Thursday, January 7, 2016

Moneyball NFL style?

If nothing else, Jimmy Haslam III sure has turned around a lot of heads in the National Football League with his latest move.

When the owner named Paul DePodesta, a highly respected baseball man, as chief strategic officer of the Browns the other day, it grabbed the attention of Haslam’s 31 fellow owners and elicited a variety of responses from observers on both sides of their respective sports aisle.

From “it’s like putting lipstick on a pig” to “this one is clearly outside the box” to “no question it’s an act of desperation,” Haslam has turned the national spotlight on a team that has languished out of that spotlight, it seems, forever.

In choosing DePodesta, the Browns’ owner, who has encountered all kinds of problems trying to straighten out his dysfunctional franchise, has gambled on hiring the established baseball man and then creating a position for him.

And now that he has boldly decided to buck one of the age-old trends of the NFL, the owner needs to take at least two giant steps back and let DePodesta do his job. No interference whatsoever. Let the man succeed or fail on his own. Get out of his way.

If Haslam even thinks about interfering, regardless of how poorly next season’s team might play, we’ll be talking about the same problems three years (or sooner) from now. All it will do is add to the dysfunction.

Haslam, who seems to have a difficult time making correct decisions with regard to his billion-dollar investment, is a hands-on owner who needs to keep those hands to himself. He sees where interfering has gotten him the last three-plus years.

It’s obvious by his unusual – and very progressive – hire that he wants to dramatically change the culture of his team. Shape a new image. Chart a new path to success. That’s how the newest front office member gained his reputation in baseball. And now, he has been presented with a new challenge.

DePodesta, whose use of the principles of Sabermetrics helped the Oakland Athletics become the fabled turn-of-the-millennium Moneyball team, has no substantive pro football experience unless you count one year as an intern with a team in the Canadian Football League.

But he will have a strong voice in selecting the new coach to replace Mike Pettine, new general manager to replace Ray Farmer, as well as player development, personnel decisions and analytics.

There is no question Haslam has surrounded himself with brilliant people in DePodesta and Sashi Brown, the new vice president/football operations. Both men are Harvard graduates, which gives the Browns arguably the brainiest front office in the league.

The only problem is Brown also has no pro football background in personnel and the Browns are woefully short of qualified football people to compensate. That apparently is one of the areas where DePodesta is expected to make a major difference.

He is basically an analytics guy who obviously loves the challenge of bringing that approach to the NFL and succeeding where no one has previously. Unlocking the mystery of why they haven’t yet worked in the NFL very well could be one of his goals.

He has gained a solid reputation for being one of the brightest minds in all of Major League Baseball. That’s probably what enticed Haslam to look in a completely different direction in an effort to change his club’s culture.

What qualities did DePodesta own that attracted the Browns’ owner and what in the world does a chief strategic officer do? And why, for goodness sakes, a baseball man?

“His approach and ambition to find the best pathways for organizational success transcend one specific sport and his experience as a high level sports executive make him a terrific addition to the Cleveland Browns,” Haslam said in a statement released by the club.

It was an obvious nod by Haslam that the Browns need direction, a silent admission the team under his guidance had wandered in way too many different directions to have a chance at success. He is seeking a new way to remove the dys from his club’s dysfunction.

As for DePodesta’s duties, Haslam said his newest hire “will be responsible for assessing and implementing practices and strategies that will provide the organization with the comprehensive resources needed to make optimal decisions,” adding he “will add a critical dimension to our front office.”

The new CSO is clearly being entrusted to shape the Browns in his own image. Structure it the way he envisions. Radical for the NFL, but you can be certain many other clubs will be paying attention.

Haslam knows a turnaround won’t happen overnight. He has come to grips with the notion there is no such thing as a quick fix in the NFL. It might take as long as two or three seasons. He needs to put a clamp on his impatience, which will be hard to do because the club is starting to lose some of its fan base due to the constant losing.

At first blush, this appears to be a good, albeit curious, hire. After all, Haslam has nothing to lose. How much worse can this team get? The situation in Berea certainly can’t get any worse than it is right now. The Browns are coming off their worst season since 2000, a year after the resurrection and expansion football.

Yes, Haslam is rolling the dice. Some have even called this latest move an act of desperation. But if DePodesta can somehow translate his Moneyball magic into gridiron magic, this is one roll of the dice that could pay off handsomely.


  1. Why not? I get the feeling there's been far too many Haslam "knee jerk" decisions starting with the last coaching search and the poor draft decisions we've witnessed. Maybe an injection of rational organization is exactly what's needed.

  2. Well if rationale is what you want, DePodesta is your man. He has helped bring to life baseball organizations that have been declared beyond repair.

    The only question is whether he can do it in a sport that is put together radically different than baseball. That will take time and patience, neither of which Haslam possesses.

    1. Tanks are put together radically different than destroyers but metrics still apply and are used extensively in both. (Just an observation from 26 years subcontracting for the Navy.)

  3. And the point you're trying to make? We're dealing with humans here, not machines.

    1. The metrics measure the productivity of the manufacturers(people). They've got nothing to do with the "machines". I know the concept is outside the ivory tower of sports journalism but you can measure any effort with the correct metrics.