What do you get when an NFL franchise pairs a football traditionalist with the man who has a legitimate claim to King of the Statheads? If this spring has been any indication, something that looks a lot like civil war.
In January, the Browns made a move that attracted a lot of attention and raised more than a few eyebrows: They hired a longtime baseball executive to shape their strategy. But this wasn’t just any baseball guy, of course; this was Paul DePodesta, of Moneyball fame (he’s the person around whom Peter Brand, the plucky, number-crunching nerd played by Jonah Hill in the movie adaptation of Michael Lewis’s 2003 book, is based), who worked for the Dodgers, Padres, and Mets after he left the A’s in ’04. DePodesta and Oakland boss Billy Beane didn’t invent sabermetrics, but they were the ones who popularized its applications, radicalizing the way MLB front offices valued players, thought about roster construction, and considered strategy.
The Browns clearly hoped DePodesta, who was named chief strategy officer, might be able to bring a similar force of raw statistical analysis to football, a sport that has lagged behind both baseball and basketball in incorporating advanced statistics into decision-making. And, for a time, it seemed to be working: In March, after the team signed Robert Griffin III, newly hired head coach Hue Jackson praised DePodesta and spoke of the harmony of their approaches.
“I wouldn’t trade our process for any I’ve seen since I’ve been in the NFL,” Jackson, who came to Cleveland a week after DePodesta, told the MMQB. “I don’t do anything without us all talking things through. They don’t do anything with talking to me. Paul’s input was very valuable in the process of signing Robert. ... And all of us in the process here are joined at the hip.”
But now — and stop me if you’ve heard this one before — it appears trouble has come to the Browns’ doorstep. After confirming that he had clashed with the franchise’s sports sciences staff over the number of padded practices he was having at training camp, Jackson said he is choosing to rely on his instincts. And so it begins: The fight against analytics has arrived in Cleveland, a city where things (especially in sports) always go as planned.
“Honestly, they got kind of mad at me,” Jackson said. “I’ll be very honest with you. We had a very candid conversation where they said, ‘Hue, you might want to double check your padded days schedule.’ I told them, ‘No.’ I know how to take care of a football team.”
"We’re only going to build our football through playing football, and good football teams play football, real football. ... I’m sure they’ll give me all the statistical data that you can to forewarn me, but I’m going to trust my instincts on that one and see if we can get our team to be the best that they can be.”
Jackson has been coaching football since 1987, when he was a graduate assistant at Pacific University, and has remained around the game since. He has worked for the Redskins, Bengals, Falcons, Ravens, and Raiders during his time in the NFL, and has developed a reputation as an old-school, quantitative-minded coach.
And Jackson’s approach has often been successful. In his lone year as a head coach prior to this season, he led the Raiders to a 7-4 start before finishing 8-8 and narrowly missing the playoffs. In ’14 and ’15, he served as the Bengals’ offensive coordinator; last year Cincinnati ranked second in offensive DVOA, per Football Outsiders.
DePodesta has said he isn’t trying to do away with the traditional approach to football decision-making; he is merely trying to increase the reliance on statistics and downplay his team’s dependence on scouting. ESPN The Magazine pegged this as moving from “70 percent scouting and 30 percent data” to “60 percent data, 40 percent scouting,” according to a story in advance of the 2016 draft.
The schism between the coaching staff and the stats team is not exactly unexpected: Coaches, players, and teams were similarly resistant to adopting analytics in their early years in MLB and the NBA. A former NFL executive summed up the breakdown in that same ESPN The Magazine story this spring: “When data overrides gut, the majority of his coaching staff will all be there screaming, ‘What the f--- are these computer guys doing? They don’t understand football, they don't understand the locker room. They’re killing us.’”
And while DePodesta has the front office’s blessing, Jackson has not been known to always fall in line: He clashed with executives in Oakland, almost certainly hastening his departure.
Moneyball wasn’t, of course, a perfect tale of success: For all the magic the A’s were able to wring out of their so-called bunch of misfits, the teams Beane and DePodesta built never made the World Series. A long line of reluctant, mistrustful, or downright angry managers and coaches have preceded Hue Jackson in professional sports’ stats revolution, but the numbers have ultimately won out. Football might just be next, whether Jackson likes it or not.