Moneyballers May Be Leading the Browns Right Back to the Tank

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterMarch 12, 2020

Paul DePodesta, chief strategy officer for the NFL Football Cleveland Browns listens to a question during a news conference at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland,Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Phil Long)
Phil Long/Associated Press

Oh dear, the Browns appear to be tanking again.

The Browns released linebacker Christian Kirksey on Tuesday. Hamstring and chest injuries limited Kirksey to just nine games over the last two seasons after he'd been one of the team's best players in 2016 and 2017, and his departure saved the Browns over $6 million in cap space. So in itself, Kirksey's release was no reason to fear the return of "tanking."

Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com reported last week that the Browns will also allow linebacker Joe Schobert to leave in free agency. Schobert reached the Pro Bowl in 2017 and was one of the team's most reliable starters in 2018 and last season, but he's likely to fetch a premium as a free agent. Letting a good-but-not-dominant player break the bank elsewhere, in itself, is also no harbinger of "tanking."

Olivier Vernon and his $15.5 million cap figure (for 3.5 sacks last year) also appear to be on the chopping block. Aging, banged-up safety Morgan Burnett is another likely cap casualty. The Browns are expected to let Damarious Randall test the market after a tumultuous 2019 season. Cornerback T.J. Carrie was cut in February to save cap space. On the other side of the ball, ESPN's Jake Trotter speculated that tight end David Njoku, who clashed with the outgoing coaching staff, is potential trade bait, while ESPN's Dan Graziano and Jeremy Fowler reported that the Browns would trade Odell Beckham Jr. if "blown away" by an offer.

Also, starting left tackle Greg Robinson was allegedly caught with 157 pounds of marijuana in his car by border patrol last month. That's not something the Browns had any control over, but it's another big hole opening up in a roster that's subtracting pieces instead of making plans to add them. 

That's a lot of starters and veterans either leaving or with a "make an offer" sign dangling over their lockers. It looks like the Browns are preparing to start from square zero yet again, with the guys who lingered on square zero for two solid years while waiting for the analytical stars to align back in charge of the organization and more powerful than ever.

Welcome to Moneyball II: Electric Tankaloo.

Here's a brief refresher of Browns recent history for those of you who haven't kept up with the team's front office machinations, as well as for fans of Wagnerian operas:

Baseball analytics guru Paul DePodesta joined the Browns in a vague "chief strategy officer" role (read: owner Jimmy Haslam's latest football Svengali) in January 2016. Sashi Brown was promoted from within to executive vice president, and the Browns embarked on a bold new organizational philosophy that looked much more like it was based on an IMDB.com plot synopsis of the Moneyball movie than anything based on football-specific analytical research.

Joe Schobert is one of a handful of well-regarded veterans whom the team is parting ways with this offseason.
Joe Schobert is one of a handful of well-regarded veterans whom the team is parting ways with this offseason.David Dermer/Associated Press

After two seasons of dubious drafts, counterproductive austerity and a 1-31 record, Brown was fired, polarizing head coach Hue Jackson eventually followed, DePodesta disappeared behind a curtain, and new general manager John Dorsey attempted to turn the Browns into a real-life Dirty Dozen reboot starring Baker Mayfield, Beckham and lots of other lovable (?) scoundrels. Unfortunately, in real life, the ragtag misfits didn't become elite commandos; instead, they generated more melodramas than victories.

Exit Dorsey and bumbling coach Freddie Kitchens. Re-enter DePodesta via trap door beneath the stage, with Haslam stressing "alignment" around a unified team vision (DePodesta's, presumably). Well-regarded Dorsey assistants Alonzo Highsmith and Eliot Wolf left town. DePodesta retrieved 32-year-old former Browns lieutenant Andrew Berry from exile in Philadelphia to be his general manager and brought back Moneyball-era executive Ryan Grigson (the executive who wasted Andrew Luck's best seasons in Indianapolis) in an unspecified role. Kevin Stefanski, a 37-year-old Vikings first-year coordinator and DePodesta favorite, is now the head coach, though he must run every decision past Haslam (DePodesta) and the analytics department (chosen by DePodesta). Sashi Brown is now working for an NBA ownership group, though he may also be lurking in the Browns rafters wearing a phantom mask.

Let's get real: DePodesta staged a power coup from his sideways squiggle on the Browns org chart, blaming all the team's past failings on Jackson, Dorsey and Kitchens (who all deserve their share) while packing the decision structure with people who lack the inclination or credentials to challenge him. But DePodesta has cultivated an Elon Musk-meets-Jonah Hill persona and couches his decisions in pseudo-scientific jargon, making the business-as-usual Cleveland palace intrigue look like version 2.0 of some scientific revolution.

So the Moneyballers are back in charge, and there is nothing they enjoy more than a cut-to-the-quick rebuild that will take two-to-unspecified years, even though the Browns do not really need one. Yes, there are some malcontents and overpriced underachievers on the Browns roster worthy of cuts or trade inquiries. But the Browns also have frontline talent that many believed was good enough to reach the playoffs about eight months ago.

The Browns could have splurged on Schobert or eaten a little cash to wait-and-see with Kirksey instead of opening up holes in an already thin position group. They have the cap space ($67.7 million, according to Over The Cap) to be buyers instead of sellers when free agency opens next week, which would signal a plan to rekindle last preseason's optimism and compete quickly while Mayfield and Myles Garrett are on affordable contracts, Nick Chubb and Denzel Ward are on the rise and Beckham, Njoku and Jarvis Landry are still relatively content and (in Beckham's case) tethered to planet Earth.

Perhaps the Moneyballers will surprise us over the next few months by operating with a little urgency. They are rumored to be considering making a play for Washington left tackle Trent Williams, a sign that they are willing to invest some resources in the immediate future instead of trying to win Super Bowl LXVIII. But the Williams talk is just whispers (perhaps echoing from the Dorsey era) right now; all the Browns actions so far suggest the Browns are back to thinking that saving cap space and waiting until whenever to start competing is the soul of data-driven wisdom.

A year after trading for defensive end Olivier Vernon, the Browns reportedly may sever ties with him and the $15.5 million they would owe him next season.
A year after trading for defensive end Olivier Vernon, the Browns reportedly may sever ties with him and the $15.5 million they would owe him next season.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The Browns have little to show for their four-year love-hate relationship with DePodesta's baseball-imported version of "analytics" (as opposed to the analytics teams like the Patriots, Eagles, Chiefs and Ravens use without building a brand around it) except for some 2017 articles about the cleverness of the Brock Osweiler trade and that Madden Super Bowl you won with Mayfield throwing bombs to Beckham last August. Oh, and Mayfield himself, who is already half-withered on the vine and unlikely to regain his top-prospect luster during another roster purge. Browns fans deserve better than bracing for more years of cheering for cap space instead of victories, clutching the team's impressive-sounding "guardrails" like a life preserver and hoping that tanking works if you keep doing it over and over again for long enough.

Maybe the Browns will someday have the last laugh. But that day just keeps getting pushed back further and further.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.