The Cleveland Browns raised eyebrows this off-season by hiring Paul DePodesta, known by the movie-going masses as “the Jonah Hill character” from the film “Moneyball.” DePodesta was, of course, not exactly like the character Hill played, in that he was far less interesting, but then, you bought Chris Pratt as an ersatz first baseman and Shia LeBeouf as an ersatz movie actor, so it’s not like the movie-going public is collectively a stickler for accuracy.
In any event, a lot of casual fans and non-readers of actual books misinterpret the point of “Moneyball,” distilling it into “Billy Beane was a genius for figuring out that getting on base is important in baseball, and looks very sharp next to his wife, Tomb Raider.” Virtually none of these things is true, although getting on base actually is important in baseball, as evidenced by the name of the sport.
The actual point of “Moneyball” is that if you are trying to compete with others and have a distinct disadvantage (like having a “ball” but no actual “money”), the best strategy is to identify undervalued resources and concentrate on acquiring them at the expense of not acquiring them. In baseball in the 1990s, one manifestation of this was that players who were “unathletic” but had above-average plate discipline could be acquired for lower salaries and with less competition, which helps explain the careers of Matt Stairs, John Jaha, and Shia LaBeouf.
At this point, it becomes necessary to take a quick overview of the Cleveland Browns since 1999, when the franchise started back up after a brief bout of moving to Baltimore to become an entirely different franchise: first, they signed an unqualified front office, who hired an unqualified coach, who drafted an unqualified quarterback, replaced him with another unqualified quarterback, replaced him with another unqualified quarterback, went back to the first unqualified quarterback, replaced the coach with a different unqualified coach, who brought in an unqualified quarterback, who lost a playoff game, and then three more front offices hired six more coaches who cycled through sixty-seven more unqualified quarterbacks, culminating in Johnny Football-Manziel getting arrested for a variety of things that he was actually overly-qualified for. This timetable may not be 100% accurate, but the point is that in 17 years, the Cleveland Browns are 0–1 in playoff games. While it is hard to believe that the powerhouse connection of Derek Anderson to Dennis Northcutt was not “Champeenship Calibre,” the salient point here is that the Browns have made the playoff once in 17 seasons. The Cleveland Browns won 10 games in 2007. In the other 16 seasons, they have averaged 4.8 wins per season. Jacksonville fans ridicule the Cleveland Browns. Raiders fans mock the franchise’s instability. Shia LaBeouf called their performance, “Wooden, yet overwrought.”
The Cleveland Browns are a bad football team.
To this end, it behooves us to consider what the undervalued resources are in the NFL, if only as an exercise to predict where DePodesta and his team of “The Fairly Good and Somewhat Bright” are likely to pursue. For example, it might be that short quarterbacks are undervalued, because everyone is looking for the next Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger or LeBron James. It should be pointed out that the last fifteen or so short quarterbacks to wear Browns jerseys, including Football-Manziel, were not successful. It might be that loading up on the defensive line in order to pressure opposing quarterbacks is undervalued, although the fact that the Giants signed a one-handed player to an umpty-million dollar extension seems to work against this premise.
After the first week of free agency, though, I could wait no longer, and pretended to interview Paul DePodesta by making up what I wanted him to say. As you might expect, he was very forthcoming in my imagination.
“We took a careful look at the entire business, from the stadium itself to media outlets, uniform redesigns, our Twitter presence, and it turns out that without exception, one facet of the team kept returning as the number one inefficient use of cash,” DePodesta did not say.
“What is that?” I questioned rhetorically.
“Players,” DePodesta did not point out, not pointing a finger with no significance whatsoever. “It turns out that our number one cost in running the Cleveland Browns is the exorbitant amount of cash we use to pay the players. Therefore, in order to streamline the process and make the team more profitable, we will work tirelessly and diligently to eliminate all players from the roster.”
Sure enough, on the very first day of NFL free agency, the Browns signed negative four free agents, including two of the three good offensive linemen, the wide receiver people have actually heard of that wasn’t suspended for an entire season, and the defensive back that actually intercepts passes. They followed this up by signing another negative one free agent on the second day, and capped it off by releasing the quarterback who was neither egregiously old and injured nor an ex-Ram, which is largely synonymous with “I didn’t know that guy was still in the NFL.”
DePodesta went on to not say that the Browns will be looking to trade as many of their draft picks as possible, because draft picks eventually turn into players, a direct counter to what the team is trying to accomplish. When asked if any players will be safe from the new personnel strategy, DePodesta cheerfully did not point out that Andy Lee will remain on the team as a top priority.
“We’re going to punt. A lot,” DePodesta did not beam.
Shia LaBeouf was unavailable for comment, because I did not want to talk to him.