The Cleveland Browns entered 2019 with high expectations after closing out 2018 by winning five of their final seven games, but they failed to meet those expectations, finishing with a 6-10 record. That failure cost head coach Freddie Kitchens and general manager John Dorsey their jobs, leading to the fifth head coach and fifth general manager search in Jimmy Haslam’s seven-plus-year tenure as owner. The Browns have some promising talent, but success remains elusive in Cleveland.
To replace Kitchens and Dorsey, the Browns have tapped two young, fairly inexperienced Ivy League graduates: Kevin Stefanski and Andrew Berry. Stefanski was one of the runners-up for the head coach position in 2019; he spent the intervening time in his first full year as offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings. Berry worked for the Browns from 2016 to 2018 and spent 2019 as the Vice President of Operations for the Philadelphia Eagles. This pairing, combined with Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta and Haslam, forms the braintrust of the Browns. For now, at least.
Two Smart Dudes
After a career as a defensive back at Penn, Stefanski served briefly as an operations intern with the Eagles before moving on the Minnesota Vikings in 2006, where he survived two coaching changes while working his way up from assistant to the head coach to assistant QB coach to coaching three different offensive positions to, finally, taking over as offensive coordinator partway through the 2018 season. With less than two full years as a coordinator, his resume is light for a head coaching hire, but his work with various position groups and Minnesota’s success in his one complete season as OC—the team jumped from 19th in scoring to eighth—recommend him.
Berry has one of the most intriguing backgrounds of any front office executive. A former cornerback with a masters in computer science from Harvard, he joined the Indianapolis Colts staff as a scouting assistant in 2009, working his way up to pro scout in 2011 and adding scouting coordinator duties the following year. Sashi Brown’s Browns pried him away and appointed him Vice President of Player Personnel in 2016. He was a casualty of the regime change in Cleveland, but Philadelphia quickly snapped him up, appointing Berry VP of operations. The Eagles kept Brown’s day-to-do responsibilities close to the vest, but “Operations” broadly includes everything under the GM’s purview; Brown’s current title includes not only “General Manager” but also “Executive Vice President of Football Operations.”
One of the problems with general manager hires is the “Peter Principle”; they get promoted because they excel at one facet of the GM job, only to find themselves unprepared and struggling with the other aspects of the job. In most cases, GMs get promoted because they are excellent scouts, only to be overwhelmed by managing people, liaising with the coaching staff, serving as a public face of the organization, overseeing ancillary departments (such as video), and more. Berry’s diverse background means that, even at the age of 32, he’s better-prepared for his post than most.
Wherein I Say Something Nice About Jimmy Haslam
I’ve been very critical of Haslam through the years—and will be again by the time I finish this piece—but few people take the Rooney Rule as seriously and embrace the responsibility to be diverse and inclusive in their hiring process. There have only been eleven African-American general manager hires in the history of the NFL, and Haslam has hired three, including three of the last four. For all his faults, Haslam is not afraid to hire and work closely with people who look different than him.
The Browns lost three senior personnel men recently in Alonzo Highsmith, Eliot Wolf, and Steve Malin. Highsmith and Wolf were longtime front officers with the Green Bay Packers, where Dorsey played from 1984 to 1989 and scouted with from 1991 to 1998. They came along with Dorsey after the Packers GM position went to Brian Gutekunst. Malin had scouted with the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants before Dorsey named him Director of College Scouting in 1998. That’s decades of scouting experience out the door. That doesn’t include Dorsey, who has worked in front offices for nearly 30 years.
Proponents of the Berry hire will note that he has a traditional scouting background, and this is true. However, his scouting background is fairly limited compared to these veterans, and his exposure to college scouting is minimal, having spent his scouting career on the pro personnel side. Berry has the background to be able to liaise with the scouting group and speak their language, but he’s not himself a “super-scout.”
Teams that have non-traditional GMs can certainly succeed. Howie Roseman (Eagles) and Mickey Loomis (New Orleans Saints) have built Super Bowl champions and perennial contenders. But Roseman and Loomis have been abetted by strong personnel voices: Joe Douglas (and now Andy Weidl) in Philadelphia, and Ryan Pace followed by Jeff Ireland in New Orleans.
I don’t see these voices in the Browns front office. The team’s website currently lists the following personnel executives under Berry:
- Chris Cooper: Vice President, Football Administration
- Ken Kovash: Vice President, Player Personnel
- Mike Cetta: Director, Scouting
- Dan Saganey: Director, Pro Scouting
- Glenn Cook: Assistant Director, Scouting
- Jimmy Noel: Assistant Director, Pro Scouting
- Andrew Healy: Senior Strategist, Player Personnel
- Dave Giuliani: Senior Analyst, Coaching and Personnel
Cooper specializes in contracts and salary cap (typical for Football Administration). Kovash has no traditional scouting background; he worked in analytics for the Dallas Cowboys and under Dorsey. Cetta, Healy, and Giuliani also come from a research / analytics background. Saganey, Cook, and Noel do have conventional backgrounds, but all have less than a dozen years experience. Their experience is all on the pro personnel side, as is Berry’s. There is no college scouting experience in this group to speak of, and no director or assistant director of college scouting. There are not even any national scouts listed in the organization. And with Wolf’s and Highsmith’s departures, there are no senior consultants with traditional personnel backgrounds.
The Browns will undoubtedly add to the team, but with the pre-draft process and the draft looming, the almost complete dearth of senior college scouting experience could prove a liability over the next few months. Scouting contracts often expire shortly after the draft, so perhaps the Browns have already identified some candidates and will reach out in May. In the meantime, analytics looks to be the dominant voice in their draft room, for better or worse.
In a recent article for The Athletic, former front office man Michael Lombardi describes working for legendary coaches / personnel men Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick: “I honestly believe to this day that Walsh and Belichick could never make a wrong decision, I could only give them bad information.” Numbers and analytics are a key part of the information Lombardi (and others like him) provide, and the ultimate decisions were a product of both that information and the understanding that Belichick, Walsh and other decision-makers have.
Lombardi continues, “[T]he critical component of all analytics lies with the complete understanding of what impacts winning and losing.” Perhaps Lombardi does not credit enough the ability of analytics to help us advance that understanding. Certainly much of what the numerically-inclined have been telling us for years has come to fruition. The Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs won Super Bowls in part through aggressiveness on fourth down, something analytics folks have been championing for years. The Chiefs also boasted one of the pass-heaviest teams in the NFL; the numbers have long indicated that the pass game is far more efficient than the running attack. Analytics contributes to an “understanding of what impacts winning and losing.”
However, I don’t think even the most numerically-inclined analyst would suggest that analytics gets us to a complete understanding, or even close. Some areas in particular are a mystery to analytics, such as the college draft. The numbers can tell us about the merits of trading back or help eliminate players who fail to meet certain athletic or production thresholds. But teams still have to lean heavily on their scouting departments to decide who to actually select.
The Browns still have scouts, and the work product of the executives who have departed. But when they have to make last-minute decisions and have questions about a player, or need someone to “pound the table” and make a case for a certain prospect, is anyone going to have the gravitas to do it? Berry and his analytics cohorts will need to engage the rank-and-file scouts and make sure they give them a voice in the draft room, something that doesn’t always happen around the league.
Wherein I Say Something Not-So-Nice About Jimmy Haslam
Individually, I like the moves the Browns made this offseason. Collectively, they have holes and are still missing pieces. But the biggest issue is that Haslam has proved to be incapable of seeing a plan through. No GM has lasted more than 25 months on the job since he took over partway through 2012, and only Hue Jackson got more than two years as head coach—and he got just half of a third season before being fired. What we can see on the surface looks chaotic enough, but reports of behind-the-scenes drama make things look even worse.
Stefanski and Berry are saying all the right things. Berry was part of the search team that ultimately chose Kitchens to be the coach in 2019, and was reportedly a big fan of Stefanski, a finalist in that process. The two are both young Ivy League graduates and aligned with the analytics vision of DePodesta and Sashi Brown. Browns management has been stuck in conflict seemingly since Haslam bought the team. Finally they have a leadership team that is on the same page.
Yet I still see disturbing trends. The team hired Stefanski first, yet Berry reportedly will have 53-man control. As aligned as the two may be now, what happens if they have a disagreement in the future (inevitably in such a competitive industry)? Is one going to be able to “out-rank” the other? Will DePodesta, who has only been in the NFL for four years, be left to resolve football disputes? Will Haslam? Will decisions be made by committee?
There are a lot of reasons to believe, despite the holes currently in the organization, that the Browns have the right people on the bus now. But with Haslam still ultimately driving the bus, I’m skeptical about their future. He hasn’t shown he can build an organization with a coherent vision or that he can stick with one direction long enough for it to bear fruit. As much respect as I have for the leadership team in Cleveland, I need to see more from Haslam before I can be optimistic about the team’s future.