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Opinion: Analytics approach gives Cleveland Browns hope to rise from bottom of NFL

Cleveland Browns quarterback Austin Davis attempts a pass during a game against the  Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 3, at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. Courtesy of TNS

Cleveland Browns quarterback Austin Davis attempts a pass during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 3, at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. Courtesy of TNS

Since returning to the shores of Lake Erie in 1999, the Cleveland Browns have established themselves as the laughingstock of the NFL.

There have been two separate ownership families, seven head coaches and an uncomfortable number of starting quarterbacks — 24, to be exact.

Cleveland has tried a lot of different things since joining the league as an expansion team, and nearly all of them have not panned out.

If they did, the Browns would have made the playoffs more than just once, they would have had a coach who lasted more than 64 games (Romeo Crennel) and they would have had more than a single season in which one quarterback started every game (Tim Couch in 2001).

After the 2015 season came to an end, the change in regimes once again took place. Coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer were both fired, sticking the Browns back in rebuilding mode.

Since relieving Pettine and Farmer of their duties, owner Jimmy Haslam began his process to replace them. In it, he turned heads across the country with two out-of-the-box hires.

First, Haslam promoted Sashi Brown to executive vice president of football operations from his previous role of executive vice president of general counsel. As part of the promotion, Brown was given final say over the 53-man roster.

Outrage ensued from the Cleveland fan base, mainly because of Brown’s credentials.

A Harvard-educated lawyer without a formal football background granted final say in the roster clearly is unconventional. Obviously, you can’t please everyone, and Haslam likely expected some backlash from the move.

Cleveland fans, like myself, are known for their passion. They want their team to break out of this 16-season slump. They weren’t sure what in the world was on Brown’s résumé that Haslam thought made him worthy of his new role.

Haslam pointed to Brown’s background in analytics as what made him suited for the job. OK, that’s fair. Brown’s appointment means Cleveland is going the route of advanced statistics to make talent accusations, like many teams within the MLB do.

It has worked in baseball, why not in football? Right?

Then, just two days later, the Browns really showed the world they were serious about analytics when they brought New York Mets’ vice president of player development and scouting Paul DePodesta on board as chief strategy officer.

DePodesta, a Harvard graduate like Brown, is known for his knowledge of analytics. He was also featured in Michael Lewis’ book “Moneyball” about the Oakland Athletics.

The fire that Brown’s hiring ignited only grew more intense after the addition of DePodesta was announced.

But here is the thing: Cleveland consistently has gotten hirings and personnel moves wrong. Each time it hit the reset button, the organization tried to be like other teams, bringing in former New England Patriots’ assistants like Crennel and Eric Mangini.

The Browns brought in Mike Holmgren and Joe Banner, who each enjoyed success in previous stops around the league. But just a few seasons later, they were dismissed after failing to engineer results.

Promoting Brown and poaching DePodesta to come to Cleveland and try building a team with a strong commitment to analytics is the opposite of what the franchise has done in the past.

If nearly everything the Browns have previously tried has been wrong, what is the harm in doing the opposite?

Analytics are not foreign to football. Many within the game are hesitant to adopt them, but that doesn’t mean they cannot be successful.

The Browns spent the past 16 seasons being behind teams. Maybe now, just maybe, they’re getting ahead of everyone else.

A new coaching staff needs to be assembled and a fresh general manager needs to be hired, but with the numbers on their side, perhaps the Browns are finally turning things around.

Of course, the experiment with Brown and DePodesta could be a massive failure. Or it could be a major success and winning football might finally exist in Cleveland again.

Cleveland fans’ displeasure with the two new hires only stems from the fact they want their team to be successful.

It is hard to imagine, though, that analytics can assemble a team worse than what the Browns have had lately.

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