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How the Browns and Paul DePodesta Brought Moneyball to the NFL

Two decades ago, the strategist was an oddity with the Oakland A’s. Now, he’s an archetype, applying the lessons of baseball’s analytics revolution to football one Cleveland draft pick at a time.

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The Cleveland Browns are the NFL’s “it” team this preseason. They have a dynamic young quarterback in Baker Mayfield. They have a star wide receiver in Odell Beckham Jr. They have a new coach, a new plan, and renewed hope ... and this time that hope seems warranted. So how did the Browns go from leaguewide laughingstock to potential model franchise of the future? Welcome to Trust the Browns’ Process Week, when we’ll explore how Believeland reached this point—and what comes next.

America was introduced to Paul DePodesta as an unexpected presence in the Oakland A’s draft war room.

“Paul hadn’t played pro ball,” reads the first description of DePodesta in Moneyball, the 2004 Michael Lewis book on “the art of winning an unfair game” that inspired an Oscar-nominated film and 13 years’ worth of debates and catchphrases. “Paul was a Harvard graduate. Paul looked and sounded more like a Harvard graduate than a baseball man. Maybe more to the point, Paul shouldn’t have even been in the draft room. The draft room was for scouts, not assistant general managers.”

Lewis described DePodesta as a laptop-toting quantitative specialist whose inclusion in the 2001 draft process was one of the final flash points between GM Billy Beane—the book’s hero—and old-school scouting director Grady Fuson, one of Beane’s several antagonists. A year later, Fuson was gone and DePodesta was one of the key voices in the discussion over which players the A’s should select with their seven first-round picks.

Fifteen years later, after an ill-fated two-season stint as Dodgers GM and another decade in the Padres’ and Mets’ front offices, DePodesta once again made headlines as an unexpected presence in a front office with a mountain of draft picks, leaving the Mets not only for a new team but a new sport: football, and a job as chief strategy officer of the Cleveland Browns. It’s not unprecedented for an executive to jump from one sport to another, but it’s unusual enough that it made DePodesta one of the most visible executives in the NFL overnight.

Baseball was the first major American sport to undergo what’s come to be called an analytical revolution, the first to routinely turn ball clubs over to young, ambitious Ivy League empiricists, like DePodesta, who is as much an archetype in 2019 as he was an oddity in 2001. When the Browns hired DePodesta in January 2016, they brought in not only his own talents but also the institutional knowledge of someone with 20 years of experience in a rapidly evolving field. Baseball and football are obviously quite different, but certain analytical techniques and organizational best practices transfer from one game to the other. Since the industrial revolution, innovations in one industry have frequently been borrowed from another.

“As a strategy and research group, we’re charged with coming up with good questions to ask or answering interesting questions other people have,” DePodesta tells me over the phone. “And the best answers are rarely within your specific domain. Another way of saying that is we need to know what’s going on in the world of the NFL, but if we want to create really, really interesting answers, ones that give us a potential competitive advantage, then we really need to look outside the NFL for inspiration.”

DePodesta isn’t the only architect of Cleveland’s turnaround, or, at least, what we assume will become a fully realized turnaround this year; both former GM Sashi Brown and his successor, John Dorsey, will share in the eventual credit or blame. As unusual a sight as DePodesta might have been in the MLB front offices of 20 years ago, Ivy Leaguers with economics degrees are running baseball now. That’s not the case in the NFL, and even though DePodesta played football (as well as baseball) at Harvard, he stands out in a league run by football lifers. If he’s able to help the Browns out of their 30-year rut, and other NFL teams try to find a DePodesta of their own, the league could change dramatically as a result.

Paul DePodesta and Sashi Brown Introductory Press Conference
Paul DePodesta and Sashi Brown

In 2016, less than five months after he joined the Browns, DePodesta once again found himself in an unfamiliar draft room. Cleveland had the no. 2 overall pick that year, but instead of spending it on a player, the Browns shipped the second pick to Philadelphia, along with a conditional fifth-rounder, for five picks spread out over the next three drafts.

Which is not to say that the Browns actually used any of those picks. All five picks (from what became the Carson Wentz trade after the Eagles used that no. 2 pick to select their franchise QB) ended up elsewhere, bringing back 12 more draft picks, giving the Browns uncommon draft capital but very little established talent, at least in the short term. All told, from 2016 to 2018, Cleveland made 33 draft picks, six of them in the first round and 21 in the first four rounds, unprecedented in the NFL.

Stockpiling draft capital is nothing new in the NFL—Bill Belichick loves trading down as much as anyone, and he’s been around so long he used to be Scipio Africanus’s linebackers coach—but this kind of all-out rebuild, a tank-and-rally, is unusual in football.

The most famous tanking project of this decade is the Process. Indeed, a recurring theme of Trust the Browns’ Process Week here at The Ringer has been exploring the obvious parallels between former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie and departed Browns GM Brown, who’s now fittingly with the NBA’s Washington Wizards. But Hinkie’s brazenly extreme experiment in Philadelphia was not the first hard tank in modern sports history, just the one with the best branding.

Almost two years before Hinkie set foot in Philadelphia, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow began the hardest tank in baseball history. In December 2011, he took over a club that had lost 106 games the year before, then pushed them farther down to the Earth’s molten core, losing 107 games in 2012 and 111 in 2013. Houston emerged from the ashes as one of the strongest clubs of the late 2010s and won the World Series in 2017. The previous World Series winner, the Chicago Cubs, had built their team through a similar though less extreme tanking project under president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. (Epstein and Luhnow, like DePodesta, both hold Ivy League degrees and came to work in baseball operations without ever playing or coaching professionally.) Now, the Process (or something like it) is de rigueur for rebuilding MLB teams, who simply aren’t trying hard enough to win in the long term if they’re not piling up the losses (and assets) in the short term.

Other sports are going through their own statistical revolutions, each with its own unique language and set of questions to answer. In basketball and hockey, “analytics guys” with no playing background—like Hinkie or Kyle Dubas of the Toronto Maple Leafs—have found themselves empowered to reject norms and tear marquee franchises to the studs, only to build them up again.

DePodesta’s Browns definitely got torn down to the studs. While two of the first-round picks Cleveland traded away turned into Wentz and Deshaun Watson, the actual Browns went a combined 1-31 in 2016 and 2017 and were outscored by a total of 364 points, or about 11 points a game, the worst two-year record in history for a team with the second-longest playoff drought in North American sports, a franchise whose name has long been shorthand for failure.

But the time of stockpiling assets and playing for the future is over, and the Browns, who until a year ago were looking far down the road, are making a serious attempt to compete now.

“I think you need to be aware of where you are in your organization’s life cycle,” DePodesta says. “You only have so many chances, or windows of opportunity, and when those windows are open it requires a certain mind-set. Our goal is not to be a consistent 9-7 or 10-6. We’re reaching higher than that.”

Last season, DePodesta’s third with the club, Cleveland nearly poked its head back to level with a 7-8-1 record behind the past two no. 1 overall picks: defensive end Myles Garrett and quarterback Baker Mayfield. The Browns have hired their fifth full-time head coach in eight years, Freddie Kitchens, and not only given him Mayfield to work with but actually traded away draft capital to secure a pair of marquee veteran wide receivers: Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. In 2019, Cleveland is a trendy pick to return to the playoffs.

NFL: OCT 21 Browns at Buccaneers
Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Over the past 20 years, the word “analytics” has lost most of its meaning as a term of art in sports. Fans, pundits, even coaches and executives have used the term as a shorthand for any kind of empirical study, as an epithet for nontraditional coaching or front office methods, or whatever stray numbers might be lying around. The term has been warped, stretched, and yanked around from casual use and misuse so badly it’s lost its shape. The Moneyball A’s teams that made DePodesta famous were viewed as being on the cutting edge of analytics (or “sabermetrics” in baseball parlance), back when that mostly meant statistical analysis. But almost 20 years later, smart front offices don’t live on numbers alone.

“I think there’s a large misconception about analytics in general that it’s all about data,” DePodesta says. “That it’s all about guys sitting at their computers and running through spreadsheets. That’s not the reality. We focus a lot on strategy, we focus a lot on process.”

For example, Moneyball depicted Beane and DePodesta as operating in opposition to Oakland’s scouting department, favoring numbers, however they got them, over the eye test. Oakland’s draft class was heavy on players who put up big numbers in college but were overlooked by scouts for being pudgy, or slow, or somehow unattractive physically (“We’re not selling jeans here” is one of Beane’s immortal quotes from the book).

Baseball has always been, to a large extent, numbers-obsessed, and it’s the easiest sport by far to dissect mathematically. Not only does baseball have an exhaustive statistical record dating back to the 19th century—Henry Chadwick was publishing detailed seasonal statistics for baseball before football was even invented—it’s a team sport that features very little in the way of teammate-to-teammate interaction. As opposed to the 22-way square dance of football or the sliding chaos of hockey, baseball is extremely rigid in form, a series of discrete one-on-one contests that can be catalogued and compiled even by amateurs.

Sabermetrics started out as such a crude mathematical exercise that the mythical founding father of the science, Bill James, began his work as a way to pass the time while working as a night watchman. James had little formal mathematical training and few tools. We have better data and equipment now than James did when he started out, but sabermetrics was for a long time very much a homespun, back-of-the-napkin enterprise.

The early 2000s, the Moneyball era, represent sabermetrics at its most quantitatively obsessed, back when cutting-edge analysis could fairly be called analytics. Early 21st-century sabermetricians—both in Moneyball and in contemporary baseball analysis—were frequently overconfident, even arrogant, because of the seductive certainty of numbers. If it wasn’t quantifiable, it wasn’t worth knowing. Smart baseball analysts (or former baseball analysts) have learned from this overconfidence.

“We’re always super cautious about what we don’t know,” DePodesta says, “and that’s an area where we lean really, really heavily on people with vast experience in the space: our scouts, our coaches, our players. They provide so much context and so much richness to any other information we might have.”

Mainstream sabermetrics began as a way to test the conventional wisdom of the sport through a distant cousin of social-science rigor. Every assumption was challenged, and when new assumptions took over, they too were challenged and adapted as tools improved and the scope of the inquiry changed. Before long, team building wasn’t just about assembling a roster, and sabermetric principles—as well as the rigor and lust for efficiency that followed them—extended to front office staffing and payroll allocation. The modern MLB GM is no longer an ex-player, but a businessman, for better or for worse.

In 2019, a better term than “analytics” would be “empirics.” As data collection improved from box scores to radar tracking to biometric information, the sabermetric movement not only got better at quantifying things, but learned the importance of refining qualitative information rather than rejecting it. Far from fighting with scouts, analytically minded GMs and analysts have learned to refine the eye test and integrate it into quantitative models.

“Computers are great at dealing in volume,” DePodesta says. “They can process so much more information than any one of us can individually, and they can do it without bias or emotion. But what they struggle with is context and nuance. That’s hard for a machine, and that’s where the human expertise and experience becomes invaluable.”

The work of the Browns’ research and strategy group goes beyond scouting, player development, and in-game tactics. DePodesta says his department could even apply these lessons to create a process to recruit better interns, an undertaking that, in his mind, isn’t that different from scouting.

Los Angeles Dodger J.D. Drew Press Conference
Paul DePodesta, Los Angeles Dodgers general manager, in 2004
Photo by Jon Soohoo/Getty Images

TJ Barra is a data analyst in the MLB league office who spent six years working alongside DePodesta in the Mets front office. He praised DePodesta’s ability to work through abstract or complex problems, and dismantle them into components that can be digested and understood by the people—GMs, coaches, players—with the power to act on that information.

“I thought the best thing he did was figure out how to take these bigger-scale philosophical issues—in baseball it’s all about having guys who had a good approach at the plate—and figuring out how that trickled down to player development,” Barra says. “Figuring out how that trickled down to the amateur draft and international scouting. I think everyone knows that Joey Votto has a .400 OBP and is an amazing player, but what are those intrinsic values that made Joey Votto a .400 on-base guy? They were going to make Brandon Nimmo, a 17-year-old from Wyoming who played 15 games a year, the same sort of player.”

The kind of player Barra described—the high on-base guy with power—is precisely the kind of player the A’s targeted in 2002. How teams identify, acquire, or develop such players has changed radically, and Joey Votto types are no longer undervalued the way they were a generation ago. But hitters who can get on base are still the key to a good offense in baseball.

DePodesta won’t say what the equivalent of a high-OBP player is in football, or even whether such an equivalent exists, but just like he did during his baseball career, he’s trying to identify and acquire underrated players.

“We are always looking for value where it isn’t readily apparent to everybody else,” he says. “There are some guys who are just so special that it doesn’t necessarily take a trained eye to say, ‘Boy, this guy’s really going to be good.’”

DePodesta doesn’t spend much time on those players, but instead looks for hidden gems, particularly in the draft. Baseball has the longest developmental timeline of any sport: A 16-year-old international free agent could wait the better part of a decade before his major league debut, while an NFL draft pick is expected to contribute months after turning pro. That reduces the uncertainty or risk in an NFL draft pick, but makes it tougher to find a unique scouting or developmental angle that could turn a seventh-rounder into a Pro Bowler.

One way to find that angle is to look at how a player’s college teammates impacted his performance.

“If you’re a shortstop and you’re a great hitter, it doesn’t matter a whole lot who your first baseman was,” DePodesta says. “Whereas if you’re a terrific wide receiver in college and you have a quarterback who can’t get you the ball—or even worse, an offensive system that doesn’t throw the ball—that’s a lot tougher to get your arms around.”

A receiver with NFL skills but pedestrian college stats due to factors outside his control could end up making a team’s entire draft. Knowing how to filter out the noise and find such a player is like knowing which physical skills, or statistical achievements, separate baseball players who top out in college from those who go on to be successful pros. Actually filtering out the noise—and doing so with less data from fewer games than in baseball, in a game with so many more moving pieces—is the tricky part.

One side effect of the empirical revolution and the demystification of team building is the proliferation of the star GM. Moneyball is particularly responsible for indulging the fantasy that a sufficiently clever person could lead a team to success by outsmarting the nitwits running other teams, and the cleverest of these people (or at least the most PR-savvy ones) became folk heroes. Not just in baseball, but in basketball and hockey as well.

There isn’t really such a thing as a celebrity executive in the NFL, and definitely not to the extent that there is in other sports. Casual fans know owners and coaches, and die-hards know GMs; in baseball, die-hards know GMs, stat gurus, analysts, and scouting directors.

The star baseball executive dates back to Branch Rickey, who invented the farm system while GM of the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1920s and 1930s, then went on to run the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he became most famous for signing Jackie Robinson. Nowadays, GMs (or de facto GMs; thanks to title bloat, the common name for the person who runs baseball operations is now president or vice president of baseball operations) are stars: Not just Beane and Luhnow, but Epstein of the Cubs, Andrew Friedman of the Dodgers, and many other baseball ops chiefs are viewed as metonyms for the franchise, and more than any other individual, the MLB GM determines the club’s identity and direction.

Two factors led to an environment in which an MLB GM could earn such celebrity.

First, the big league club is just a fraction of what constitutes an MLB organization. An NFL organization has a roster and a practice squad, while NBA and NHL franchises have one or two farm teams and a handful of players under team control who are playing overseas. A baseball organization, by contrast, is too big for a field manager to keep track of, let alone run, and so the modern field manager no more controls the organization than the hand thinks for the body.

“When I was with the Mets we had nine minor league teams,” DePodesta says. “What people see on TV is the very tip of the iceberg. It’s the top 25 players out of 300. And nine teams, by the way, is nine coaching staffs and training staffs. [Baseball teams are] moving players almost every single day from one level to the next because of injuries or promotions. In football, what you see on Sundays is most of what’s there.”

Having just the one team to worry about, with just 53 active players and a practice squad, definitely means an NFL GM has fewer balls to keep in the air than an MLB GM. But it also reduces the room for error. Make a mistake in the MLB draft and nobody notices—the majority of draft picks, even first-rounders, don’t make much of an impact in the major leagues. But whiffing on a first-round pick in the NFL, when first-rounders are supposed to quickly become impact players on rock-bottom salaries in a salary-capped league, can have dire consequences for a franchise. MLB front offices fish with a net, while NFL front offices fish with a pole.

Second, a baseball manager has less influence over an individual game than a head coach in any other North American sport. Beyond a certain level of baseline competence in lineup construction, tactics simply don’t matter very much in baseball over a 162-game baseball season. Not since Casey Stengel has an MLB manager invented something like package plays or the Cover 2 defense, so managers just aren’t as interesting as their coaching counterparts in other sports.

Paul DePodesta at the 2016 Cleveland Browns training camp

“The coach is the one on the sideline on Sundays, on national TV, and he’s got to make so many critical decisions in the course of every game,” DePodesta says. “And a lot of head coaches are play-callers either on offense or defense, so they’re literally impacting every play of the game. Baseball managers don’t approach a 162-game season that way.”

As GMs and field managers came to resemble each other less and less, baseball executives learned the importance of communication, installing a coherent vision throughout the organization and implementing it from top to bottom. The battle between Beane and old-school manager Art Howe was a recurring conflict in Moneyball, in which Beane was portrayed as the victor. It would be more accurate to describe the conflict itself as deleterious to all parties, and MLB organizations know from experience the importance of avoiding such disharmony.

Barra says this kind of wide-ranging thinking and ensuing ability to infuse a unified ethos into a large organization is one of DePodesta’s strengths.

“That was the biggest impact he had [on the Mets]: taking concepts that he wanted and most people in the front office wanted, and translating that to players,” Barra says. “It’s about getting on base and hitting for power. If you hit .300 but don’t walk and don’t hit for power, you’re not the player we want in the big leagues. Paul’s idea was to simplify that concept and turn it into a competition for players. It incentivized the players to buy into these concepts and get them out of their comfort zone.”

That makes it incredibly important for everyone in the organization to be on the same page, and an NFL GM (or chief strategy officer) can’t just dictate policy to the coach the way an MLB GM can to a manager. The ability to communicate information and get buy-in from coaches and players was one of the last dominoes to fall in baseball’s sabermetrics movement, and it’s still a struggle in other sports. After living through that evolution in MLB, DePodesta views it as one of his primary responsibilities. The questions he sets out to research, he says, are largely inspired by what he thinks Kitchens and Dorsey need to know in order to make good decisions, and sometimes originate with the coach and GM themselves.

“More than anything, we try to make information as accessible and actionable as possible,” he says. “There’s a lot of interesting stuff. There’s a lot of neat stuff, but if it’s not actionable, it just isn’t relevant, and what we’re really trying to do is support both our coaches and our personnel people in their decision-making process.”

One thing the Browns ought to learn from other sports is that good process, or at least clever or innovative process, generates interest, but it takes a championship, or something close to it, to win over the last skeptics. The Astros, Sixers, and Maple Leafs have all learned that lesson in one form or another.

The big question now for DePodesta and for Cleveland is whether all these lessons from baseball will translate into winning on the gridiron. That question is very much open, and despite their improvement by seven wins last year, the Browns don’t yet have so much as a winning season to show for their rebuild.

DePodesta’s innovations, as well as the willingness of Brown, Dorsey, and team ownership to suffer through a few years of discomfort, have paid dividends in the form of a talented and exciting roster. An up-and-coming team with Mayfield, Garrett, and Beckham would be worth watching no matter how it had come together, but the process by which the Browns were assembled puts them under a microscope.

What the Browns have done—stockpiling draft picks, unifying the organization’s thinking, looking outside football for ideas—makes success more likely, but not certain. DePodesta knows this.

“Our job is to try to corral uncertainty as best we can,” DePodesta says. “But we’re never going to reduce it to zero.”

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