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The Browns Brought the Process to the NFL. Surprisingly, It Worked.

Under Sashi Brown, Cleveland stockpiled draft picks by trading down and losing (a lot). John Dorsey turned those assets into a talent-laden roster. The result is an unlikely NFL success story.

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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.

In 2017, Richard Thaler was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in behavioral economics. This is, obviously, one of the greatest accomplishments on the planet. A few years earlier, Thaler tried to do something even more prestigious: Save the Washington Redskins.

Thaler, a professor at the University of Chicago, met Redskins owner Daniel Snyder at an on-campus entrepreneurship panel. Over lunch, Thaler explained a 2005 paper he coauthored with Cade Massey, now at the University of Pennsylvania, which argued that top NFL draft picks are overrated. Instead, teams should be patient and accumulate assets by trading back, taking advantage of other franchises that are willing to pay a high price to move up in the draft. Fascinated, Snyder sent several Redskins employees to meet with Thaler and Massey. “We explained to his guys how it all worked,” Thaler said. “And they understood it. And the draft came—they were borrowing picks, trading up. And that was that.” It’s an apt description for how NFL teams operate: They appear to be receptive to new ideas, but against actually implementing them.

The two academics did not completely invent the strategy—the Eagles, led by president Joe Banner, a future Browns executive, and the Patriots were both known to trade down and collect picks before Thaler and Massey published their findings. But their research provided teams with data about adding value in the draft. A team could essentially charge more than a 100 percent interest rate when trading a pick, so long as it was comfortable waiting a year before realizing the return. A patient team could hoard draft picks, and with enough time, talent. One person who listened was Alec Scheiner, who was an executive with the Dallas Cowboys when the study was published. He went on to become Cleveland Browns president in 2012, a job he held until the spring of 2016. Thaler and Massey found an eager audience in this version of the Browns organization. During that time, the team hired former baseball executive Paul DePodesta as chief strategy officer and promoted general counsel Sashi Brown to run football operations. Both of them were prepared to play the pick-hoarding game. Everyone, it seemed, believed in the philosophy to be as patient as possible and collect draft picks.

In the 2017 draft, Cleveland traded out of the 12th pick, which it had acquired the year prior by trading out of the second pick. Brown was asked by a reporter if there is such a thing as trading down too much. Brown conceded there was, but after being asked when that might be, he responded: “Not yet.”

The story of how the Browns developed into a legitimate contender must include this strategy, the NFL’s version of the Process. It must also include John Dorsey, Baker Mayfield, and Odell Beckham Jr., all of whom arrived in Cleveland after Brown was fired in 2017. The cap space and the draft picks helped move everything along, however. Yes, the Eagles and Patriots valued trading down, but no team built a franchise around it or hired a baseball executive profiled in Moneyball to help them. “It was neat,” Massey told me, “to be working with an organization that was using this as central principles.”

On the one hand, these moves were crucial for the Browns’ team-building. On the other hand, the two picks the Browns traded in 2016 and 2017 became Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson. There’s an easy conclusion to draw about Brown’s four-year tenure in Cleveland: Even though Dorsey, Cleveland’s current general manager, assembled the bulk of the talent on the 2019 roster, a substantial chunk of that talent was attainable only because of the cap space and picks left behind by Brown’s front office. In 2018, the Browns had the most draft capital of any team in the salary cap era. The trade with the Texans eventually netted the Browns Denzel Ward. Another deal with Houston—a delightfully innovative trade in which the Browns acquired a second-round pick for taking on Brock Osweiler’s contract—netted them promising running back Nick Chubb. Brown’s failure to get a franchise quarterback was the biggest indictment of his tenure. But his deals (and the losing seasons that produced back-to-back no. 1 picks) delivered assets that helped the roster in the years to come, including the 2018 no. 1 pick and franchise quarterback Mayfield. As I said when Brown was hired by the Wizards last month: He did not save the Browns, but he set Cleveland up for saving.

The Browns’ current plan under Dorsey is as good as any in the league, and there are few general managers you’d pick to run an NFL team before him. He took the good parts the Process had produced—Myles Garrett, David Njoku, Larry Ogunjobi, the cap space, the picks—and built a much better 53-man roster than the one he inherited. If the Browns have the type of success their young core is capable of, there will be a lot of debate about who deserves the credit. The answer is everyone.

“They got enough assets, and they’ve used them effectively, and they have, on paper, a very, very good team,” Banner, who had a massive influence on the Browns’ Process, told me.

The timeline, like most things with the Browns, is choppy: Scheiner and Banner were hired in 2012. In 2013, Brown joined. In 2014, Banner was fired. Brown was the team’s executive vice president and general counsel until 2016, when he was promoted to run football operations. He controlled the draft in 2016 and 2017, to mixed results. How you view those drafts probably determines how you view Brown’s tenure. He took some elite talent but passed on quarterbacks. (Aside from Watson and Wentz, Cleveland picked Garrett no. 1 in 2017 when Patrick Mahomes was on the board, though the Texas Tech star was rarely discussed as a candidate for the top pick.) Cleveland went 1-27 with Brown in charge.

After Brown was fired, he said, “I know that turnaround is coming,” and he was very quickly proved right. He was replaced by Dorsey, who changed the fortunes of the franchise by drafting Mayfield, trading for Beckham, and collecting talent at nearly every position. Brown is often compared to former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, who, like Brown, implemented the Process but left before the turnaround was complete. Neither stayed long enough to enjoy their team’s success, and there’s no way of knowing whether that success would still have come had they stuck around. Instead, they both get the consolation prize of knowing the Process was sound.

During my training camp tour, I asked a few general managers what they thought about the Process as implemented by the Browns. One respondent—a fairly traditional football mind—told me Brown had “some great ideas” but cautioned that football people like him will almost always advise against implementing such a plan because it opens the door for non-football types to run franchises. Brown moving down the hall from general counsel to head of football operations would qualify. When you ask people around the NFL whether the Browns’ Process could work, the answers usually have nothing to do with the strategy itself, but with the impatience of NFL ownership. Hinkie’s methods led to the NBA changing the draft lottery odds. The NFL is unlikely to ever make such an adjustment because few if any teams have even considered implementing their own version of the Process, due to a combination of job preservation and a general reticence to try new things. The Browns are better than they were, but the league remains the same.

Brown has developed into a bit of a symbol of analytics in the NFL, after he became the face of a front office that developed the plan over five years.

“It is criminal to think of it any other way,” Massey said. “The pantry was stocked over years by this philosophy, and the current regime is cooking with that pantry. They still have to make good choices. It’s one of the better stockpiles you’ve ever seen, very intentionally.”

It’s fair to say the Process worked because the Browns have, on paper, one of the most exciting young rosters in the NFL. I asked Jabrill Peppers, who was sent to New York in the trade for Beckham, how Brown’s plan will be remembered.

“I definitely think it was built upon. Dorsey inherited a lot. He was in position to make some good moves with that team,” Peppers said. “I think a lot of the fans and media were hard on Sashi because they weren’t seeing results right away. Even though people know that’s not the point, when it’s happening, no one wants to hear that.

“[Sashi] definitely did a good job of getting the picks, getting the cap to where he got it to, to where you can go out and get any player you want. I definitely think his mantra could be used again. It takes a lot of patience that I don’t think a lot of people have. But they are reaping the fruits of his labor now, even though they don’t want to attribute it to him. He definitely has a big part of what’s going on there.”

Cleveland Browns v Cincinnati Bengals
Sashi Brown

What is going on there is that the Browns have some of the best young talent in football. The remarkable part of the Process is how many people in the Browns organization believed in it and implemented it and how, if not for some rather dramatic franchise stops and starts (detailed well by ESPN’s Seth Wickersham earlier this year), the Browns might have started reaping the benefits even earlier.

When Banner joined the Eagles in the mid-1990s, he and team owner Jeffrey Lurie had conversations with a handful of smart football minds, among them former 49ers general manager Carmen Policy and former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson. The Super Bowl–winning Johnson explained to Banner and Lurie that he believed in a strategy that would now be called the Process. “He said ‘Here’s the reality: almost everybody picking is hitting at 50 percent of their picks and if I can get 10 picks and everyone else gets seven, after a number of years I’m going to have a huge advantage,’” Banner remembered. Johnson stockpiled assets to build his Cowboys dynasty by trading star running back Herschel Walker for a Vikings package that included eight picks.

Banner continued: “The best general manager in the league will do better than other people, but you’re talking about a few percentage points, so give him extra picks, and you’ll have a huge advantage. Very small percentage points can matter a lot.”

By the time Sashi Brown took over football operations, Cleveland had already bought into the concept of hoarding picks. In 2013, the Browns traded Trent Richardson to the Colts for a first-rounder, one of the best examples of a team taking advantage of an opponent that is shortsighted about picks. The Browns almost traded Josh Gordon to San Francisco for a second-round pick that same year, which would have given them two picks in each of the first three rounds. It was a significant number, Banner said, because a member of the Browns analytics team told him that three previous teams had that kind of draft haul in football history and all three eventually reached a Super Bowl. Ownership vetoed the trade, and that version of the Process eventually came undone: Banner and his general manager, Mike Lombardi, were fired. The next general manager, Ray Farmer, traded up for Johnny Manziel and, well, things got sidetracked, to say the least. Farmer was fired in 2016. Yes, it’s exhausting to keep track of these events.

“The two key players, Garrett and Mayfield, they got with their own pick. It had nothing to do with that strategy,” Banner said with a laugh. “You end up with the first pick twice in a row, and you use it correctly, you end up with Garrett and Mayfield.”

Losing, of course, is the most significant part of the Browns’ plan. Brown built teams over two years, and they went 1-31. “It was definitely new for me,” Peppers said. “I’ve been a winner my whole life and to go somewhere and not win any games, you definitely learn a lot of valuable lessons. Built a lot of character, formed great relationships. When you come from the bottom, there’s only one place you can go. We were trending in that direction when I was there. Fell just short of the playoffs last year. I think the building blocks are there for them.”

Banner said that this strategy to take steps back in the win column, while painful, was smart in the end. “You can get stuck in the middle of the pack,” he said. “You can do something proactive to bang yourself up or down or be stuck in jail. If you can propel yourself from 8-8 to 11-5, go for it, but you’re usually better going backwards and that won’t be done by anyone afraid of their own security.”

Thaler wonders what would have happened if the Browns had a better coach than Hue Jackson (3-36-1 with Cleveland). But he also wonders whether any professional football coach would align themselves so closely with an analytically minded front office—aggressively going for it on fourth down, rarely running the ball, among other big ideas. He points out, for instance, that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has coaches who at least value the same things he does: 3-pointers, for instance. Of course, no head coach, not even Eagles coach and analytics god Doug Pederson, goes for it on fourth down as much as the analytics say you should.

I asked former Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer about his time in Cleveland: “There’s a lot of things that go into winning, it takes a lot of experience, trust, skillful athletes, and good coaching to get winning done. When one thing pulls from another, it makes it very difficult to win. I’m just excited that the guys I came in with, from David [Njoku] to Larry [Ogunjobi] to Myles [Garrett], now get to experience all the things together and all the dots connecting.”

Yes, the dots finally connected. And there were a lot of dots.

Cleveland Browns Training Camp
Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr.
Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

At an analytics conference three years ago, DePodesta said something incredibly prescient. He told the audience that building a team around analytics was like riding a roller coaster and that he did not want ownership to ask to get off the ride when it got scary. Of course, this is what happened in Cleveland: Brown, Banner, and Scheiner all departed before Dorsey arrived. He’s as good a talent evaluator as there is, and it appears to have all worked out. DePodesta remains with the team. The Process is over, and it worked.

So, did the NFL learn anything?

“My impression is that nothing has changed,” Thaler said. “I don’t think there’s been a lot of learning.”

Many people I spoke to in the NFL agree with Thaler. Even if the Browns explode into legitimate contention this year, the Process will not exactly catch on like wildfire. If anything, Massey thinks people might learn the wrong lessons. The idea for their study originated after the 1999 draft. Thaler was fascinated with Mike Ditka’s approach to trade his entire draft for Ricky Williams, and Massey was focused on how teams never rank quarterbacks right, yet think they can. “This was before behavioral economics was a big thing. It was novel to look at real data,” Massey said. “People had studied overconfidence in labs, but no one was looking at the NFL.”

Twenty years later, overconfident teams continue to trade up in the draft. “The Browns showed teams can have two first-round picks forever,” Thaler said. Banner thinks Miami is using the Process “a little bit” during its rebuild. “But so many teams are still so embedded in how they do things and how things have been done,” Banner said. “We will see more of this, but it will not sweep the league.”

During Brown’s Cleveland tenure, Kevin Cole, a data scientist at Pro Football Focus, started a podcast called What Would Sashi Do? At the beginning, Cole played the longest possible game for every scenario (for instance, a conversation about building around Philip Rivers ends with the Chargers signing Rivers’s kids in a few decades). Cole jokes that he is a Brown apologist. “Both Sam Hinkie and Sashi came to symbolize more than what they were actually doing,” Cole said. “It’s about being so explicit in what you’re doing, where you’re saying ‘Hey, this is what we are doing, we’re taking a new approach, and we’re going to be fairly transparent about it.’”

Cole is not a Browns fan, just a Sashi Brown fan, and said he doesn’t really have an NFL team. He roots for whoever is doing smart things (he loves Chris Ballard in Indianapolis at the moment). He thinks that football people have “mellowed no matter what side you are on” about analytics. “It was,” he said, “like taking sides in a battle.”

The good news for Browns fans is that the battle is over and, well, they have a good roster to show for it. Brown, like Hinkie, was fired before his team reached the promised land of contention. While the ultimate success of those teams remains to be seen, though, both former executives have seen their names become shorthand for playing an unfinished long game. The Process worked. Brown may not change football, but he certainly changed the Browns.

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