How this Browns mess could be worth it

The Cleveland Browns are bad. You've probably noticed. The Browns are 0-14 with two games to go in the 2016 season, leaving them with a 63.7 percent chance of finishing as the fourth winless team since the AFL-NFL merger of 1970, per the ESPN Football Power Index. They also seem to be getting worse: Although they nearly won several games earlier in the season, the pro-football-reference.com win expectancy model soberingly suggests that the Browns have not been favorites to win in any moment of any game since the second quarter of Week 10, when the Browns led the Ravens 7-3 with 1:12 left in the first half. That was 271 minutes of football ago.

Are they the worst team ever? Well, if they finish 0-16, they'll be tied with the 2008 Lions as the only teams in NFL history with 16 losses in a season. We have better measures of team performance than wins and losses, though, so we can use them to paint a more accurate picture of where the Browns stand in terms of historic futility. More important, we can also look at those dismal teams from the past and see how long it took them to turn around to get a sense of when something promising might be coming for Cleveland.

How bad are they?

Let's start with Cleveland's Pythagorean expectation, which is derived from point differential and has proved to be better in projecting future win-loss record than win-loss record itself. (More on that and how it impacted the 2016 season here.) By definition, the Browns are going to have a better Pythagorean expectation than 0.0 wins, because the only way to end up with a Pythagorean expectation of zero wins would be if you didn't score a point all season.

What's noticeable, though, is that there is a significant gap between Cleveland's point differential and its win-loss record. The Browns have been outscored by 188 points in 14 games, or about 13.4 points per contest. That's bad, but it's not historically bad or close to it. The 1976 Bucs, who went 0-14, were outscored by a full touchdown more, 20.5 points per game, in an era where teams scored fewer points than they do now. In fact, 26 teams since the merger have been outscored by more points per game than the Browns.

The Browns have the point differential, through 14 games, of a team that "should" have won 2.6 games and lost 11.4. Over a 16-game season, the Browns have played like a 3-13 team. That's bad, but it's better than their record would indicate. It's also slightly better than the team to which they are most frequently compared, the 2008 Lions, who had the Pythagorean expectation over a full season of a 2.8-win team.

If this sounds like the coldest comfort imaginable, I would understand, but the important thing to keep in mind is that teams that drastically underperform their point differential improve almost immediately. Teams who underperformed their point differential by 2.5-3.5 wins, as the Browns have this season, improved by an average of three wins the following year. A 3-13 season might not sound very exciting, but Cleveland fans would probably take it right about now.

Despite the hiring of offense-minded coach Hue Jackson and the presence of future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas at left tackle, the offense has been the biggest problem for the Browns this season. To account for changes in scoring across years, I calculated a standard score for each NFL offense going back through 1970. To make it easier to read, I then sorted those standard scores into percentiles. With percentiles, the 100th percentile (such as the 2013 Broncos offense or, surprisingly, the 1977 Falcons defense) would be the best possible performance, while the zeroth percentile (like the 1992 Seahawks offense or the 2008 Lions defense) would be the worst.

The Browns' defense this season ranks in the 11th percentile of all defenses since 1970. That's ugly, but it's not horrific; the 49ers are in the fifth percentile, and the Saints are just ahead of Cleveland in the 15th percentile. Last year's Saints were in the first percentile, ranking as the 11th-worst defense since the merger.

On offense, however, the Browns are brutal. They're in the third percentile of all offenses since 1970, scoring just 15.7 points per game in a league in which the average offense racks up 22.6 points per contest. They're another universe away from the Falcons, who are having the seventh-best offensive season in league history, but the good news is that they're also not the worst offense in football. Cleveland has outscored Los Angeles by 23 points, which leaves the Rams in the first percentile of offenses.

We have another measure of play, at least for modern teams: DVOA, the Football Outsiders stat that measures how a team performs on a play-by-play basis after adjusting for down, distance, game situation and the quality of opposition. Unsurprisingly, it also thinks the Browns have been wretched this season. Cleveland is dead last in DVOA at -38.4 percent, although the 4-10 Jets are within striking distance at -35.9 percent.

There's one telling piece of information also contained therein: The Browns have played the toughest schedule in the league this season. In terms of DVOA, they've played six teams that reside in the top 10, including the teams currently ranked first (New England), second (Dallas), fourth (Pittsburgh), sixth (Philadelphia) and ninth (Washington), with another game against the Steelers to come. Meanwhile, the only team they've played among the bottom 10 would be the Jets, whom the Browns lost to by three points after a last-gasp Cleveland touchdown.

Because of that tough schedule, the Browns do not rank as the worst team in recent DVOA history or particularly close. Football Outsiders has calculated DVOA through 1989, and while the Browns don't look good, there are 18 teams since '89 with a worse DVOA than Cleveland's -38.4 percent mark this season. The worst team of the past 27 years, by this metric, would be the 2005 49ers, who posted a -55.5 percent DVOA while going 4-12. The 2004 49ers also were among the worst teams ever, coming in at -41.8 percent.

Linking a few multiyear runs of horrific play, there are 13 franchises that ran a DVOA worse than the Browns' mark for one or more years at their lowest. Let's run through them quickly and gain a sense of how long it took them -- and by proxy, how long it might take the Browns -- to come back to glory:

  • The 2013 Jaguars (-38.2 percent) went 4-12 in Gus Bradley's first season in charge, with a roster led by Chad Henne and Maurice Jones-Drew. The Jags went 3-3 in the AFC South and won one game outside of their division, against ... the Browns. As you know, the 2-12 Jaguars just fired Bradley in the middle of his fourth season on the job, so it's safe to say they haven't made it out of their rebuild yet.

  • The 2012 Chiefs (-40.1 percent) hired interim coach Romeo Crennel as their full-time boss after he beat the Packers toward the end of 2011, but they were a 7-9 team with the point differential of a 4.0-win team in 2011. They declined dramatically in 2012, going 2-14 while tying for the league's worst turnover margin at minus-24. Kansas City cleaned house after the year, firing Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli and hiring Andy Reid and John Dorsey to replace them. After trading for Alex Smith, with many underlying numbers in their favor, the 2013 Chiefs went 11-5 and made it back to the playoffs immediately.

  • The 2008 and 2009 Rams (-47.1 percent and -45.1 percent) went 2-14 and 1-15, respectively. Scott Linehan was fired after the 2008 season and was succeeded by Steve Spagnuolo, who in his first year on the job started the trio of Marc Bulger, Kyle Boller and Keith Null at quarterback. The 1-15 season earned St. Louis the first overall pick, which they used on Sam Bradford. Bradford wasn't great as a rookie, but his adequacy was a massive upgrade on the departed passers, and the Rams went 7-9 and came within a Week 17 loss to the Seahawks of winning the NFC West.

  • The 2008 and 2009 Lions require little introduction. The 2008 Lions (-48.4 percent DVOA) went 0-16 under Rod Marinelli, and the 2009 team (-51.6 percent) under Jim Schwartz played worse but enjoyed better luck. The Lions improved to 2-14 in 2009, then 6-10 in 2010 before going 10-6 in 2011 and making the postseason.

  • The 2004 and 2005 49ers came up earlier. The 2004 team (-41.8 percent) was the last under Dennis Erickson before Mike Nolan took over in 2005. Nolan's tenure with the team was largely fruitless before giving way to Mike Singletary in 2008. Singletary got the 49ers to 8-8 in 2009, but the light didn't click on for the 49ers until 2011, when Jim Harbaugh arrived and led the 49ers to three consecutive seasons of 11 wins or more.

  • The 2003 Cardinals (-42.0 percent) found a superstar in the second round when they drafted Anquan Boldin, but little else of use sprouted up during a frustrating 4-12 season. The Cards fired Dave McGinnis and hired Dennis Green, who drafted Larry Fitzgerald, Karlos Dansby and Darnell Dockett with his first three picks, but the Cards had three seasons under Green with six wins or fewer before hiring Ken Whisenhunt in 2007. They made the Super Bowl the following season.

  • The 2002 Texans (-41.9 percent) were an expansion team, and it's probably unfair to lump them in here. They were 7-9 as early as 2004 under Dom Capers, but their first winning season didn't come until 2009, at which point Gary Kubiak was on the job.

  • The 2000 Cardinals (-38.7 percent) started 2-5 under Vince Tobin before he gave way to McGinnis, who went 1-8. The Cardinals hired McGinnis for the permanent job anyway, with McGinnis even lobbying for personnel control as part of the deal. The Cards did improve to 7-9 the following season, but they finished in last place during each of their first two seasons in the NFC West, leading to that 2003 season mentioned above.

  • The 2000 Bengals (-38.8 percent) fired Bruce Coslet after three games and promoted legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who went 4-9 despite starting the not-quite-legendary combination of Akili Smith and Scott Mitchell at quarterback. LeBeau won only eight games over the next two seasons, though, before being fired for Marvin Lewis, who went 8-8 and drafted Carson Palmer with his first pick in the 2003 draft. By 2005, the Bengals were in the postseason.

  • The 1999 and 2000 Browns (-39.7 percent and -40.2 percent, respectively) were another expansion team. They fired Chris Palmer after these two dismal seasons and hired Butch Davis, who improved the 2001 team from 3-13 to 7-9 and then a 9-7 season in 2002, which remains the only trip to the playoffs for this version of the franchise.

  • The 1999 Saints (-40.3 percent) went 3-13, in part because they traded their entire draft for the right to draft Ricky Williams with the third overall selection in what amounts to a reverse-Browns. The Saints fired Mike Ditka after the season and replaced him with Jim Haslett, and the improvements were immediate: New Orleans went 10-6 and won the NFC West before making it to the divisional round of the playoffs.

  • The 1991 Colts (-47.7 percent) already had their quarterback of the future in 1990 first overall pick Jeff George, but he was of no use on a team that started 0-9 before finishing 1-15. The Colts moved on from interim coach Rick Venturi and hired Ted Marchibroda, who went 9-7 in his first year in charge despite posting the point differential of a 5.0-win team. Indy wouldn't make the playoffs until 1995, with the aforementioned Jim Harbaugh under center, when they came within one play of the Super Bowl.

  • The 1990 and 1992 Patriots (-38.0 percent and -40.1 percent, respectively) finish up our list. The 1991 team they sandwich wasn't very good either, but at 6-10 and with a -31.5 percent DVOA, it was merely pretty bad. The 1990 and 1992 teams won a combined three games. After 1992, the Pats hired Bill Parcells, who used the first overall pick in the 1993 draft on Drew Bledsoe, and New England was off to the races. They were 10-6 and in the playoffs by 1994, where they lost in the wild-card round to ... Bill Belichick's Cleveland Browns. It all comes full circle.

There's no clear path for the Browns, and it would be foolish to say that they need to be in the playoffs within a certain number of years to prove they're on schedule. It's also plain to see that having a season as bad as the one Cleveland is struggling through should not be treated like a death knell for the franchise. The 2008 Lions had been bad for years and they were in the playoffs three years later. The 0-8-1 Colts of 1982 were in the playoffs by 1987. Even the expansion 0-14 Buccaneers team of 1976 made it to the playoffs in 1979 at 10-6. Cleveland can turn things around.

Is there any hope?

There are reasons to think better days could be ahead for the Browns, although it will probably take a while for them to arrive. They can begin to take steps toward improvement as early as March.

The Browns are more likely to spend in free agency this offseason than they were last year, when they mostly avoided the market and collected compensatory picks. They are projected to have a staggering $109.8 million in cap space available even before considering the money they can roll over from 2016, where they've kept $47.1 million free. The Browns do have two impending free agents who would attract offers worthy of draft-pick compensation in Terrelle Pryor and Jamie Collins, but both have expressed interest in staying with the team, and the Browns could choose to franchise one or the other if they can't come to terms on a long-term contract.

If the Browns do re-sign Pryor and Collins, the team can hit free agency without worrying about draft pick compensation. While it's unlikely that they would go on a spending spree, it's also reasonable to think that they'll follow Oakland's strategy and go after buy-low veterans who might enjoy a chance to rebuild their value or younger free agents who will still be in their prime as Cleveland improves. Building an infrastructure for their quarterback is important, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Browns go after somebody like guard Kevin Zeitler, who excelled under Jackson in Cincinnati. They could blow away the market for stars such as defensive tackle Dontari Poe and pass-rusher Chandler Jones, if so inclined.

There's also the possibility of using some of that cap space to essentially buy draft picks. I floated this as a feasible option earlier this week, but I'll spell it out a little clearer. Let's again use Brock Osweiler as an example. The Texans clearly regret signing Osweiler, who was benched this week for Tom Savage. It's possible Osweiler could improve, but the Texans would go back and erase his signing from the record if they could. Houston would surely love to dump Osweiler and use the money it would save to go after a superior quarterback such as Tony Romo or Jay Cutler this offseason, but the Texans are locked in: Osweiler is owed a $16 million guaranteed base salary in 2017, and if the Texans cut him, they would have a painful $25 million in dead money hit their cap next season. It would be a non-starter.

What the Texans could do, though, is trade Osweiler to a team who would be willing to pay his $16 million base salary. Houston would be left with a far more palatable $9 million in dead money on its 2017 cap. The problem, of course, is that nobody would want to pay Osweiler $16 million for the 2017 season unless there were dramatic incentives and no better options around. The Browns could fit both of those shoes. They've repeatedly shown how significantly they value draft picks, are willing to be patient to receive those picks and have no clear path to a starting quarterback. Osweiler has been a mess in Houston, but he looked competent in Denver during the 2015 season behind a middling offensive line. Hypothetically, the Browns could offer a seventh-round pick to the Texans in exchange for Osweiler, a 2017 third-round pick and a 2018 first-rounder. Cleveland might not want Osweiler enough to find that to be worth $16 million, and Houston might not be willing to trade away two draft picks to move on from an expensive mistake. But the logic of using short-term cap space to trade for useful draft assets is there.

Most promising for the Browns, of course, are the draft assets they already have. If Cleveland does finish 0-16, they'll have the first overall pick in the 2017 draft to use or trade as they wish. If the Browns win one of their final two games and tie with the 49ers at 1-15, they will "win" the tiebreaker between the two and hold the second overall selection. Trades have given them additional 2017 picks in the first round (Philadelphia, projected to be the eighth overall pick as the Eagles have fallen off), second round (Tennessee) and fifth round (New England). They also will probably have the maximum four compensatory selections from free agency, which are projected to be three fourth-rounders and a fifth-rounder.

I went through the various trades and compensatory selections and generated an estimated 2017 draft order, given every team's record with two weeks to go in 2016. Then, I used Chase Stuart's draft value chart to generate expected returns for each pick. The difference between what the Browns have to work with and the rest of the NFL, frankly, is staggering. The average team has 44.8 points of draft capital to invest in the 2017 draft. The 49ers, who have the second-most capital, have 65.5 points, with no other team above 57 points.

Cleveland, even after trading a third-round pick for Collins, has 102.3 points of draft capital to invest in April's draft. That's a staggering amount. To put that in context, the difference between the Browns and the 49ers is 36.8 points; the value of the first overall pick itself is 34.6 points. The difference between the Browns and an average team is just about the value of the second and third overall picks put together.

The Browns also have more draft picks than anybody else in 2018, although it's obviously way too early to try to figure out a possible order for that draft. Trades already have provided the Browns with extra picks in the second (Eagles), fourth (Panthers, when the Browns traded Andy Lee to Carolina) and sixth round (Steelers), with a fifth-rounder going back to Philadelphia. It's likely the Browns will use some of their surplus from 2017 to trade for better picks in 2018, taking advantage of the league's impatience with picks.

Critics will argue that the Browns have had extra picks in the past and managed to fail. That's true. Having extra draft selections is useful, but Cleveland also will need to hit on some of the draft picks it has acquired or all the trades in the world won't matter. There's also no guarantee any other way of building a team will work, and the Browns have tried those methods and failed, too. Trading multiple picks to move up and grab a player has generally been a far less successful way of finding success. Holding onto your picks and spending a ton in free agency hasn't helped teams such as Jacksonville rebuild, either.

The best way to build a team in any sport is to have as many players on below-market rookie contracts as possible. Drafting might be a crapshoot, and if it is, the best way to beat the odds is to have as many picks as possible. It's in part because of how bad they have been in 2016, but for the Browns of 2017 and beyond, the only direction is up.