocked many in the NFL. Britt had his first 1,000-yard campaign in his eighth season when he had 1,002 yards a year ago. He is not a locker room leader, and he has had issues with previous teams. A small amount of institutional knowledge might have raised some red flags about giving Britt a rich and long-term contract, especially for a young team where veteran leadership is so important.

The Browns gave Britt a four-year deal worth $32.5 million, with $17 million guaranteed.

The most positive reviews on the decision outside of the Browns' front office came from analytics websites. NumberFire.com said it was a “smarter move than you think” based on statistics like net expected points.

But traditional football folks said simply that Britt did not pass the eye test and was not worth the contract.

Several people familiar with the decision said that the assistant coaches -- veteran receivers coach Al Saunders among them -- did not know of Britt’s signing until it was announced. Had the coaches known they would have expressed their concerns.

Brown was asked at a Nov. 6 news conference if he consulted the coaching staff before signing Britt. His answer: “I’m not going to go back through all of our evaluation process. We have good processes internally.”

He then explained the decision.

“The reality of free agency is when you are a wide receiver that is a starting wide receiver in this league and you hit free agency, you are going to get paid,” Brown said.

Another choice who fits the analytics profile: QB Cody Kessler. He checked many analytics boxes. At USC, he was accurate, did not turn the ball over and stayed healthy.

But a traditional football coach would have looked at Kessler’s arm strength and size (listed at 6-foot-1) and raised red flags. There are exceptions, but most successful NFL quarterbacks are tall and strong-armed. Jackson himself said at a recent scouting combine that he believes a quarterback should ideally be at least 6-2. Kessler was generally rated as a sixth- or seventh-round prospect. The Browns took him in the third round. Jackson was left to explain it, and made his now famous “trust me on this one” statement as he overreached in defending a move he clearly didn't make.

A trade that brought Brock Osweiler’s $16 million salary obligation to the Browns along with a second-round draft pick was hailed by analytics people as a smart way to use salary-cap space to obtain a high draft pick. Brown recently referred to creative trades, no doubt thinking of this one. The coaching staff had so few options at quarterback that they had to give Osweiler a long look, then decided after two quarters of preseason football that he could not play.

The decision to release cornerback Joe Haden also seemed to come down to analytics. Haden was highly paid ($11.1 million salary in 2017), but the front office saw him as the team’s third-best corner. Given that, it did not feel Haden was worth the money and released him -- even though the team still has a need at the position and had the salary-cap space to keep him.

The Browns are not the only team using analytics. The Eagles, the team that acquired Wentz, have an analytics department run by Alec Halaby, the vice president of football operations and strategy. Credit for the Wentz trade, though, goes to owner Jeffrey Lurie and GM Howie Roseman.

New Orleans hired Ryan Herman, its first analytics guy, this year. In Jacksonville, Tony Khan, the owner’s son, is the senior vice president of football administration and technology. He created the team’s analytics department in 2012. But in the offseason, the Jaguars hired two crusty football guys in executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin and coach Doug Marrone.

In San Francisco, John Lynch and vice president of player personnel Adam Peters run the football side, and Paraag Marathe is the chief strategy officer and executive vice president of football operations. Denver’s director of football analytics is Mitch Tanney, but he’s one voice of many assisting John Elway.

Banner introduced analytics to the Browns when he was the team’s CEO. He believed in it, but he used it to supplement traditional scouting, not to override it. For example, Banner cited several analytics studies that showed arm length had nothing to do with a pass-rusher’s success, but he had trouble convincing coaches to buy into that. He also saw analytics studies that showed the perfect combination of player types to produce the best pass rush.

Under Banner, the scouting of college quarterbacks involved several key front-office personnel types sitting together every Friday and studying film of the top options. The final judgment before the 2014 draft favored Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr. But Banner was fired three months before the draft, and the Browns drafted Johnny Manziel with both Bridgewater and Carr still on the board.

The influence of analytics has been evident in the Browns’ decisions to trade down in the draft, which also meshed with Brown’s long-term philosophy of building a young team via the draft that could grow under a culture established by Jackson.

Those factors favored a trade out of the No. 2 overall pick in 2016 to restock a needy roster with more draft picks. The Browns traded the pick to the Eagles, who took Wentz, who is now playing at an MVP level. Analytics also favored trading out of the No. 12 pick in 2017 -- dealt to the Texans, who selected QB Deshaun Watson -- for more picks to continue stocking the roster.

Jackson has steadfastly refused to look back and comment on draft decisions. But it’s common knowledge that Jackson liked Jared Goff (who went one pick ahead of Wentz) in the 2016 draft.

It makes sense that a traditional football coach would favor taking a big, strong-armed quarterback. The same would seem to hold true for Wentz. As one assistant coach in the league said when the Browns passed on Wentz: “They had to take the shot.”

The Browns took Kessler.

In the 2017 draft, Jackson had to fight hard to ensure that defensive end Myles Garrett was the first overall pick instead of quarterback Mitch Trubisky. The coaches saw Garrett as an easy decision, a guy who had elite talent compared to the question marks of the available quarterbacks. The front office saw the discussion as part of the normal process, with the right result.

With the Browns’ second pick in the first round, Jackson hoped for quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes or Watson, or safety Malik Hooker. When the pick arrived, Watson and Hooker were still on the board. The Browns again traded for more picks and took DeShone Kizer in the second round.

“I don’t think just trading down was the problem,” Brown said. “I think it is just purely evaluating.”

The problem is that failing at either can set a team back.

As time has gone on and the Browns have not won, the feeling that there is a disconnect between the front office and coaching staff has grown. A cursory glance at the experience of each group adds to that belief.

Jackson is a football guy. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and Saunders are longtime football guys. The coaching staff is made up of folks like this, though Williams’ son Blake, the linebackers coach, spent last year working in the analytics department of the NFL and Gregg Williams has said it’s up to him to learn if analytics can help him.

DePodesta has significant input, but he largely works from his home in La Jolla, California. Coaches see him on game days and perhaps one other day per week, which supports a viewpoint that he’s not around enough to make significant decisions.

The skepticism toward analytics comes in part because football is not like baseball, where the ability to decipher a player’s ability to hit a low-and-away curveball can be determined from thousands of at-bats and swings. There are many more variables in football, including within single plays where blocking and route options can change based on the defense.

Jackson fights for what he wants, but the notion that a coach without depth at cornerback would sign off on the release of Haden doesn’t make sense. Nor does the trade of Demario Davis, penciled in to be the team’s starting middle linebacker and now playing well for the Jets. Nor does the release of QB Josh McCown, who could have been invaluable in helping Kizer. Nor does the release of linebacker Karlos Dansby. Nor does the signing of Britt, or the non-signing of four now-former Browns two months after Jackson was hired.

The team’s decision not to retain safety Tashaun Gipson, offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz, receiver Travis Benjamin and center Alex Mack caused a flurry of criticism, in part because it followed the decisions of the previous regime not to keep players such as defensive end Jabaal Sheard or cornerback Buster Skrine. It also left the Browns needing to use the extra draft picks they'd stockpiled to replace the players who had departed.

Only Mack was intent on leaving Cleveland. The Browns had the cap room and wherewithal to keep all the others. The team tried to sign Gipson in 2014, but Gipson said the 2015 effort was to tell him "good luck." Offers were exchanged with Schwartz. The bottom line: The team and players did not come to agreements to keep them off the free-agent market.

The front office had decided to rely on youth and emphasize the draft, and departed free agents brought compensatory draft picks. The team also would say that other players it released were past their prime, and as examples point to defensive lineman Desmond Bryant, safety Donte Whitner and receiver Brian Hartline -- none of whom caught on with other teams.

And the front office would say that it used the connections of Williams and Jackson in decisions to sign other players. Jason McCourty played for Williams in Tennessee. Guard Kevin Zeitler was with Jackson in Cincinnati.

Losing, though, magnifies the mistakes and exacerbates tensions and differences, perceived or real. A 12-4 team may have arguments, but losing makes sores fester. After the loss to the Vikings in London, Jackson said the team had to play a perfect game to win, a revealing statement on the roster.

Nobody who has watched the team would argue that Jackson was wrong.

“At the end of the day, guys,” Brown said, “it is my responsibility to deliver a roster here that is talented enough to win week in, week out. And we haven’t done that yet.”

The failure two days after the return from London to get the paperwork in to complete the trade for quarterback AJ McCarron brought ridicule. Reports have circulated that the coaching staff is preparing to be fired.

Brown did not hide from the fact that losing can foment discontent. He pointed out it has been the Browns’ standard mode of operations in the past few years. Rebuilds lead to struggle, which leads to churning emotions, which lead to finger-pointing -- and abandonment of continuity during the build for yet more change. Brown said it would be up to everyone in the facility to ensure disagreement does not cause irreparable division.

Jackson has insisted his relationship with Haslam is strong and the support remains. Brown said he doesn’t think in terms of being fired. But Haslam has shown zero hesitancy to make changes in his short tenure.

The bigger issue for the Browns isn’t how many people to fire, it’s how to proceed. A complete overhaul and housecleaning that leaves the same system in place won’t change how players are selected, or what players wind up on the roster.

Another restart would mean Haslam would be wiping out one of his fervent promises: That he’d be patient and would emphasize continuity with his handpicked choice to run football operations and a coach he pursued with vigor. Another restart would bring pain and talk of growth and all the other words fans are sick of hearing, especially “process.”

The process in place, though, has not worked in the first two years. Promises for the future may be borne out in the long run and the team may be able to build a roster that can sustain winning. But future promises do not erase 1-24 -- or the stain that goes with it.