Behind closed doors, the best teams in the NFL say that, despite unprecedented parity, it’s easier to win in the modern NFL.
The path toward a Super Bowl championship is the same as its always been—a good quarterback, stability among coaches and front-office members, depth, and tons of good contracts that fit under the cap. What’s making it easier for the league’s elite—the Patriots, Steelers, Seahawks, and the Packers when they have Aaron Rodgers—is that a good portion of the NFL’s also-rans have none of these things and, more importantly, seem incapable of acquiring these things. There’s so much institutional instability around the league that if you know what you’re doing, you can just keep doing it while the other franchises rack up self-inflicted wounds.
On Thursday, the Browns fired their executive VP of football operations, Sashi Brown, after fewer than two years in the role. A few hours later, they hired former Kansas City Chiefs general manager John Dorsey. Our own Mike Lombardi said on Twitter that the Browns have been feeling out candidates for weeks and that there’s a house cleaning coming in the front office. This, of course, comes a little more than a year after the team hired Moneyball star and former A’s, Dodgers, and Mets executive Paul DePodesta to lead the team’s analytical basketball-style rebuild.
All of these views seem fairly contradictory, but I promise they can coexist: I think Dorsey can be a great general manager. I am fairly skeptical that a true Process-style rebuild can work for more than three seasons in the NFL because of the short windows in which players are truly bargains and the length of their careers in general. And I also believe that what the Browns did—signing up for the longest game and bailing after 28 games— is a colossal mistake that’s consistent with a risk-averse league. In fact, it’s so shockingly short-sighted that I cannot believe it was made by the same people who decided to take this plunge in the first place.
A little over a year ago, DePodesta, Cleveland’s chief strategy officer, told a conference that the analytics process was like a roller coaster for ownership, and so most owners get scared before they get on the ride. He shared this with Jimmy Haslam, the team’s owner, who presumably assured him that he wanted on the roller coaster. Surprise! The roller coaster went 1-27 and Haslam bailed on Brown.
Maybe the Process can work in football, but I do know what won’t: whatever is going on in Cleveland right now. The team committed to head coach Hue Jackson for 2018, and it’s unclear what will happen to DePodesta now. What isn’t happening is that the team isn’t selling out to make sure they have a plan that they stick to at all costs. Murkiness is not a plan.
The individual decisions of the DePodesta-Brown regime have not been perfect—although there’s already some evidence Brown’s drafts were good. No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett looks like he’ll wreck players for the next decade. Quarterback DeShone Kizer will not. Maybe Brown screwing up a deadline deal that would have netted the team A.J. McCarron for more than the 49ers gave for Jimmy Garoppolo was in fact a good thing. But the bigger issue is the franchise coming up with a plan, panicking, and suddenly giving up.
Billy Beane once praised Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger as someone who “runs his football club like he is going to own the club for 100 years.” Despite constant consternation from the fan base and commentators over Wenger’s conservative approach toward player acquisition, the club finished with a lucrative top-four spot in the Premier League standings for 20 consecutive seasons, until finishing fifth during the last campaign.
Jackson insists there wasn’t tension between the coaching staff, who, by nature and often necessity, are short-term creatures, and the long-game analytics executives. “I didn’t win a power struggle,” Jackson said Thursday. “I don’t see a power struggle.”
That may be true, he did not win the power struggle because no one has won. Jackson’s press conference Thursday, a wide-ranging and insightful look at the team, offered a few gems. Notably, he complained that the Browns had too many leaks to the media and revealed that he did not want an offensive coordinator this year because he didn’t want a fall guy for a bad offense. However, it is not clear why it was a foregone conclusion that the Browns offense was going to be bad. A similar argument could’ve been made that the Jets were set up for failure before Week 1, and instead offensive coordinator John Morton got a McCown to play well, turned receiver Robby Anderson into a revelation, and made a talent-deficient group look generally competent. The Browns had first-round pick Corey Coleman at wide receiver (and now Josh Gordon), and they had a decent offensive line. We are a little more than a year removed from Jackson saying “trust me” when the team drafted Cody Kessler in the third round. An alleged QB guru, Jackson had four NFL-experienced or NFL-ready QBs at his disposal since the start of training camp. And yet, no progress has been made.
“You know what bothered some people about Sashi so much?” Cleveland.com’s Doug Lesmerises wrote on Thursday. “He never panicked enough. Brown understood the process he put in place, and he refused to back away from it when almost everyone else did, including Jackson.”
Brown will not go down as a Sam Hinkie–esque figure, as revered by Browns Twitter as Hinkie is in Philadelphia. They will never chant his name in Ohio. But should DePodesta also get the boot, this Cleveland regime should be remembered fondly for setting up the Browns for the future.
Here's Sashi Brown's last two NFL Drafts. Our of his 24 picks, 20 might be multi-year NFL contributors. That's an ABSURD success rate.— Eric Galko (@OptimumScouting) December 7, 2017
Plus, they have 2018 Draft 1st and two 2nds coming.
If not for ownership, this would be the most coveted GM job in recent memory. #Browns pic.twitter.com/WpSH65ewy8
As for Brown’s replacement: Dorsey is one of the smartest people in football, and his philosophies on explosive athleticism have informed my view on football more than any single philosophy I’ve ever come across. But that doesn’t mean another stop and start is a good thing. The DePodesta/Brown regime deserved to see the offseason through, especially with the one extra first- and two extra second-round picks they acquired for next spring’s draft. Plus, ahead of free agency, they will have the second-highest cap room in the NFL.
“The offseason has that potential because Sashi Brown made it so,” Lesmerises wrote. “That top-10 pick from the Texans, the one Brown was assailed for acquiring by trading away the chance to draft Deshaun Watson? Yeah, everybody's going to be excited about that now.”
Whatever Brown and DePodesta’s football acumen is—and we likely won’t ever get the chance to find out now—they never panicked while the team kept losing ... and they paid the price. The media and ownership wants panic. They say they don’t, but they really do. Panic means trades that mortgage the future to fix immediate holes. It means moving on from players if they look horrible before they get a chance to develop. Panic means focusing on the short game, and everyone wants to look at what’s directly in front of them.
Dorsey will get a four-year contract. But what happens if his first draft is bad despite all those picks? What happens if he pulls the trigger on a first-round quarterback and the quarterback looks no better than Kizer or Kessler? The issue is not Dorsey, nor is it Brown, DePodesta, or even Jackson. It’s not the specific plan, either. No, it’s an NFL team getting distracted by a new strategy every two years.
And so the perennial contenders in the NFL quietly celebrate all the teams that abandon their plans at the first sign of trouble. Under Gus Bradley and Dave Caldwell, the Jaguars won 14 games in four years, but at least they got to build something through free agency, and their draft process was thought-out, continuous, and stable. Caldwell is still in Jacksonville and some of the players he acquired with cap space or picks are contributing to the potential AFC South champions. If the Jaguars went through a handful of GMs or coaches in those four years, it would be a very different story right now. It doesn’t matter what the plan is, exactly. What matters is sticking to it. Any team that keeps coming up with new plans will never contend in any meaningful way.
The Process is over in Cleveland. The losses are not.