The Cleveland Browns went way outside the box last week, hiring Paul DePodesta away from the New York Mets to be their new “chief strategy officer.”
The team is 14-34 and about to hire its third head coach in three full seasons under owner Jimmy Haslam, but DePodesta’s hiring shows that Haslam is at least trying to commit to a more mathematical and stats-based approach to try to turn around the Browns’ fortunes. Despite firing the head coach and general manager last week, Haslam retained analytics expert Ken Kovash.
Everyone knows DePodesta’s prominence in “Moneyball” and how he is going to bring analytics to the Browns. But what exactly does that mean in a football context? Unlike baseball, football has several players who don’t produce statistics (offensive linemen), success is more team-based than individual, and the sample size of statistics is much smaller.
How can DePodesta’s background in identifying statistical inefficiencies help the Browns on the field? And how new is this approach, anyway?
“It’s really just an extension of what quality control coaches have been doing for years,” said Joe Banner, a former executive vice president with the Eagles (1995-2012) and CEO of the Browns (2012-14). “‘What’s the probability they’re going to blitz on third and 6?’ Every coach has probabilities for virtually every scenario you could come up with, and that’s sort of analytics.”
The most important aspect to remember is that unlike in baseball, where the scouting and stats-based communities tend to disagree on how to evaluate players, few in football believe that advanced stats are as important as good, old-fashioned scouting — game film, interviews, body type, motivation, medical checks, and more.
Banner says if you let analytics “be the engine that drives the machine, you’re in trouble.” Aaron Schatz, creator of the advanced stats website Football Outsiders, calls analytics “just a tool in the toolbox.” And no matter what the stats say, there will always be outliers.
The stats said that the Seahawks’ decision to throw the ball on the 1-yard line only had a 3.1 percent chance of being intercepted.
DePodesta, though portrayed as a math nerd in “Moneyball,” played football at Harvard in the early 1990s, and his first job out of school was an internship with the Baltimore Stallions of the Canadian Football League.
“The best analytics involves the scouting,” Schatz said. “The goal is to look for inefficiencies to find ways to improve your team, and get a better handle on how good players are and what strategy you should use without the bias of memory.”
Bill Belichick made a good point about overreliance on advanced stats last week.
“If you can’t see an 80 percent tendency, then, like, what are you looking at?” he said. “Now, is it 51-49? What are you going to do with that? Do you want to bet on 51, do you want to bet on 49? At that point, what’s the difference? You’ve got to play it straight.”
But any opportunity to eliminate some of the chance involved in player personnel and on-field decisions is welcome in the NFL.
And this is not a new concept. Gil Brandt was making computer databases of NFL Draft prospects for the 1970s Dallas Cowboys, Dick Vermeil and Andy Reid were long proponents of advanced statistical analysis, Chip Kelly took it to another level with the Eagles with his focus on wellness and nutrition, and of course Belichick has Wall Street veteran Ernie Adams in his ear during games.
Belichick is believed to be one of the first coaches to talk with a stats consultant during games. Broncos coach Gary Kubiak had analytics director Mitch Tanney on the sideline with him this season, and don’t be surprised if the Browns have a similar setup next year.
Every NFL team does basic to mid-level statistical analysis, and most are highly protective of their information. Despite Belichick claiming last week that analytics are “not really a big thing with me,” his team is deeply invested in advanced statistics for player personnel, draft strategy, on-field strategy, salary cap management, free agent valuation, and off-field business strategy.
“Any notion that Bill Belichick isn’t using or doesn’t believe in analytics is the silliest thing I’ve heard in my life,” Banner said. “He has been an NFL leader, although most of us kept our analytics departments secret for a long time. Who really knows? But he is a big, big practitioner of analytics.”
Advanced stats are essential for game strategy. It is well known at this point that advanced stats say that teams should punt less and go for it on fourth down more often, that the corner fade is a terribly low-percentage play to run inside the red zone, and that “establishing the run” doesn’t correlate to success.
Teams also produce their own studies to determine, for example, which combination of four defensive linemen is most effective on third and long, or the most efficient combination of offensive skill players inside the red zone.
DePodesta’s challenge will be getting the next Browns coach to actually implement the strategies on the field. Not many coaches outside of Belichick have the credibility or job security to go for it consistently on fourth down, or kick off to start overtime.
Getting the entire organization to buy in to analytics is not always easy in football. When Banner was Browns CEO, he commissioned a $100,000 report to determine which quarterback prospect in the 2014 draft had the likeliest chance to succeed in the NFL based on historical success.
After several months and dozens of data points, the report concluded that Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, and Blake Bortles (in that order) had the highest probability of success, and that Johnny Manziel would fail. Three months before the draft Haslam fired Banner and drafted Manziel, anyway.
“I would probably put Teddy second on that list of how they’d done so far, and I’d put Carr first. That’s why I say [analytics is] just an element. But the reality is it predicted Manziel would fail,” Banner said. “Everything every coach is doing, every personnel guy, is just an attempt to increase your chances to get it right. If you smartly and proportionally use analytics, it can absolutely be a positive vehicle in that mission.”
Teams looking for the best fits
What we have learned about the coaching and front office carousel nearly a week after Black Monday (or Black Wednesday in Tampa Bay):
■ Good start for Massachusetts, which has seen three natives earn promotions. In Cleveland, Sashi Brown of Framingham High and Harvard Law was promoted to executive vice president of football operations. Brown will be hiring a GM/head scout type to lead player personnel, but he’s another top Browns executive with an academic/analytic background.
On Friday, Norwood High’s Bob Quinn was hired as the Lions’ GM after 15 years in the Patriots’ front office, where he rose from player personnel assistant in 2000 to director of pro scouting from 2012-15.
And in Miami, the new GM is Chris Grier, a scout and personnel executive with the Dolphins for more than a decade and, of course, a Holliston native and the son of former longtime Patriots personnel man Bobby Grier. Grier’s boss is a fellow UMass grad — Needham High’s Mike Tannenbaum.
■ Speaking of the Dolphins, you have to wonder if owner Stephen Ross has learned much from his experience with his previous coach, Joe Philbin. The Dolphins had cast a wide net in their coaching search, interviewing old (Mike Shanahan, Mike Smith) and young (Teryl Austin, Dan Campbell, Adam Gase) candidates, but on Saturday they zeroed in on Gase, the 37-year-old offensive coordinator of the Bears, hiring him as their new coach following a second interview.
Gase certainly has a great résumé and did a nice job with Jay Cutler, Peyton Manning, and Tim Tebow in his past, but it would be interesting to see Ross hire the “hot” first-time, offensive-coordinator candidate just four years after doing so (and failing) with Philbin. The Dolphins’ three head coaches since Nick Saban left all were first-time, offensive-background coaches: Cam Cameron (2007), Tony Sparano (2008-11), Philbin (2012-15).
■ Josh McDaniels declined to conduct any head coaching interviews last week, meaning he won’t be able to speak with teams until the Patriots are eliminated, or the bye week before the Super Bowl. McDaniels needs to be very choosy about which job he takes to make sure his second chance as a head coach goes smoothly, but several of the current vacancies would qualify, assuming he wants to leave his cushy gig with the Patriots.
The best fit would be the Giants, with a stable ownership and Eli Manning, but competition will be fierce as the Giants will have their pick of coaches. The Buccaneers job would also be a terrific fit, with Jameis Winston in tow and former Patriots front office executive Jason Licht now Tampa Bay’s GM, although the buzz has been that the Bucs will promote offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to head coach.
The Lions have a good enough quarterback in Matthew Stafford, and that job got a lot more intriguing Friday night when Quinn took the GM position. Tennessee and San Francisco have intriguing quarterback prospects but questionable ownership situations that should give McDaniels pause.
The Eagles are also a premier NFL franchise and one of the best to coach for, but McDaniels probably wants a better quarterback than Sam Bradford.
The idea of coaching his hometown Browns probably sounds fun to McDaniels, but their quarterback situation and quick-triggered owner should scare off most candidates.
Snap judgments on the Patriots
A few tidbits on the Patriots’ snap count totals from the regular season:
■ Tom Brady led the offense with 1,106 of a possible 1,119 snaps (98.8 percent), and only one other player was above 80 percent — Rob Gronkowski (84.1). Last season, the Patriots had three players above 90 percent and two more above 80, and in 2013 they had five players above 90 percent, underscoring how beat up they were this season. Offensive linemen Josh Kline (77.4 percent) and Sebastian Vollmer (73 percent) were the only other players over 70 percent.
■ Brandon LaFell, who missed the first five games of the season on the physically unable to perform list, led the wide receivers with 659 snaps (58.9 percent), followed by Danny Amendola (576, 51.5 percent) and Julian Edelman (525, 46.9 percent). LeGarrette Blount led running backs with 309 snaps (27.6 percent), followed by Dion Lewis, who only played in seven games (298, 26.6 percent). Tight end Michael Williams (450, 40.2 percent) played more than Scott Chandler (382, 34.1 percent).
■ The Patriots had 35 players take at least one offensive snap. They had 30 last season and 27 in 2013. They had 32 players take a snap on defense, compared with 31 last season and 31 in 2013.
■ Malcolm Butler was the defensive ironman, playing in 1,082 of 1,095 snaps (98.8 percent), and the only defender above 90 percent. He was followed by Logan Ryan (978, 89.3 percent), who missed one snap over the final 12 games.
■ In 2013, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich played more than 95 percent of snaps. But this season Ninkovich was down to 81.4 percent (891 snaps), Jones was 71.1 percent (863), and newcomer Jabaal Sheard played 51 percent (558), theoretically keeping all three fresher for late in the season.
■ Rookie first-round pick Malcom Brown played the most of the defensive tackles (509, 46.5 percent), followed by Alan Branch (434, 39.6).
■ Even though Devin McCourty (928, 84.7 percent) and Patrick Chung (887, 81 percent) rarely came off the field when healthy, No. 3 safety Duron Harmon still played 55.1 percent of snaps (558).
Yes, the Seahawks are a No. 6 seed, but I don’t understand why the NFL had to put them at a further disadvantage by scheduling them to play the early game Sunday at Minnesota (1 p.m. Eastern/10 a.m. Pacific), and if they win, another early game next Sunday at Carolina (also at 1 p.m./10 a.m.). Studies have generally shown that athletes aren’t close to peak performance when their body clock thinks it’s 10 a.m., and from 2004-13 West Coast teams were 43-83 when playing on the East Coast, while East Coast teams were 61-71 when playing out west . . . Not feeling too much pity for Lovie Smith after the Buccaneers surprisingly fired him (at least to us on the outside) on Wednesday. Smith was a strong one-and-done candidate last offseason after the Bucs went 2-14, he blew a huge lead in the “You like that!” loss to the Redskins, then turned a promising 6-6 start into a disappointing 6-10 finish. Smith also walks away with a $10 million buyout . . . One of the more surprising stats of the season: Richie Incognito played 100 percent of the Bills’ offensive snaps, per the Buffalo News. Not bad for a guy who sat out the 2014 season . . . Best news of last week: Ravens receiver Steve Smith announcing he will put off retirement for another year and return for a 15th NFL season after ending this season with a ruptured Achilles’. Time to ice up, son . . . For all the talk about continuity last week in Indianapolis, the Colts next season will have a new offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, running backs coach, tight ends coach, secondary coach, and strength and conditioning coach . . . Johnny Manziel last week was dropped by LRMR, the marketing agency owned by LeBron James . . . Yet another way to quantify Brady’s greatness: This season, Kirk Cousins became the first quarterback in the Redskins’ 84-year history to throw for 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns in a season. Brady has done it eight times, including five in a row.
The Atlanta Falcons joined select company in 2015, becoming just the seventh team since the merger to start a season 5-0 or better and miss the playoffs. Here’s a look at how those teams fell from their perches: