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.
The general managers responsible for two of the worst seasons in modern professional sports history are now hailed as heroes. In 2013, Sam Hinkie took over as GM of the Philadelphia 76ers and pioneered the Process, a controversial strategy of prolonged tanking designed to net draft capital. Hinkie resigned in 2016 a few weeks before the Sixers completed a 10-72 campaign, just one win better than the worst single-season NBA record of all time. In 2016, Sashi Brown became GM of the Cleveland Browns, and started out with a 1-15 season. He similarly prioritized the future over the present and similarly watched as things got worse: He was fired late in 2017 as the Browns stumbled to the second 0-16 NFL record ever.
Both tank jobs worked. The Sixers drafted Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. In this year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, they pushed the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors to a Game 7, losing on a preposterously unlucky buzzer-beater. It seems like the best is yet to come for their promising core. Meanwhile, the Browns drafted Baker Mayfield, Myles Garrett, and Denzel Ward and then traded for Odell Beckham Jr., and are now poised to deliver their best season since the franchise was reborn in 1999. I know, that’s not saying much. But Cleveland is projected to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002, which would end the league’s longest postseason drought.
Both Hinkie and Sashi were criticized for taking tanking further than it had ever gone in their respective sports. Both men departed at the nadir of their teams’ valleys, and both have since watched other GMs reap the rewards of their intentional failings. And both have inspired cultlike followings among their former fan bases, who view them as bold visionaries who sucked aggressively enough to turn things around.
So whose efforts were more impressive? The Ringer’s Chief Process Truster John Gonzalez and Head Sashi Supporter Rodger Sherman debated which GM did a better—or perhaps, purposefully worse—job.
Sherman: We’re dealing with two very similar men here: two outsiders with fancy degrees who climbed the corporate ladders in their respective sports until they were put in charge of player personnel decisions, despite never having played, coached, nor scouted at the professional level. Both Sashi and Hinkie stripped their organizations’ rosters of virtually all talent in a single-minded pursuit of draft capital. And both were removed from power before they could experience the fruits of their labor.
John, why don’t you start things off by making your basic pitch. Why do so many Philadelphians view Hinkie as a sports messiah? (No. 2 behind Nick Foles, presumably.)
Gonzalez: You have to understand what was happening in Philly before Hinkie. The Sixers were run by this unwieldy, atavistic front office collective of Doug Collins, Rod Thorn, and Tony DiLeo. Collins once famously told reporters that he would “blow my brains out” and “kill myself” if he had to read advanced stat sheets. He also signed Kwame Brown to a contract that was longer than it needed to be—in that he gave Kwame a contract at all. This was end-of-his-career, bloated Kwame. He used to hit the buffet hard after every game. It became a thing that I would monitor—how many plates Kwame would eat after catching a DNP-CD. He led the league in postgame buffet performance.
So yeah, Hinkie was a welcomed change for lots of reasons.
Sherman: Hold on. I need to backtrack here. Did you seriously just hit me with a “you have to understand what was happening” in a post where the other option is the CLEVELAND BROWNS? Are you kidding me?
Forget the 17-year-and-counting playoff drought. This franchise has long been dysfunction incarnate. In the eight years before Sashi arrived, the Browns went through five head coaches (Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski, and Mike Pettine) and five general managers. From 2012 to 2015, Cleveland made seven first-round draft picks, and all of them flopped: Trent Richardson, who couldn’t find a hole on a Connect Four board; Brandon Weeden, who was already receiving AARP benefits when he was drafted; Barkevious Mingo, whose name remains the best part of his career; Justin Gilbert, who was traded for a sixth-round pick two years after being drafted; Johnny Manziel, who can’t really be described in a sentence; Cameron Erving, who was eventually traded for a fifth-round pick; and Danny Shelton, the most successful of the bunch, and also a player who has achieved most of his success on the Patriots.
I get that the Sixers were bad, but the Browns didn’t make a positive move for damn near a decade before Sashi regrouped things.
Gonzalez: Actually—and imagine me saying this in my most obnoxious Philly explainer voice—the Sixers weren’t bad before Hinkie. They were average. Sometimes slightly below average. Sometimes slightly above average. But usually right around there. That is the worst spot to be in in the NBA. Bad would have been welcomed. And it was. That’s partly why a large segment of the fan base immediately latched on to the concept of bottoming out in order to climb higher on the ladder than the .500 rung. The promise of building something big, special, and lasting sounded a lot better than maybe making the playoffs with Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen.
And when you say “Sashi regrouped things,” you might be getting ahead of yourself. We’re talking about the same Cleveland Browns, right? The team that went 7-8* last season, 0-16 the season before that, and 1-15 the season before that? Those Browns? That feels not great as far as regrouping goes.
*Sorry: Their 2018 record was 7-8-1, obviously. Congrats on that tie, Cleveland! The Browns are back!
Sherman: They closed 5-2-1, John! And those five wins came after Baker Mayfield took over as starting QB and Hue Jackson was fired as head coach.
The NFL is different from the NBA, because that waylaid perma-middle class you mentioned doesn’t really exist in football. It’s common for a team to swing from good to bad and back over an incredibly short stretch. Take your Eagles, who this decade alone have gone from 10-6 to 4-12 to 10-6 to down below .500 a year before winning the Super Bowl. (Did you know the Eagles won the Super Bowl, by the way?)
The only team exempt from the NFL’s giant game of Chutes and Ladders has been the Browns. Cleveland won four or five games in every season from 2008 to 2013. And that’s what makes Sashi so bold. He opted out of the potential to participate in the NFL’s ebb-and-flow for two years, producing teams that went 1-31 while racking up the most draft capital any team has had in the history of the sport. And guess what, John: The Browns are favored to win their division this year! Sure, it’s with some players (like Mayfield) Brown’s successor John Dorsey drafted, and a superstar (OBJ) Dorsey traded for. But Brown allowed Cleveland to break the cycle.
Brown’s accomplishment is especially remarkable because the Process isn’t built for football. It’s much harder to build a competitive 53-man roster than it is to assemble a starting five through a handful of draft picks. I don’t think what Brown did would make sense for most teams, but the Browns aren’t most teams.
Gonzalez: Yes, I am aware that the Eagles won the Super Bowl. But I’m all for you reminding everyone as much as you’d like.
Now, what was that about closing 5-2-1 and using players some other GM drafted? Because of what Hinkie did, the Sixers have two of the NBA’s best young players in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Or, sorry, they have two of the NBA’s best players, full stop. (I will not hear Kevin O’Connor’s slander about how one of them shoots with the wrong hand.) And because they have those two players, the Sixers came within four freak bounces of beating the eventual world champion Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals. That was by far the toughest series the Raptors played in the postseason. By the transitive property, the Sixers basically won the 2019 NBA championship. But it’s cute that the Browns are favored in the … [checks notes] ... [hold on] ... AFC North. Impressive!
Baker Mayfield’s mustache is cool, though.
Sherman: You seem pretty focused on the fact that the Browns haven’t yet turned their struggles into championship contention. You’ve got a point: Sashi took over the most moribund franchise in football all the way back in 2016. Then he made that bad team intentionally worse. Somehow, three years later, Cleveland is in a position to make the playoffs.
Let’s compare that with the scenario involving Hinkie, who took over the Sixers in 2013. Six years later ... you’re puffing your chest about nearly winning the conference semifinals? If we were to plot the Sashi timeline onto Hinkie’s tenure, we’d be in 2016. What were the Sixers doing in 2016? Oh yeah, finishing 10-72. That’s around when Hinkie resigned and Bryan Colangelo drafted Ben Simmons. (Hinkie, who resigned ahead of the 2016 draft, is as responsible for Simmons as Sashi, who was fired ahead of the 2018 draft, was for Mayfield.) I’ll accept defeat in three years if the best thing the Browns have accomplished is losing on a quadruple-doinked extra point in the second round of the 2023 playoffs.
It took Sashi two years to reinvent the Browns. It took Hinkie twice as long to turn around a roster a quarter of the size. Browns fans didn’t need to Trust the Process because the rebuild didn’t last long enough to require the construction of an entire religion around it.
Gonzalez: Wait. Wait. Wait. Hinkie was in charge for only three years because of something you conveniently skipped over. I love how you yada yada’d not one but TWO Colangelo coup attempts. The second one got him and, yes, he resigned. But Hinkie knew back then what everybody knows now: Neither Colangelo was as capable of running that organization and zooming the Sixers into the future as well as he was. Bryan Colangelo did the obvious thing and took Simmons in 2016, but that wouldn’t have been possible without Hinkie handing him that delightful parting gift on his way out the door. We all saw how badly BC was exposed on his own: Danny Ainge emptied his pockets of various assets in the disastrous high-stakes Markelle Fultz deal.
Because of what Hinkie put in motion, the NBA tried to reconfigure its system—twice. The league failed on lottery reform five years ago before succeeding in 2017. Hinkie is the Wilt Chamberlain of GMs. He dunked on his peers so hard that the NBA had to step in and change the rules. Think about that. There’s a reason we’re currently discussing who did “the Process” better and not whatever as-yet-unnamed transition period one team in Cleveland did. That term became ubiquitous and is now shorthand for altering the trajectory of an entire league—if not how we think about sports writ large. As front office rock stars go, it’s not close. Hinkie is the headliner.
Sherman: He may be the bigger name, but Sashi’s efforts could prove more successful. And to that end, I find it strange how both Hinkie and Sashi’s successors are impacting the way that they will be remembered. The guy who followed Hinkie made a massive trade to acquire Markelle Fultz—a player who forgot how to shoot basketballs—and then got fired for yelling about himself online. Meanwhile, the guy who followed Sashi traded for OBJ, which sets Cleveland up to potentially win a Super Bowl.
Hinkie’s reputation is bolstered by the failures of his successor. No matter what happens from here, he’s going to look good. If the Sixers win a title, even in 2024, Hinkie will be remembered as a savior. If they fail, he’ll be remembered as a martyr who fought the good fight and was felled by idiots too foolish to understand his ideals. If the Browns win the Super Bowl in 2020, Sashi may get less credit than Dorsey, who swooped in and made a 1-31 team competent. Never mind that he did so thanks largely to the resources acquired by Sashi.
So yes, Hinkie is the rock star of this movement. But Sashi is the artist who will never get the recognition he deserves. Way to be mainstream, John.
Gonzalez: I don’t think winning a title is necessary for us to see that both men were good at their gigs. Daryl Morey hasn’t won a championship on the Rockets, and he’s rightly hailed as one of the best executives in the NBA. For the record, I think Sashi did a fine job. And bully for him. But this is a silly debate. Get back to me when Sashi has a billboard.
Sherman: I’m willing to concede a lot of points to Hinkie. He was the innovator. He was the icon. And to date, his moves as general manager have generated more success.
But I ride for Sashi. Football is more tanking-resistant than basketball is, and Sashi had the courage to bottom out. More importantly: The team he fixed was the Browns. THE BROWNS! Other people have made the Sixers good. Reviving the Browns took a miracle.
I guess the answer here will come down to one thing. Hinkie has done post-Sixers consulting work for the Broncos, while Sashi now has a job with the Wizards. The real test of who’s better will be whether the former NBA guy’s NFL team becomes good before the former NFL guy’s NBA team. And only one of those teams just traded for Joe Flacco. I like Sashi’s chances.