New Browns chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta is new to the NFL. He’s a former Major League Baseball general manager who also played a role in making the “Moneyball” approach popular with the Oakland A’s, and in his lone public appearance since joining the Browns he talked a lot about things like processes and shared vision.
If it seems like a stretch to think the Browns can turn things around with analytics driving those processes and a bunch of Harvard guys in brand new roles, you’re not alone. While leaving last month’s NFL Scouting Combine DePodesta said he heard officials from other teams mocking him, not knowing he was standing near them at the Indianapolis Airport.
“I was standing right in front of them in line and I could hear them in back of me and they were talking trash about me and the Cleveland Browns,” DePodesta said last week at the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. “I said, ‘All right, this is like 17 years ago in Oakland all over again.’ That’s part of the fun.”
In a feature story posted by Baseball America on Monday, DePodesta opened up about some of the issues he’s faced in his first 10 weeks in his new job.
“In baseball, I had a 20-year library of players and transactions and all that sort of thing that I don’t have right now, very admittedly,” he said. “As we were going through free agency this week, I was talking to some of the guys in the room and I was asking a lot of questions, but I said, I literally am not trying to lead the witness here, I truly don’t know and don’t have an opinion one way or the other. So that’s a real challenge for me, and just trying to take our mindset and bring it into football and create processes and systems around that is challenging.
“As an organization though, and probably even more importantly, we have big challenges in front of us. We have a super competitive league, we haven’t been very successful on the field and we have a big mountain to climb, but I think we have the right team of people in place to do it.”
The Browns chose to not be active in the first wave of free agency. Three offensive starters left for other teams on the first day the market opened, and by the weekend the Browns had lost five players to other teams and signed linebacker Justin Tuggle and offensive lineman Alvin Bailey, both of whom are young players who mostly have been backups.
Only time will tell whether the Browns are following some sort of analytics-driven plan or just didn’t mind seeing a bunch of guys from a 3-13 team in 2015 take significant money from other teams. In the Baseball America article, DePodesta said he learned from his time in baseball that the only way whatever new approaches the Browns will work is to have the vision and patience to stick with them.
“A lot of (baseball) owners would say, ‘Hey, we want ‘Moneyball,’ we want this disciplined approach to what we’re doing,” he said. “But then when it comes time to making that hard decision, they say, ‘I don’t want any part of this.’ I said, ‘I need someone who’s going to want to get on the roller coaster with me knowing that it’s not always going to be fun. There are going to be parts of the roller coaster that are going to be scary, that are going to be uncomfortable, but hopefully at the end of the ride when we get off, you’re going to want to say, let’s do that again.’
“I think that’s how we always got through it, was having that shared vision from the beginning and giving you the conviction to actually go through with it.”