Trust the process.
Sports franchises have been captivated by these three simple words that originated out of the then hapless, yet hopeful, Philadelphia 76ers organization in 2015. The Sixers’ mantra is somewhat of a euphemism for tanking – which can be defined as the stripping down of a franchise’s present assets to acquire future assets through trades and losing – but is beloved among their fanbase and notable franchise players.
Tanking practices have become commonplace for franchises looking to make their way back to relevancy. The most recent notable examples other than the Sixers are the last two World Series Champions – the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros – two teams that more closely resemble investment firms dealing with private equity than professional ball clubs in how their executives Theo Epstein and Jeff Luhnow dismantled their respective rosters during rebuilds en route to championships.
Current tradable assets for teams that are in business for tanking are usually defined as quality present day players in the midst of their careers. A communal idea among baseball teams is that these types of players have little value to losing teams because adding X amount of additional wins to finish in 4th place instead of 5th is irrelevant. It’s the teams on the edge of making the playoffs or near championship contention that need those additional wins to make a difference. This is primarily why the MLB trade deadline is extremely active every July.
Additionally, players of this type can also help tanking teams acquire quality future assets like prospects, or in the NFL’s case draft picks, and keep team payroll costs low, as trading their best players away usually means dumping the highest salaries on the roster.
The NFL team that most aligns with the practices performed by their tanking predecessors are the Cleveland Browns. The Browns have employed the NFL’s cheapest roster the last three seasons, finishing 1st in cap room from 2016-2018 according to Spotrac. Not coincidentally the Browns have the NFL’s worst record, 4-44, during that span as well and were slotted to pick 1st, 1st, and 2nd in the last three NFL Drafts.
Despite how poor the Browns played the previous three seasons the approach to lose games now to win games later has been adopted as the preferred strategy of the mainstream analytics crowd to a degree. Through losing and innovative trade practices – like absorbing Brock Osweiler’s contract packaged with the Houston Texans 2018 2nd round pick in March of 2017 – the Browns were able to make 33 total selections in the last three NFL Drafts with 15 of them coming in the first three rounds.
Ex-Browns executive vice president of football operations and de facto general manager, Sashi Brown, believed tanking was the optimal strategy to getting the Browns back to relevancy. To a degree Brown seemingly has succeeded as the abundance of draft picks has infused talent and youth into a Cleveland roster that has people excited for what’s to come for the Browns franchise. And rightfully so too.
Yet, while I can’t deny the excitement that surrounds the current version of the Browns, I definitely believe there are more efficient ways than tanking to rebuild a franchise deprived of winning.
Yes, there are instances where tanking is condoned and may be the only way out of a losing culture. The New York Jets are a prime example of how a team could go about the process in a timely manner. Jets general manager, Mike Maccagnan, devised a sound plan to compete while also shedding themselves of pricey veteran contracts and are now in a position to improve heading into 2018 and beyond, thanks in part to a high draft selection at the game’s most important position in Sam Darnold.
But for the most part the NFL isn’t a league built for tanking for seasons at a time like the Sashi Brown led Cleveland teams did. An example is the Buffalo Bills, who prior to 2017 looked as if they were tanking by acquiring an abundance of draft picks. However, Buffalo kept around some key veterans (LeSean McCoy, Kyle Williams, Tyrod Taylor and others) and eventually made the playoffs.
Most teams have an opportunity to make a run at the playoffs when the season begins no matter the pre-season projections. There are too many variables due to the lack of large sample sizes in the NFL to make bulletproof pre-season projections as a 16 game regular season and changing rosters from year to year don’t allow us to make many definitive claims. It’s largely why there are marginal differences between a 10-6 team and a 6-10 team season to season. Case in point, over the course of two seasons the Philadelphia Eagles finished 7-9 and then won the Super Bowl the following year. That’s a far quicker and more successful turnaround than their basketball cohorts who reside across the street can say for themselves.
The Eagles are the antithesis of the tanking movement in professional sports. Their turnaround can be attributed to finding inefficiencies across the different markets at their disposal. For instance, Howie Roseman, the executive vice president of football operations, used the trade market to acquire quality veteran-plug and play contributors in exchange for late round draft picks. These moves vastly increased their projected return on investment and helped vault them into instant contenders.
It’s clear now the Browns and Eagles were on the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of analytical strategy. At least during the Sashi era for Cleveland, as their current general manager John Dorsey comes from a scouting background. From a macro perspective it’s fun to study and make generalizations about organizations, but it’s more interesting to go under the hood and zero in on some of the moves made that makeup their strategies. It’s even more fascinating, however, when the two worlds collide as they did in 2016 prior to the NFL Draft…
We’re all aware of the trade between the Browns and Eagles that sent the 2nd overall pick in 2016 and a 2017 4th round selection to the Eagles in exchange for the 8th overall pick, a 3rd round pick and a 4th round pick in 2016 plus a 2017 1st round pick and a 2018 2nd round pick. This trade ultimately led to the Eagles’ selection of North Dakota State QB Carson Wentz and the Browns using their picks to trade back and acquire more draft capital over the course of the next two drafts.
In May, at the Wharton People Analytics Conference, Roseman spoke with Cade Massey about his trade up for Wentz and the thought process/philosophy behind the decision, among many other things. In regards to Roseman’s 2016 NFL Draft trade Massey pointed out that trading up in the NFL Draft is something that’s “against the analytics orthodoxy.”
Here’s a segment of their conversation.
Roseman: …That if you don’t have a great quarterback it is very hard to win consistently in the National Football League and there’s very few of those in the league. And so if you have an opportunity to get one that they’re worth their weight in gold because normally they play 10 to 15 years, they carry your team and give you a chance for competitiveness every year and so when we came back in 2016 and had a lot of changes we saw this opportunity because for some reason we felt like there was the opportunity in that particular draft and the teams that were at the top either had a quarterback or had decide to take the analytic model and trade down for a lot of picks. And we were fortunate because we were picking 13th and we moved up to eight with a couple of players that fit a different team better than they fit us and then had an opportunity to make a second trade and go from 8 to 2 and get this quarterback that we had targeted. And you know we talk about bets, we started with this conversation about bets and for us the reason we made this bet and we made a huge bet on this player – we traded two first round picks, a second round pick, and a third round pick… and a 4th round pick – was because he checked all the boxes. I mean we have a Wonderlic test score. Which the best score is a 45, he got a 42. He was the valedictorian of his high school. He was the captain of his team. So he had leadership, he had intangibles, he came from a great family, he had great ethical moral compass and so we were just saying you know what? Like this is what we stand for this is what we believe in.
Massey: You had never seen him compete against Division 1 competition.
(Note – North Dakota State University is a Division 1 program. Massey likely meant against FBS competition because NDSU is a FCS university.)
Roseman: Yeah, that was a factor we couldn’t really put a value on. And when you talk to the people in Cleveland about the reason they couldn’t get comfortable picking him at 2 was because there’s no analytical model that shows any sort of history for a player like this. So there’s nothing good – there’s nothing bad. There was just nothing that could get them comfortable. There’s no model that shows that other than Phil Simms who played at Moorehead State or wherever he did. So you know for us it was definitely a huge gamble with a lot of people’s careers at the forefront of this gamble but we kind of said we had no other choice because otherwise we were gonna be stuck in this middle of picking you know 13 through 18 where we had a team that was pretty good but not good enough, but not bad enough too because we had some of this young talent that was good enough to kind of keep us even without the quarterback in the 6, 7, 8 win range which is just purgatory in any sport which you know other teams have certainly figured out.
As Massey noted in their talk – what Roseman did in trading up for Wentz was ill-advised according to a majority of analytic models. The prevailing idea here is that trading multiple picks for one doesn’t often bode well for the team trading up. Due to the volatile nature of the NFL Draft it’s wise for teams to acquire more draft capital to have a higher chance of winning the lottery and hitting on a pick. For the most part we know this to be true.
However, as we’ve been learning in recent drafts, the QB position is in a league of its own with a different set of rules when it comes to trading up for them in the draft. Roseman saw an opportunity to get his team out of that 6-8 win range by acquiring a franchise altering QB to improve the situation rather than dismantling the roster altogether for picks.
Being proactive and taking smart bets that sometimes do and sometimes do not pan out is better for the sport than purposely constructing a poor roster. This is the strategy NFL teams ought to reward from their high level executives no matter the outcome. And this approach is analytical.
Annie Duke, author of Thinking In Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All The Facts, did a fascinating piece for Behavioral Scientist about redefining wrong. Duke used her process to become one of the top poker players in the world. Here’s an excerpt from the piece about her running commentary at a charity poker event.
At one such tournament, I told the audience that one player would win 76 percent of the time and the other would win 24 percent of the time. I dealt the remaining cards, the last of which turned the 24 percent hand into the winner. Amid the cheers and groans, someone in the audience called out, “Annie, you were wrong!”
In the same spirit that he said it, I explained that I wasn’t. “I said that would happen 24 percent of the time. That’s not zero. You got to see part of the 24 percent!”
A few hands later, almost the same thing happened. Two players put all of their chips in the pot and they turned their cards faceup. One player was 18 percent to win and the other 82 percent to win the hand. Again, the player with the worse hand when they put in their chips hit a subsequent lucky card to win the pot.
This time that same guy in the crowd called out, “Look, it was the 18 percent!” In that aha moment, he changed his definition of what it meant to be wrong. When we think in advance about the chances of alternative outcomes and make a decision based on those chances, it doesn’t automatically make us wrong when things don’t work out. It just means that one event in a set of possible futures occurred.
Look how quickly you can begin to redefine what it means to be wrong. Once we start thinking like this, it becomes easier to resist the temptation to make snap judgments after results or say things like “I knew it” or “I should have known.” Better decision-making and more self-compassion follow.
Duke’s methodology is transferable to NFL decisions. The Browns didn’t have a historical model to project whether Wentz was going to be a franchise or not. As Roseman said, this made Cleveland uncomfortable and forced them to trade down as they didn’t have an idea what to expect out of the FCS QB. Yet, Roseman and the Eagles, while not possessing a historical model, used the information at hand while acknowledging the risks. Their front office also figured if they didn’t go out and get their QB they’d be out of a job soon anyway.
But outside pressure isn’t what made Roseman ultimately trade up and deliver Wentz’s draft card to the podium. His film combined with his meeting with the Eagles executives and coaches at the NFL Combine impressed all levels of the Eagles organization. They dissected his decision making ability and were dazzled by his responses. The gamble had a quality process backing it.
Dan Hatman, Director of the Scouting Academy, preaches process over results. Outcomes may not always go the way a team projects them to, but if the process is right teams will succeed more often than they fail. This is what Roseman alludes to when he speaks of taking these bets. He uses the information at his disposal to determine if he can make decisions that improve his team. That’s essentially what analytics are at their core. Sure, there’s not really such a thing as a true “can’t miss prospect”, but if the process is sound, minimizing misses can be achieved.
What Brown did in Cleveland acquiring an abundance of draft capital should be applauded. Having more chances to hit on players is strategically smart. Yet, Brown wasn’t opportunistic to improve the overall talent of the team via free agency or the NFL Draft when opportunities arose. He passed up on very good QB prospects like Wentz, Mitchell Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson in back to back drafts. And when he did bring in a young QB through the draft – Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer – he surrounded him with inexperienced sophomore QBs Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan in the QB room rather than a veteran to coach him through early struggles. And when Kizer’s inevitable struggles emerged and persisted, Browns head coach Hue Jackson decided not to stick with his young QB and let him develop.
Brown has become a martyr around some NFL circles for his decisions as Browns executive of football operations. He’s added young talent by selecting Myles Garrett, Emmanuel Ogbah, Joe Schobert, David Njoku and Larry Ogunjobi. But there is no reason to believe he would have capitalized on all his picks given his overall track record, especially in the middle and late rounds. His questionable decisions to pass on high caliber QB prospects and the low returns from players like Corey Coleman also loom large in flaws in Brown’s process. Dorsey seems to have a clearer vision on what type of players he wants at each position and has stated that he’s receptive to the analytics. Having an executive like Dorsey who is a better evaluator of talent in combination with the high amount of picks Cleveland possessed is a better way to maximize the Browns returns in the draft. Part of the process Brown employed, acquiring more picks, is certainly a strong one. But as we learned in Cleveland, what you do (or don’t do) with them matters too.
Tanking is not the most efficient process to becoming a successful organization. It lacks strategic nuance and allows executives to continually punt opportunities to get better away to avoid failure. The idea of acquiring more picks is certainly a sound one in a marketplace without certainty like the NFL Draft, but forgoing potential success and tanking to do so is unwise. Executives like Roseman will take the gamble by collecting information and using the resources around to make the most educated decisions. Which has proved to work out nicely for him.