These are the guys who believe throwing the football 31 times in sub-freezing temperatures is the right thing to do.
Second thoughts: Browns’ penchant for throwing – even in minus-16 wind chill – is rooted in Paul DePodesta’s football philosophy
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.
Second thoughts on Browns’ 17-10 loss to New Orleans Saints …
1. While Kevin Stefanski is receiving another deserved round of outrage externally over his bizarre pass-happy game plan in minus-16 wind chill on Saturday, it is highly doubtful that he is on the hot seat internally. That’s because the powerful analytics department headed by chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta has pretty much convinced owner Jimmy Haslam that the only way to build a Super Bowl team is by consistently throwing for “explosive” plays in the passing game – apparently, no matter the weather conditions. Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will insist that their system is rooted in the running game, but that is true only to the extent that the Browns desire an effective running game essentially to set up a play-action passing game. Eventually, they want those play-action passes to be more frequently laden with deep shots downfield, and that is where Deshaun Watson comes in. The bottom line is Stefanski’s job is safe because he is completely adhering to DePodesta’s advanced statistics (or analytics) models and not resisting them. Disagreeing with or rejecting DePodesta’s research would be Stefanski’s quickest ticket out of town. He is smart enough to know that.
2. Earlier this month, ESPN analytics expert Seth Walder named the Browns the most analytically advanced organization in the NFL for the second year in a row. In Walder’s survey, the Browns claimed the top spots by relatively wide margins to the following questions: Which NFL team is the most analytically advanced? The Browns received 10 votes; the Ravens were second with four. Which team produces the highest level of analytics work? The Browns received seven votes; the Ravens were second with four. Which team most incorporates analytics into its decision-making? The Browns received nine votes; the Eagles were second with three. So there is no debating anymore that Haslam has placed the future of the Browns entirely in the metrics and algorithms devised by DePodesta.
3. A person who formerly worked in Browns football operations recently gave TheLandOnDemand insight into the influence of DePodesta and how a coach may elect to buy-in as a means of keeping his job. “Mr. Haslam believes in the analytics so much,” the source said in an electronic message. “I think head coaches try to please him throwing the ball. We sat in countless meetings about how important it was to throw the ball. A 4-yd run was of no value on the analytic chart and it was about 13-yd passes and more. Only runs of 7yds were of value. DePo came up with some magical score.”
4. DePodesta helped to reinvent Major League Baseball (for the worst, as it turned out) in his role as Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane’s young, nerdy assistant in the early 2000s. His story was captured first in the book Moneyball and then in the 2011 film of the same name. When DePodesta was hired in 2016, Haslam was desperate to do something differently to undo three years of losing under his fledgling ownership. When Haslam paid $1.005 billion to the Lerner Family Trust for the Browns, he inherited a team that in 14 years had experienced two winning seasons and one post-season appearance, and compiled a record of 73-151 for a .325 win percentage. They were even worse in Haslam’s first three years of ownership: 4-12, 7-9 and 3-13 (.291). That’s when Haslam shocked the sporting world by turning to DePodesta, then 42, to tap his Ivy League brainpower to change the team’s fortunes. At that point, DePodesta’s only exposure to football was as a 5-9, 160-pound receiver his junior and senior years at Harvard University. DePodesta pledged to do things “outside the box” and not continue routine practices just because they were done a certain way for generations.
5. According to DePodesta’s bio in the team’s media guide, “DePodesta is tasked with implementing systems and processes to strengthen the Browns organization. In this role, he works closely with [GM Andrew] Berry, Stefanski and members of the player development and research departments to optimize all organizational decision-making efforts.” In DePodesta’s first two seasons, the Browns had the worst two years in the history of the franchise – 1-15 in 2016 and 0-16 in 2017. Haslam then went back “inside the box” and hired John Dorsey as GM. An old-school football executive, Dorsey influxed the team with players who are still among the best on the team – running back Nick Chubb, cornerback Denzel Ward, guard Wyatt Teller, and running back Kareem Hunt – resulting in records of 7-8-1 and 6-10. After Dorsey sparred with DePodesta’s analytics team, he and his staff were fired. DePodesta assumed a more authoritative role and was appointed by Haslam to coordinate the searches for the next coach and GM. DePodesta hired Stefanski and paired him with Berry, who was a VP of personnel with the Browns previously and had departed to Philadelphia for one season. The DePodesta-Berry-Stefanski “alignment” saw early success – 12-6 and the first franchise playoff win on the road since 1969 – but are 8-9 and 6-9 the last two years. Overall, the Browns’ record with DePodesta as chief strategy officer is 41-73-1 for a win percentage of .360.
6. When the Browns finished second in the AFC North in 2020 with an 11-5 record and beat Pittsburgh in an AFC wild card game before losing to Kansas City in the divisional round, the following teams finished last in their respective divisions: The New York Jets (AFC East) were 2-14, the Cincinnati Bengals (AFC North) 4-11-1, the Jacksonville Jaguars (AFC South) 1-15, the Denver Broncos (AFC West) 5-11, the Philadelphia Eagles (NFC East) 4-11-1, the Detroit Lions (NFC North) 5-11, the Atlanta Falcons (NFC South) 4-12, the San Francisco 49ers (NFC West) 6-10. Two years later, four of those teams currently sit atop their divisions – the Bengals (11-4), Jaguars (7-8), Eagles (13-2) and the 49ers (11-4). The Jets (7-8) and Lions (7-8) are having their best seasons in years and are still alive in the post-season chase, while the Browns have sunk to fourth and last place in the North. Only the Broncos (4-11) and Falcons (5-10) have worse records than the Browns – and the Falcons beat the Browns Oct. 2, 23-20, by running, not passing, all over them.
7. How does Haslam feel about DePodesta’s metrics that value throwing the ball over running it? Prior to the Browns’ 17-10 loss to the Saints, CBS Sports NFL insider Jonathan Jones verified that Stefanski’s job was safe and that Haslam was not considering making a change at head coach. Jones went on to speculate, however, that Stefanski could alter his offensive scheme next year, ostensibly, it now seems, to appease Haslam. Jones noted in his report that Haslam “is a University of Tennessee alumnus who has closely watched the Air Raid offense the Volunteers have installed to great success in the SEC.” Either Stefanski truly believes he was putting his team in the best position to win on Saturday by throwing 31 times in minus-16 wind chill, or he did it to follow the corporate philosophy concocted by DePodesta and fully endorsed by Haslam. Either way, it was a recipe for abject failure.