In May of 2013, the Philadelphia 76ers were at a crossroads. In the 10 seasons leading up to that point, the franchise epitomized a team stuck in NBA purgatory – never good enough to contend for a title, but never bad enough to snag a top lottery pick.
From 2003 to 2013, the Sixers won no more than 43 games and no less than 33, losing in the first round of the playoffs four times. It was time for a change.
Enter Sam Hinkie, a relatively unknown, analytics-based front office executive coming from the Daryl Morey tree in Houston. Hinkie, before his forced resignation in April of 2016, spent his three years in Philly unloading any resemblance of veteran talent and acquiring assets for the future. The product on the court was nothing short of dreadful and it was essentially one big middle finger to the Philly fans for the time being, but it got them to where they are now – one of the most promising teams in the NBA.
Aside from the temporary “unwatchability,” you can already see a few similarities in our beloved Cleveland Browns – a front office that emphasizes advanced analytics and is not afraid to get rid of veteran talent.
The Browns rendition of “Trust the Process” began following the 2015 season, a campaign that saw Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel lead the team to a 3-13 season. Like the Sixers in the spring of 2013, the Browns found themselves in a “same old, same old” position. The franchise was in a situation that Cleveland fans had experienced several times since 1999 – no coach, no general manager and no real direction.
How does a franchise that has been stuck in neutral for nearly 20 years shake things up? Well, signing a 40-year-old Harvard Law graduate and a guy who has spent his whole career in baseball front offices is certainly a start.
Hiring Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta to be the faces of the front office was a move that was somewhat unprecedented in the NFL. Advanced analytics made its way into baseball in the early 2000’s with the “Moneyball” Oakland Athletics, a team that DePodesta was greatly involved with. The Houston Rockets later became the face of the analytics movement in the NBA under Morey and his disciple, Hinkie. The NFL represented the final frontier, of sorts, for the analytics movement. What team was better suited to give it a try than the lowly Browns?
The first necessary step in building the Browns into a contender was not acquiring talent, but rather stripping the roster of it. The list of names that left the Browns prior to the 2015 season (either by choice or by force) is nothing short of impressive: Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz, Karlos Dansby, Craig Robertson, Tashuan Gipson, Donte Whitner, Travis Benjamin, Brian Hartline and Paul Kruger. Cleveland hadn’t seen such a mass exodus of veteran talent since the Browns moved to Baltimore. While it resulted in a brutal season of losing, it was simply the early stages of a full-on rebuild.
At risk of being run over by Tony Rizzo, the 1-15 season last year was exactly what the Browns needed. For the first time since 2000, the franchise netted the number one overall pick in the draft, selecting Myles Garrett, a sure-fire stud that can be the cornerstone of the Browns defense. The team also made three selections in the first round, something that had not been done in the franchise’s history.
The Browns are still a long ways away from winning, but for the first time in a long time, there is a clear plan in place.
Let’s just get this out of the way now: this upcoming season will not be pretty. Cody Kessler and Brock Osweiler are battling it out for the starting quarterback position and an underwhelming trio of Isaiah Crowell, Corey Coleman and Kenny Britt fill out the skill positions of this Browns offense. Once again, this is all just a part of the plan.
The Browns boast a collection of 12 picks in next year’s draft, including five in the first two rounds. With such a lack of talent on the roster, the front office has put itself in a great position to snag the franchise quarterback that the city has longed for. Will that be Sam Darnold from USC? Lamar Jackson from Louisville? Or even rookie DeShone Kizer? No one really knows for sure.
Despite this uncertainty, putting yourself at the top of the draft gives you the best chance to acquire talent, no questions asked. With the stockpile of picks that Brown and DePodesta have hoarded, they instantly give themselves great odds to draft good players.
I mean, hey, if your franchise can’t draft well, why not just get as many picks as possible and hope they hit?
There will certainly be improvement this season; it’s hard not to outdo an injury-riddled 1-15 campaign. But with several holes and hoard of young players on the roster, it’s essential for Browns fans to keep in mind that this team is still years away from contending for a playoff spot. The foundation is coming together, but for Cleveland to have a football team that they are truly proud of it will take at least one more solid draft class to do the job.
With both the quality and quantity of picks that the Browns will likely have next May, the 2018 draft could very well be the final piece to the puzzle. However, to get to that point it will require more of the same at the Factory of Sadness.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are NFL contenders. Don’t worry, Cleveland, your time is coming…eventually.
Follow the author: @JayTCannon
Images: Browns.com, ESPN
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