Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A rudderless franchise hires a smart, respected, analytically minded executive from another sport to bring a new type of process to its front office. The organization had no other answers—it had bottomed out and had no clear plan, so why not hire a guy from a completely different field? I’m not talking about former Browns executive vice president Sashi Brown, whom the Washington Wizards hired on Monday. I’m talking about Paul DePodesta.
DePodesta, the longtime baseball executive made famous in Moneyball, joined the Browns three years ago alongside Brown. The two carved up Cleveland’s roster, and Brown became a symbol of the football analytics movement and a controversial figure in Cleveland before and after his December 2017 firing (DePodesta is still in Cleveland). After one year out of sports—one year that includes his former team developing into an honest-to-goodness contender—Brown resurfaced in Washington on Monday as “chief planning and operations officer.” Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said Brown will be in charge of, among other things, technology, finance, and research. That Brown will serve essentially the same function DePodesta did three years ago—to bring his ideas from another sport to a team looking for a fresh perspective—is quite funny. There was a raging debate over whether an NBA-style “Process” could work in the NFL, and now the NFL’s process is coming to the NBA. Hiring Brown is a good move—as long as it’s done exactly right.
The idea that Brown would be hired into what Leonsis called a “forward-thinking structure” in the NBA says a lot about football, basketball, and Brown himself. For one, until recently the idea that any NFL executive would be considered forward-thinking would have been laughable. The NFL is considered the most conservative sports league and the NBA one of the most innovative. Basketball leaned on analytics—one of Brown’s strengths—as a core part of its evaluation system about a decade before football. Brown helped the NFL catch up.
It is important to note that Brown built two Browns teams that went a combined 1-31. Brown did not save the Browns, but he did set Cleveland up for saving. Maybe he can help do that with the Wizards, another team that needs a savior. Brown will be working alongside a general manager, the recently promoted Tommy Sheppard, who can presumably help pick players better than Brown did in Cleveland. This type of thing—big picture, research, strategy—is what Brown should be doing, existing as a sort of Johnny Appleseed of good ideas, spreading them around then moving on to the next thing.
Brown has drawn comparisons to Sam Hinkie, the former Philadelphia 76ers general manager who, like Brown, played a long game, hoarded draft picks, and saw the value in losing early and often. The fact that Brown has now crossed into Hinkie’s sport will only heighten those comparisons. Hinkie notably consulted for the Denver Broncos on analytics in the past, but he’s not expected to take a full-time NFL job anytime soon. Like Hinkie, Brown will wait outside while the team he helped build enjoys the success that seemed so far away when he took the job. And also like Hinkie, Brown was far from perfect and lost a lot—far too often for even a rebuilding franchise to stomach. Brown whiffed in the draft, selecting Corey Coleman and trading out of picks that became Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson. And again like Hinkie, Brown’s image likely benefited from his firing. Brown is now a martyr whose plan was better than its execution. But his plan was very, very good.
Brown’s tenure and firing were both important in the development of the current Browns—the ones Vegas expects to win nine games. If he had not run the franchise, the team wouldn’t have had the arsenal of draft picks needed to complete the rebuild. But it’s likely Brown wouldn’t have used those picks as well as general manager John Dorsey did. Essentially, everything worked out. Last season, Dorsey told me he thought the roster under the previous regime got too young. He traded for veterans last offseason and this year brought in, among others, Odell Beckham Jr. and Olivier Vernon. It’s impossible to say what Brown’s path would have looked like, but it probably wouldn’t have gotten to true contention this quickly.
All of this is to say that having Brown in the building for your flailing sports team is better than not having him. The Wizards made a good hire in that regard.
Brown is not in charge of Washington’s roster or the salary cap. His role, presumably, is to have good ideas, and he’s got those. If he wants to do a full-on tank as he did in Cleveland, that might be harder: Tanking is not what it was in Hinkie’s day—lottery reform has lessened the odds that the worst team will get the top pick in the draft. Still, it is much easier to build a basketball team from scratch than a football team. If you hit on two superstars and nothing else in basketball, you’ve got a great start. If you do that in football you might still go 2-14.
It is far too much of an oversimplification—and actually flat-out wrong—to say Brown brought analytics to the NFL. To say that does a disservice to the Patriots, Eagles, Jaguars, and a handful of other teams. What the Browns did was take analytics and make it the focal point of their plan, something no team had previously done. Basketball teams have done that already, and if that’s Brown’s only idea, it won’t work.
I asked around the league on Monday and heard from a few NFL decision-makers who think Brown is, if not a good general manager, a good thinker. There were, of course, flaws in his grand Browns plan—I’m of the opinion that NFL rebuilds simply can’t take that long. NFL careers are too short, superstars only peak for so long, and playing too long a game only ensures you’ll miss your target. One surefire way to compete in the NFL is to get huge production out of cheap players on rookie contracts before they get expensive—a long-term rebuild of more than four years (the length of a rookie deal) extinguishes the opportunity to benefit from that advantage.
USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt talked to Leonsis, who said the Wizards “had an existential experience” after a poor 2018-19. Zillgitt pointed out that not only is Brown a former NFL executive, but the team also hired Daniel Medina, who will specialize in wellness and whose background is mostly European soccer. Basketball certainly hasn’t been kind to the Wizards, so they might as well try other sports.