Browns' 'Moneyball' approach playing out and the results are, well, to be determined
It's still early, but the Browns are starting to see some positive results after their front-office restructuring
Welcome to the NFL, Paul DePodesta. That’s more like it.
A year after the Browns hired the accomplished baseball executive and pioneer of the “Moneyball” movement to head their analytics and strategic operations, and a year after yet another front-office restructuring that moved that strategy department on par with football operations, you can finally see some fruit of his labor in the NBA-style Brock Osweiler trade that the Browns hope is a precursor to an eventual trade for a starting quarterback like Jimmy Garoppolo (or possibly Kirk Cousins).
It comes a year after basically taking a mulligan on the entire 2016 offseason. The Browns let quality players walk for no good reason, unable to get decent outside free agents to come to Cleveland. They traded down and lost out on a bonanza of blue-chip talent in the draft, including potential franchise quarterback Carson Wentz. They drafted like 15 players -- including five at one position -- somehow allowing them all to make the team and struggle to win a single game while rotating quarterbacks took turns getting maimed every week.
The Browns just might finally be on to something.
Last year’s apparent philosophy, which some in the NFL thought was akin to tanking given the exodus of talent, the gross lack of spending, the youth of the roster, and the dubious approach that they’d reap a bonanza of talent with all the compensatory picks they’ll accrue, felt desperate and arbitrary.
DePodesta was just getting his feet wet, was still bouncing around to analytics conferences in Boston with free agency imminent and, being ever pragmatic, it would invariably take some time for him to develop an NFL model with inefficiencies he might be able to exploit.
And while I would contend that paying $16 million for a second-round pick -- essentially what the Browns did taking on Osweiler’s albatross of a contract from Houston -- is quite steep, I applaud the effort and the thinking behind it. And I hope it spurs others in generally conservative NFL to see things in a different light.
Kudos to the Browns as well for wasting literally no time in trying to pay the trade forward, too, immediately calling around the league after landing Osweiler try to pawn off that contract, cash and a late-round pick for a 2018 third-round selection.
To recap, the Texans sent Osweiler (who has $16 million guaranteed left on the deal he signed with Houston a year ago) and a second-round pick to Cleveland for a fourth-round pick, ridding Houston of a player they badly wanted gone and putting them in position to land Tony Romo as his replacement. And then the Browns called teams to say they would trade Osweiler, would eat at least half of that $16 million owed to him, along with a late-round pick for a 2018 third-round pick.
I spoke to execs for several clubs who had conversations with the Browns and their replies about whether anyone would take Cleveland up on its offer spanned from “Get the [bleep] out of here,” to “No one will do their new trade … but I don’t blame them for trying.”
Nor do I. While $16 million is a steep, steep price to pay to jump up a couple of rounds, considering how little the Browns spent last year, and their difficulty in getting many top free agents to take their contract offers even when they eclipsed all other proposals on the market, and the fact their ever-failing owner Jimmy Haslam is under extreme heat to improve his product, well, if he’s willing to spend it, then good for them for doing it.
Once some executives had a chance to catch their breath on what went down during a rapid free-agency frenzy on Thursday, I was able to download them for their thoughts. Some of the more forward-thinking ones loved it and thought it was good for the game. “I like that trade for both teams,” as one put it. “But I think [the Browns] thinking they can trade him to someone else is idiotic. And the problem for them is -- just look at their draft last year -- you can have all the picks in the world but in the end you have to be good at evaluating football players, and not just trade value, to build a good football team. Otherwise, you go 1-15.”
Ouch. OK, so yeah, there still is a ton of work to be done.
A more old-school executive from a more conservative franchise offered the following: “I hate that trade. I hate it. That’s not a football trade.”
And yet another veteran executive believed the trade skirted the spirit of NFL regulations about in essence buying and/or selling draft picks/cap space. “How is that legal???” one texted me. “Teams are going to go berserk.”
I reached out to the NFL Management Council to see if there were any issues with the deal and none were raised to me in the reply, and both teams announced the deal which means it was approved. We’ll see if the league maneuvers to close potential loopholes in the future, but in the present, good on them for going for it, I say.
This actually isn’t that far removed from what he Eagles and Vikings did in the preseason after Teddy Bridgewater got hurt with Philly sending Sam Bradford to the Vikings -- despite having just paid him $13 million in bonuses off his recently signed new contract -- for what became a first- and fourth-round pick. Bradford is better than Osweiler -- hell, everyone except Ryan Fitzpatrick and maybe Blake Bortles was better than Osweiler last season -- but the concepts aren’t dissimilar. And if weak teams can find a way to attach value to having $100 million in cap space available that they couldn’t fill in eight offseasons, much less one, then so be it as well.
As to whether the Browns can get the ultimate payoff they so badly covet -- Garoppolo -- I still like their chances.
The Patriots -- and those carrying their messaging for them -- doth protest too much for a back-up quarterback to the greatest quarterback in NFL history who actually seems to be getting better each year, and not worse. Given all the second- and third-round picks the Browns have, in addition to first-round picks in the top 12, Bill Belichick could hold out for an array of picks like, say, two second-round picks this year and next, plus a third, and the Browns would still not be depleted.
DePodesta and Belichick think very much alike, both are rooting heavily in an economist approach to pro sports, and the Browns and Patriots have already done plenty of business together in recent years. Neither team would have to do a thing until just before the draft and a trade could still come together. No one is better than Belichick at playing hardball and then ultimately squeezing for more than he could have hoped for (he would parlay some of these picks into a trade for Saints receiver Brandin Cooks, for instance, who he really likes and still have plenty left over to move up and down the draft board the next few years).
And no team is now better equipped to withstand parting with such a draft-pick haul as the Browns. Even if the Browns don’t end up landing an established quarterback from the move, I support their ambition. And even if they end up simply cutting Osweiler, I get where they’re coming from. Let’s see what else DePodesta can do.
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