I tend to have a contrarian streak, as the other Pyloneers in our Slack chat can tell you. But I’m not the only one who sometimes sees things a little differently. ITP contributor and Scouting Academy director Dan Hatman recently commented on Twitter about the Cleveland Browns recently firing de facto general manager Sashi Brown and hiring ex-Chiefs GM John Dorsey. While many seem to see – and not unfairly – the move as another black-and-white example of Cleveland incompetence, Dan sees things more in shades of grey. I was inspired by his example to explore what the public is getting wrong about the move – and what they’re getting right.
This Was the Original Plan (Kind Of)
The easy conclusion is that John Dorsey is replacing Sashi Brown, but in fact Dorsey has a different title than Brown did. Dorsey is general manager, while Brown was Executive Vice President of Football Operations. In practice, it’s a distinction without a difference; Brown had final personnel decision-making authority and all the traditional powers of a GM.
The Browns originally intended to do things a little differently, however, by planning to hire a general manager under Brown. After firing previous head coach Mike Pettine and GM Ray Farmer, Haslam began a head coaching search with the plan to pursue a GM after. “Haslam said the first order of business is to find a head coach, who will then participate in the hiring of the general manager,” Cleveland.com writer Mary Kay Cabot reported in January 2016. With the head coach in place, the GM wouldn’t be able to pick his own guy, and Brown would retain control of the 53-man roster, but the individual would have most of the typical GM duties and powers. “The GM will be in charge of putting together the draft board, in charge of all the scouts,” Haslam said, while Brown would “manage the cap and ensure we have the proper systems and processes in place.”
The Browns interviewed several candidates with typical general manager qualifications: former Broncos GM Brian Xanders, former Dolphins GM Dennis Hickey, former Lions GM Martin Mayhew, and Rick Mueller, a former Canadian Football League GM with over a decade of experience as a personnel director or vice president in the NFL. But whether none of these candidates fit what the Browns were looking for or none was willing to accept a role with limited powers under Brown, Cleveland wound up going in a different direction. Not long into the search, Brown announced the team would hire not a general manager, but a vice president of player personnel. The lesser title and lack of control over the roster meant teams could refuse to allow Cleveland to interview many of the top GM candidates.
One would expect the Browns to pick a grizzled personnel man to complement Brown, who comes from a legal background, and Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta, who comes from baseball. However, Cleveland chose 28-year old Andrew Berry, a Harvard graduate like Brown and DePodesta. Berry had a traditional scouting background, spending seven years in the Indianapolis Colts organization, but certainly not the extensive experience or resume of Xanders, Hickey, Mayhew, or Mueller. Berry carried a reputation as a rising star and a master’s degree in computer science, suggesting he could integrate well with analytics-heavy Brown and DePodesta. But he looked like a pretty different hire than the GM Haslam envisioned only a few weeks earlier.
If Berry’s hire was curious, the next move was even more so. The Browns hired a second vice president of player personnel, promoting Ken Kovash to the position. While Berry was somewhat inexperienced, he did possess scouting training. Kovash, on the other hand, came from an analytics background, having worked as Director of Research for the Browns and a Senior Analytics Manager for the Dallas Cowboys. His hire was unconventional, to say the least.
How did the Browns get here? How did they go from planning to hire a GM with more-or-less typical duties to hiring two VPs of Player Personnel, one very young and one with a highly non-traditional background? Whose decision was this, and were the other parties to that decision on board? It’s almost impossible to know. Dorsey’s hire is, in one sense, fulfilling the original plan to hire a GM. In another sense, it represents a departure from the analytics-heavy staffing that has defined the front office through nearly two years.
This Does Not Mean the Death of Analytics
Dorsey’s hire does not necessarily mean the end of the analytics “experiment” in Cleveland, however. Brown is gone, but DePodesta, Berry, Kovash, and a litany of other analytics-minded folks remain. That might not be true a year from now, two years from now, or even sooner, but it’s premature to assume that Dorsey will clean house.
Moreover, DePodesta will report directly to Haslam; Dorsey does not even have the authority to fire him. That makes DePodesta, along with Dorsey and head coach Hue Jackson, one of the three leaders in the Browns organization. It remains to be seen how much influence he can wield over the coaching and personnel arms of the team, but at the very least DePodesta’s lofty position shows Haslam at least intends analytics to still be a big part of the decision-making puzzle.
Because Dorsey is elevated in the wake of Brown, much of the football community on Twitter has painted him with an anti-stats brush, which may not be entirely fair. Hatman summed up this attitude on his timeline:
Reading my TL today, I’m coming to the conclusion that John Dorsey could allow an algorithm to make every one of his decisions and those who believed in Sashi Brown would still bash him. https://t.co/Vl2MAJiZzE
— Dan Hatman (@Dan_Hatman) December 15, 2017
Contrary to expectations, Dorsey seems to want to incorporate analytics into personnel decisions. “We blend in the analytics part of it,” he said in January of 2017, describing his process as GM of the Kansas City Chiefs, further describing the formula as 85% traditional scouting and 15% analytics. Since his hire, Dorsey described himself as “a forward thinker in today’s technology,” adding that teams who do not include analytics are “living in the stone ages.”
Words are great, but what about actions? What does Dorsey’s record tell us? This is where things get murkier. For one thing, it’s hard to separate the actions and opinions of one man in collaborative environment like an NFL front office, particularly when it’s unclear whether Dorsey had ultimate authority in Kansas City. More significantly, it’s hard to characterize what an analytics-based approach to personnel decisions even looks like. Take Chiefs rookie star Kareem Hunt, a third-rounder this year out of Toledo. Hunt was the MAC’s leading rusher twice but ran a 4.62 40 at the Combine. On the other hand, he finished top-five in both jumping drills. Was he a tape pick, a stats pick, a measurables pick, or some combination? It’s difficult to pinpoint which decisions are based on old-school scouting and which are based on new-school metrics, and almost any decision can be seen through either lens.
We should take unsubstantiated media reports with a grain of salt, but rumors abound that Jackson and Brown struggled to get along. CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora reported that Jackson was irate after the team cut cornerback Joe Haden in the preseason. ESPN Cleveland’s Tony Grossi speculated that Brown might have intentionally botched a midseason trade for quarterback A.J. McCarron, a player Jackson coached with the Cincinnati Bengals. Whatever the cause, Mary Kay Cabot reported that Brown and Jackson have not been speaking for a month.
It’s not fair to either Jackson or Brown to abandon their partnership after less than two years, but if the two really weren’t speaking, the experiment could not long endure. Haslam had to pick one or the other. The most successful teams – the New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, and Pittsburgh Steelers – have different organizational structures, but each has tight integration between the coaching staff and the front office. It’s a necessary ingredient for success in the NFL – personnel needs to acquire players the coaching staff wants, and the coaches need to properly use the players the front office acquires.
We don’t know for sure what the relationship was between Jackson and Brown. Jackson half-heartedly denied the rumors of strife. “I’m not going to say that was the case. There are things that we all wish we could do better, and I’m sure that all of the things that were said, it was never like that here in the building. At the same time, obviously when you lose like we have, that is not good either.” We don’t know for sure that a personality clash precipitated Brown’s firing, but it’s not difficult to make the case.
Reasons to Be Pessimistic
Personality clashes may have been part of the reason Cleveland dismissed Brown, but they also may have been part of the reason the Chiefs dismissed Dorsey back in June. After his departure, KC Star’s Terez Paylor quoted anonymous sources criticizing Dorsey for “his management style” which “could wear on people.” “John does stuff and doesn’t tell people why,” another source added. Dorsey brings a respected veteran personnel eye to Cleveland, but he may not be the solution to communication or personality issues.
More troubling is the reporting structure, with all three of Dorsey, Jackson, and DePodesta reporting directly to Haslam. When they disagree, how will Haslam solve disputes? There are successful teams where the GM reports to the head coach, and teams where the head coach is the top of the organization. But teams need a final football authority, or they leave themselves in a position where the buck stops with someone without football expertise. Will decisions be made on the basis of the best football argument, or who is cozying up to Haslam behind the scenes? When the team hits a losing skid, will the three heads work together to solve problems, or descend into finger-pointing?
Agree or disagree with Sashi Brown’s decisions, but he was filling that role as the ultimate football authority. In a real way, Haslam has replaced Brown not with John Dorsey, but with himself. So far, Haslam’s ownership tenure has been characterized by front-office churn, leaks, and in-fighting married to on-field ineptitude. Hope springs eternal in Cleveland, but Browns fans should temper expectations until Haslam shows he truly has turned over a new leaf. I wouldn’t hold my breath.