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The Longest Tank

In a league designed to legislate parity, 2017 would be the Cleveland Browns’ 15th consecutive season without a playoff berth. Should the team’s new regime make a big bet or keep compiling assets?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

On Thursday night, the Cleveland Browns passed on a first-round quarterback for the second draft in a row. This is the year we found out that this Browns administration is truly committed to playing the longest game in NFL history.

The Rosetta Stone of the Browns’ rebuild remain the comments that chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta made at a conference in the spring of 2016. He was talking about what he wanted in an owner and somehow mentioned, instead, what he did not want:

A year later, the Browns’ roller coaster ride is starting to get scary. It’s not quite as terrifying as the coaster that stranded 24 people mid-ride for three hours earlier this month, but it’s not smoothly pulling back into the station either. The Browns are entering the 2017 season without a first-round quarterback or a top quarterback acquired via trade. The QBs on their roster as of today: Cody Kessler, Brock Osweiler, and Kevin Hogan. The long game is good in many facets of life — finance, baseball, waiting for The Leftovers to get good. Now the Browns, who will likely be attempting to rebuild again in the 2018 draft, have to confront an essential question: Can a long game work in the NFL?

This is only the second year of this regime, but the team is nearing two decades of continuous rebuilding. After the first round, Browns general manager Sashi Brown was asked if there’s such a thing as too much trading down. He said there is, but that it hasn’t happened to the Browns yet. The team will have five picks in the first two rounds next year and at least a dozen overall. DePodesta and Brown’s plan is on track for now — but in the NFL, the smartest rebuilds don’t last more than two or three years. And unlike other sports, there’s little precedent for a successful one that takes longer. The Browns are still a smart, savvy franchise with a sophisticated front office. They just need to hurry up a little bit.

We’re not saying that the Browns’ pick-hoarding, trading-down, no-quarterback strategy is a bad one. Myles Garrett, Jabrill Peppers, and David Njoku — the three players the team picked on Thursday — are incredible athletes who can be elite players (even if Peppers may take a while to find a position and Njoku may take an extra year or two to develop into a polished tight end). If 2018 is the last year of the rebuild, and they use the 2016–2018 draft picks to build a dynasty, it will have been a perfectly executed plan. If they keep kicking the can down the road instead, that’s when trouble starts.

The Browns traded down from no. 12 on Thursday, passing on Deshaun Watson, after (smartly) passing on Mitchell Trubisky with the first overall pick. They ensured, however, another year of noncontention by not acquiring a passer. And once again, the team didn’t acquire Jimmy Garoppolo, whom they’ve called about so many times that it’s a shock the Patriots don’t send them straight to voicemail.

NFL rebuilds, historically, have been easier to pull off than rebuilds in other sports. Traditionally, teams make the transition from terrible to title-contending with a few specific changes. Teams don’t need lottery ping-pong ball luck. They don’t need to hit on a handful of high school pitchers over a three-year span. They just need a top-10 quarterback, some blue chippers in their prime, and a boatload of cost-controlled contracts that lead to great players making $2 million or less. The Browns may eventually get there, but a long rebuild means those players may not all be cheap and productive at the same time.

You need a golden generation of players to come together around the same age, peaking at the same time, to really contend. Teams have been able to completely rebuild their rosters on the fly in three drafts and immediately contend. Look at the Seahawks, who built the backbone of a Super Bowl winner in the 2010–2012 drafts, collecting some of the best players in the NFL in the middle rounds and hitting on a quarterback in Russell Wilson in that time frame. That’s the model for a modern rebuild. Take a mediocre roster, hit on a bunch of early and mid-round picks, pay them nothing early, and watch the wins roll in. Most teams simply re-tool every year while possessing a baseline of talent.

There’s a reason for all this. NFL careers are by far the shortest of any sport. After the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, rookie contracts are so advantageous and cheap that the easiest way to win is to have as many players as possible on bargain-basement contracts, fit them all under the salary cap, and augment them with well-paid stars. A long rebuild complicates that. If the Browns’ rebuild lasts into 2019, they have to start worrying about losing the players they drafted at the beginning of this plan. Patience, while a nice trait, can also be overrated in football. Next year is perhaps the most crucial in 15 years of Browns drafting: If the team snags a quarterback (and more talented players), the plan is affirmed. If they don’t, the Browns risk engaging in a perpetual rebuild with no end in sight. You can only Process for so long. And we all know how that ended for Sam Hinkie.

The Chicago Cubs spent three years losing after hiring Theo Epstein. But in baseball, teams can finagle their way into seven years of cheap labor with a top pick, eventually parlaying those high picks — say, Kris Bryant — into a World Series title. But teams who do this in the NFL sort of … end up sad. The Jacksonville Jaguars set the record for most top-five draft picks in a row last season then had another one this year. There aren’t many indications that this year’s top-5 pick, Leonard Fournette, will end that streak.

The Jaguars are what happens when a rebuild takes too long. Yes, missing on Blake Bortles set the team back about 100 years, but the five-year rebuild has taken so long that a player like Allen Robinson, a talented receiver drafted in 2014, is due for a massive extension after this season. There goes the cheap labor element.

There should probably be more situational tanking in the NFL. The Bears should’ve tried harder to lose to the Niners last year so they wouldn’t have had to trade three picks for Trubisky. The Bucs likely don’t regret blowing a 13-point fourth-quarter lead in the last game of 2014, since it helped them secure the rights to Jameis Winston. But multiyear tanks haven’t proved to work just yet. The NFL is designed to legislate parity, and 2017 would be the Browns’ 15th season in a row without a playoff berth. Not panicking is good. The Browns are doing just that. But we’re still on that roller coaster DePodesta mentioned. And at some point, for everyone’s sake, the ride needs to end.