Editor's note: Tony Grossi covers the Cleveland Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR.
Chief of strategy: Two general managers – one in baseball, one in football -- were having a conversation about their respective sports. The baseball GM – grizzled and crusty from examining players in the hot summer sun over decades – wondered why the football GM was so enamored with the quarterback position.
“Imagine,” said the football GM, “having Jim Palmer pitch every day.”
And that ended that discussion.
So I asked Paul DePodesta -- baseball’s “Moneyball” analytics maven, who left a 20-year career in Major League Baseball while still on the rise to try to turn around the fortunes of the Browns as chief strategy officer -- his philosophy on the importance of the quarterback in the franchise’s future.
The good news for Browns fans is that he responded like a football GM.
“There probably isn’t another position in all of team sports that I can think of that has the same level of import as the quarterback,” DePodesta said. “Exactly to what degree that is, we haven’t quantified that and I’m not sure that we need to. We just know that it’s really, really important and we have to get there, or we have to get to a level where we have a really productive guy at the position.
“There aren’t 32 of them in the world that I think can be quarterbacks of Super Bowl champion teams. Supply is short. Are there things you can do with the rest of your personnel or are things you can do schematically to help a quarterback? I think so. But at the end of the day, that quarterback still has to be a driving force of your team, especially if you want to be a consistent winner over time.”
So does finding a permanent quarterback, someone to end the parade of men who have started for the Browns since 1999 -- which probably will number 25 by season’s start! – consume DePodesta’s thinking like it consumes the team’s long-suffering followers?
“I think it’s a huge area of focus for us, not just now but I think it’s going to continue to be,” he answered. “Even if we feel like we have one, or we have two, we’re going to still try to find another one, because it’s one of those situations where it’s so important that you should never be satisfied with where you are at the position.”
The big bet: OK, so why Robert Griffin III? And why not the highest-ranked quarterbacks in DePodesta’s first draft – Jared Goff or Carson Wentz?
Why did the Browns sign Griffin, who had his one good year with the Washington Redskins four seasons ago, and turn their backs on Goff and Wentz?
Why did they not attempt to trade up with Tennessee to secure Goff? Why did they bypass Wentz and trade their No. 2 overall pick to Philadelphia to stockpile picks through 2018?
DePodesta disputed my contention that a. coach Hue Jackson was the driving force of Griffin’s signing, and b. signing Griffin for $15 million over two years, dictated their strategy to trade down in the draft.
“This wasn’t a hard sell on anybody,” DePodesta said of Griffin. “I think we all thought it was a really good idea. We were all excited about the opportunity. Here’s a guy just 26 years old, Heisman Trophy winner, No. 2 pick in the draft, but maybe most importantly, had success already in this league. Not necessarily last year, because he didn’t play, had some injuries just before that. But he’s had success and he’s still so young … hopefully, still has such a long career in front of him. Given the options available to us in the quarterback market this offseason, we felt he was a great choice.”
As for Goff and Wentz, the Rams and Eagles, respectively, gave up a boatload of draft picks to anoint them their franchise quarterbacks at No. 1 and No. 2 in the draft. DePodesta basically said the Browns thought lesser of both players.
Had Goff been available at No. 2, DePodesta indicated, it would have been a more difficult choice. But Wentz was not considered a top 20 NFL quarterback in the consensus opinion of the New Browns Order.
“We have to make judgments on the individual players and we’re not always going to be right,” DePodesta said. “But in this particular case, we just didn’t feel it was necessarily the right bet to make for us at this time. Again, it comes down to individual evaluation of a player. We will not always be right on those type of things.
“I think the hardest part, and where we have to stay the most disciplined, as much as you want a player, you can’t invent him if he doesn’t exist. In a given year, there may be two or three NFL-ready quarterbacks at the college level. In another year, there literally may be zero. There just may be not be anybody in that year who’s good enough to be a top 20 quarterback in the NFL.
“Even though you have a desperate need for one, you have to resist the temptation of taking that guy just because you have a need if you don’t believe he’s one of those 20 guys at the end of the day. I think that’s the hardest part, just maintaining your discipline because you have the need. That’s what we did this year.”
Search goes on: Even though DePodesta has confidence in the personnel department headed by Andrew Berry, he said he intends to familiarize himself more with the college game, and the scouting process, as he digs in for his first football season.
“I want to be more informed about [the college game],” he said.
He concedes that Browns scouts probably will be “front and center” – my words – at just about every game of every major college quarterback prospect this fall.
“Yeah. I think so. Absolutely,” DePodesta said. “It’s a primary focus of the organization and it’s going to continue to be regardless of how our quarterbacks play here.”
Well, that’s a start.