The Cleveland Browns raised a plethora of eyebrows across the collective football world Tuesday when they announced the hiring of longtime baseball executive Paul DePodesta as their new chief strategy officer.
If you've followed baseball over the past couple of decades, you might be familiar with DePodesta's name. He was one of the men who helped Billy Beane craft his Oakland A's in the early 2000s and usher in the era of advanced metrics in baseball. Yes, he's the guy on which Jonah Hill's character in Moneyball is based, which has prompted more than a bit of social media ribbing.
Browns get DePodesta. pic.twitter.com/b4ZEkLd9lb— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) January 5, 2016
DePodesta has spent the past several seasons as vice president of player development and amateur scouting for the New York Mets. Those Mets just made an appearance in the World Series, and by most accounts, DePodesta had a large hand in building the team that appeared there.
Upon Cleveland's hiring of DePodesta, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson made the following statement, via CBS Sports' Mike Axisa:
Paul completely reorganized the Mets scouting and player development functions and had extraordinary impact on both areas, but he was also very directly involved in our trade and free agent acquisitions. His commitment to excellence and his passion for innovation will be missed by the Mets and all of baseball. I wish him well with the Browns.
So naturally, DePodesta would seem like a tremendous hire for the Cleveland Indians—DePodesta actually began his baseball career with the Indians in the mid-'90s—but for the Browns?
Well, it's certainly an outside-the-box idea, but it isn't as crazy as it might first appear.
Analytics Are Not a New Sports Concept
The use of analytics—or the systematic analysis of data and statistics—is not a new concept in professional sports. DePodesta himself has been in the business for more than 20 years, and sabermetrics (basically, baseball analytics) have become a common (if hotly contested) baseball concept.
Analytics are not as widely used in the football world, but the study of advanced statistics is only a relatively new occurrence. If you've delved into football media, you've probably become familiar with companies like Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus who produce in-depth analysis, as well as grading and rating systems, based primarily on the study of advanced stats.
Teams in the NFL use analytics, too, not only to assess players but also to plan strategy. The New York Giants even utilized insight from Pro Football Focus founder Neil Hornsby in their preparation for the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.
"It's definitely valuable information," former Giants director of football information Jon Berger said of Hornsby's analysis to Reed Albergotti of the Wall Street Journal.
The willingness of Browns owner Jimmy Haslam to bring in DePodesta seems to indicate that he is ready to go all-in with analytics as a major part of the franchise, rather than as a novelty or side asset.
Jon Heyman of MLB Network believes hiring Depodesta was a brilliant move:
Football friends tell me the Browns do nothing right. Well, they broke streak by hiring Paul DePodesta. Terrific individual— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) January 6, 2016
Analytics Can Help Improve Player Scouting
DePodesta essentially made a name for himself in the baseball world by using analytics to scout and evaluate talent. Anyone who has paid any attention to the Browns organization over the past few years can tell you that evaluating talent has been one of Cleveland's biggest weaknesses.
Draft disappointments like Barkevious Mingo, Justin Gilbert and Cameron Erving have set the Browns back in a big way, as have free-agent failures like Dwayne Bowe. If DePodesta can help to reduce such personnel slip-ups, even by half, he'll be helping to steer the franchise in a better direction.
The problem is that DePodesta isn't a football guy, right? Well, that's mostly true. DePodesta did play football at Harvard and work for the CFL's Baltimore Stallions, but he probably hasn't done a ton of football scouting over the past two decades.
What DePodesta has done over the past two decades is help perfect the application of analytics to scouting and player development. He can bring several of his tried-and-true ideas and strategies with him to Cleveland.
Andrew Perloff of Sports Illustrated summed up why a switch to football shouldn't lessen the impact DePodesta can have:
The mantra that non-football people shouldn’t be involved in personnel decisions is flawed. Executives switch businesses all the time...[DePodesta] was never a traditional “baseball guy,” and that's what made him stand out. Effective managers bring the same organizational skills and insight to whatever field they choose to attack. ...
Why would an owner not want his intellectual capital involved in the most important thing in the building: the football team? The game is very complicated and coaches and former players have a specific understanding of the game that others don't. But smart people can help the football evaluators clarify their vision and make better choices, and that's exactly what DePodesta has done so well in the past.
Now, analytics shouldn't be the be-all and end-all of player evaluation. However, the study of advanced football statistics—like yards per route run, deep-passing efficiency or third-down conversation rate—can be valuable when judging a potential draft pick or free-agent acquisition.
Again, this is an area in which the Browns can use all the help they can get.
Analytics Can Also Be an Organizational Tool
A least some of the criticism directed toward the hiring of DePodesta included the fact that it occurred before Haslam hired a new general manager or head coach.
The Browns fired general manager Ray Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine on Sunday. Within two days, Halsam has appointed Sashi Brown as executive vice president of football operations and has hired DePodesta as chief strategy officer.
Putting these two in power before taking a long look at general manager and head coaching candidates may seem like an odd approach, but these are probably the first two in what will eventually be a four-man circle of power under Haslam and team president Alec Scheiner.
Brown will handle player acquisition, contracts and organizational matters, the general manager will head talent evaluation and management and the head coach will, naturally, coach. DePodesta will likely inject a bit of analytics into all three pillars of the organization. In fact, DePodesta's hiring this early in the offseason might even indicate that Haslam wants him to have a hand in the building of the coaching staff and the organization itself.
After hiring DePodesta, Haslam issued the following statement via the Browns' official website:
We are fortunate to bring in Paul, an extremely talented, highly respected sports executive who will add a critical dimension to our front office. 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 to the Cleveland Browns.
Why would Haslam want an analytics guy involved in organizational decisions? Well, probably because Haslam is first and foremost a business man, and analytics have been driving the core of businesses for quite some time.
Businesses use statistical analysis to help improve logistics and products. For the Browns, the product which needs improvement is the one on the field.
The U.S. military also regularly relies on analytics to expose patterns, identify threats and weaknesses and maximize the efficiency of personnel and strategy. These all sound like things in which a football franchise might show interest.
This isn't Haslam's first major foray into analytics, of course. He and Scheiner began a commitment to analytics back in 2013. However, this feels like an entirely new and more dedicated approach.
A New Approach Is Exactly What the Browns Need
Putting a guy like DePodesta into a top-level executive position is definitely a bold move. It's new and exciting, and it's also impossible to predict whether it will work or be another Cleveland crash-and-burn experiment.
"I don't know if it will work. It might fail miserably," Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports wrote of the DePodesta experiment. "But I will be captivating either way, and we might finally get some real answers as to how far the numbers can take a team and which team structures can work and what precisely is the role of analytics."
In many ways, it makes sense for the Browns to be the team to make the gamble on such a different approach. What the franchise has been doing since returning as an expansion team in 1999 hasn't worked.
Cleveland has hired seven different head coaches since 1999. Only one of them, Eric Mangini, came to the Browns with NFL head coaching experience. Romeo Crennel stayed in place the longest of the seven, spending a whopping four years as head coach before getting canned.
Perhaps analytics can help the Browns find the right coaching candidates where the general trend of scooping up former coordinators with promise has failed. After all, would Cleveland really be worse off hiring a coach or coordinator based on his teams' historic third-down efficiency than making a hire because someone in the organization thought a guy was a "bright young man" who impressed in interviews?
If Cleveland's approach yields success, the Browns will be setting trends instead of trying to catch up to them—as the franchise has been doing for nearly two decades. The trick is going to be having the patience to commit to this approach for the foreseeable future. Giving up on an innovative idea after only a year or two would be as big a mistake as not giving it a chance in the first place.
Not doubting DePodesta can't build systems or smartly reshape organizational structure. Just means Browns willing to take long term view.— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) January 6, 2016
Even if the leap into analytics ultimately fails, it should prompt a commitment to continuity, which in and of itself would buck the status quo in Cleveland. Long-suffering Browns fans should be more than willing to take the status quo and shove it head-first out an open window.
At this point, not trying something new would be the crazy move for Cleveland.