Analytics Finally Brought the Cleveland Browns Back to the Playoffs

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) throws a pass during the second half against the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio, January 3, 2021. (Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)

Two years ago I wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal titled “Behavioral Economics May Make Champs of the Cleveland Browns.”

The article summarized how the Cleveland Browns had made a substantial investment in analytics, including hiring Paul DePodesta (the former Assistant General Manager for the Oakland A’s made famous in the book Moneyball and played by Jonah Hill in the film adaptation). The team also adopted the strategy of trading 1st round draft picks for lower round draft picks and picks in future years following the advice of behavioral economists Richard Thaler (a Nobel Prize winner) and Cade Massey, highlighted in an academic article they wrote (Bill Belichick was also an early reader and adopter of the paper).

The Browns took the advice to town and traded down scores of draft picks into future years, which some would arguably call “tanking,” to take advantage of how much other teams overvalue early picks due to impatience, resulting in a much better team in the future. Ultimately, it allowed the team to build a roster featuring phenomenal players such as Baker Mayfield, Myles Garrett, Odell Beckham Jr, Nick Chubb, Jarvis Landry and Kareem Hunt.

The one missing piece was having a coach who would believe in their analytic regime and take aggressive risks on the field, such as going for it on fourth down when the team was behind or going for 2 points instead of a single point after touchdowns. Past Browns coaches such as Hue Jackson were adamantly opposed. Finally, Kevin Stefanski, who was made head coach in early 2020, in his first season has taken the team to 11-5, giving the Browns their first playoff berth since 2002.

The only problem now is that due to COVID-19 restrictions the Browns won’t have their head coach in their first playoff games after Kevin Stefanski shockingly tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week, along with 2 other members of the coaching staff. Many have asked the NFL to delay the game or relax restrictions, given how indispensable the coach has been to the team’s on-field success this year, but instead the Browns’ special teams coach Mike Priefer will serve as the acting head coach.

We’ll see how the Browns do in their first playoff game in almost 20 years without their head coach.

Jon Hartley is a master’s student at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Visiting Fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. He formerly served as a senior policy adviser to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee.

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