NFL Moneyball

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Paul Depodesta

The news that the Browns hired Paul DePodesta on January 6th as Chief Strategy Officer raised more than a few eyebrows, not only in Cleveland but, around the entire league – indeed, the entire sporting world as DePodesta’s pedigree came from Major League Baseball.

Adding some context to this puzzling announcement was that just three days prior, on January 3rd, Head Coach Mike Pettine was released along with General Manager Ray Farmer. In Farmer’s place would be Sashi Brown who previously held the position of General Council for the Browns except Sashi Brown wasn’t promoted to General Manager but rather to Executive Vice President of Football Operations with final say on the Brown’s 53 man roster. Need more? DePodesta will report directly to Owner Jimmy Haslam and Brown will report to DePodesta.

So now the Browns had a baseball guy and a lawyer manning two of the three top spots in the organization and no Head Coach or General Manager in sight. It’s no wonder that the “SMH” and “WTF” keys on desktops, tablets and smart phones all across the 440 and 216 area codes were being worn thin.

Typically, NFL teams hire a General Manager first and then task their new General Manager with hiring a Head Coach. Historically, this approach has not been part of Jimmy Haslam’s Standard Operating Procedure. Two of the three Head Coaches hired by Haslam were hired before a General Manager was in place. And in the case of the third, even though Mike Lombardi was technically in place, Mike Pettine was hired three weeks before Lombardi was released and Ray Farmer promoted.

DePodesta and Brown’s first order of business was to hire the replacements for Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine. However, not so true to form, Jimmy Haslam huddled up with his wife, Co-Owner Dee Haslam, Paul DePodesta, Sashi Brown (and Jed Hughes of the international consulting firm Korn Ferry) to begin the search for the new Head Coach of the Cleveland Browns.

I found it particularly interesting that, when watching news conferences by NFL owners that had just fired their Head Coach, the phrase “Collaborative Effort” was used in virtually every one of them. Apparently, Jimmy Haslam took this collaborative effort seriously as a consensus among this search team was reached early and Haslam responded quickly and decisively by hiring Cincinnati Offensive Coordinator Hue Jackson on January 13th as the new Head Coach of the Cleveland Browns. Based on the initial reactions from current and former players, peer coaches, analysts and league pundits, this hiring can only be construed as a win for the Browns.

Now it’s on to the search for Ray Farmer’s replacement. Jimmy Haslam has already stated that Sashi Brown, as Executive Vice President of Football Operations, will be responsible for putting together the 53 man roster and that whoever replaces Farmer may or may not hold the title of General Manager. But rest assured that, whoever is hired will have a demonstrated skill set in collaborative management in addition to a strong resume in talent evaluation. Which now brings me to the title of this article . . . NFL Moneyball.

Moneyball, or analytics as it is commonly referred to today, is really nothing new to the NFL. Most NFL teams, including the Cleveland Browns, already use analytics in their day to day football operations. Every team already has a dossier on every player in the NFL (including their own) and on potential NFL players either in college football, the CFL or elsewhere and are at the very core of player acquisition.

Most fans are aware of the type of information contained in these dossiers as much of it is nothing more than the standard player statistics – height, weight, 40 times, vertical leap, and all of the on field stats that apply to a given player. All this objective data and is then coupled with a subjective assessment made by an individual. The subjective side of the dossier is where the consistently successful teams do a better job. As of late, the Browns have not done such a good job on the subjective side and this is where the collaborative management structure put in place by Jimmy Haslam comes into play.

As I understand it, Haslam’s management structure will have this core group collaborate on the subjective assessments of all existing players. Based on this assessment, the core group (with emphasis from the Head Coach) can then more accurately determine the type of schemes that best fit the individual talents of the players on hand and, more importantly, what players are still needed to successfully execute that scheme. I can also assume that this subjective assessment will include non-quantifiable items such as leadership, teamwork and general interactions within the organization.

Once these collaborative assessments are done, then they can go back to the dossiers and target potential free agent acquisitions and begin to build a draft board. But, in my opinion, The Browns approach to analytics doesn’t stop there.

According to tech web site CIO.com, beginning with the 2015 season, the NFL had movement-tracking sensors embedded on each football player’s shoulder pad that can wirelessly emit unique radio frequencies. Initially done to provide the fan with the ability to track a player’s speed and distance, it has evolved considerably. Ever wonder how ESPN, FOX, CBS or the NFL Network can show graphics of the path a player took? Look no further than Zebra Technologies, the NFL’s partner in this real time data acquisition evolution. For now, the real time data is not available to coaches on the sideline or in the booth. But, the entire data set for a game is available to coaches after the game.

And this is where Moneyball expert Paul DePodesta comes in. Moneyball practices in baseball showed that teams could quantify opposing team’s tendencies in various situations. Imagine, if you would, what the post-game coaches’ review would look like if you could say, for a given play, where on the field a player should have been and where he actually was? This type of feedback would be priceless when applied to subsequent practice sessions. This could also apply to opponents’ players. For given situations during a game, what are his tendencies over time when certain plays are run against them?

Using game film to track every play for all 22 players on the field is currently done by the coaching staff but it is very cumbersome and time consuming. To have that data available to you as soon as the game is over would be a gold mine. But it would take someone with a demonstrated skill set to mine this data and put it into a visual format that everyone in the organization could use. Paul DePodesta has exactly that skill set and the organizational horsepower to streamline the process.

Welcome to Cleveland, R2D2.

 

For more information on real time data acquisition, click here -> http://www.cio.com/article/2980853/wearable-technology/the-internet-of-things-comes-to-the-nfl.html

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I am a transplanted Connecticut Yankee. My family moved to Northern Ohio in the very early 1950's and plopped me right smack dab in the middle of the Otto Graham, Dante Lavelli, Marion Motley era Cleveland Browns and I have been a fan ever since. I'm also an avid history buff so the combination of the NFL and history seems to be a perfect match for me. I hope that I will be successful in sharing some of my research on the history of the NFL and hope you learn something new while reading my articles.
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