Sunday, January 31, 2016

Why Worry?!

The Cleveland Browns have their fan worried, again.  Maybe the right word isn’t “again” but “still.”  And for once it’s not about the head coach or even the quarterback they still don’t have.  It’s about analytics.

Despite about every possible reason why they couldn’t do it, the Browns did go ahead and hire a credible head coach in Hue Jackson.  But the rejiggering of the front office in a way that doesn’t otherwise exist in the NFL is an understandable cause for concern.  Of the three people most responsible for setting next year’s roster, two of them have absolutely no experience at any level, CYO, middle school, high school, college, semi-pro, pro, flag, evaluating talent.  The other is 28 years old.  In a fit of inspiration, an algorithm will be the chief evaluator.  It can’t be worse.

I’m a proponent of analytics.  You should be, too.  It’s transformed baseball in a way that in large measure has dulled the impact of simply having the fattest wallet.  And while analytics will certainly improve decision making, the human element can’t be eliminated entirely, particularly in making player evaluations.

At the professional level, many talent decisions make themselves.  Anybody, including the person who sees one NBA game every decade can draft LeBron James first.  Where the far more difficult decisions came is in filling out roster behind him. The talent difference between players is often razor thin with the stats giving no clear winner.

The other thing, of course, is that analytic-driven decisions often seem to defy logic or at least conventional wisdom, which also makes people worry.  Look at what just happened with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The firing of head coach David Blatt was driven in large part by analytics.  What worried Griffin was the statistic he quoted, that since 2000-01 season there have been 50 teams that have finished with a winning percentage of at least .700 but only 8 of those teams have won championships.  He feared the Cavs were once again on the same path, based on what he was seeing in the team’s advanced stats and what he was observing in the locker room.  As Griffin said, it seemed to be the least engaged winning team he’d ever been around.

That may very well be true and that’s the human element to all this.  As good as the Cavs are and have been, the losses to both San Antonio and particularly to the Golden State Warriors, while just two of the 82 regular season games the team will play, told you two things.  The first was that the Cavs still aren’t completely meshing.  The second, quite related and even more telling was that the Spurs and the Warriors have an “it” factor the Cavs do not.  There is something inherent in all great teams that just doesn’t lie.  Even when the sum of all parts is great, the great teams are still more than the sum of all those parts.  You saw it with the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes and you see it now with the Warriors.  Call it chemistry or black magic.  What matters most in team sports is still the team concept and to Griffin’s eyes and stat sheet at least, the Cavs didn’t have it and weren’t getting it under Blatt.

The Cavs are all-in on analytics.  Now, too, are the Browns.  The difference of course is that the Cavs have the greatest player on the planet.  The Browns don’t have someone in the top 100 of the best players in the planet, maybe the top 200.  They need more than a good algorithm.  To paraphrase Roy Scheider’s Martin Brody, they’re gonna need a bigger computer.

And if analytics in the hands of really smart people with no football experience wasn’t enough to spook Browns fans, then owner Jimmy Haslam’s most recent comments about estranged quarterback Johnny Manziel should make them petrified because it defies all logic and analytics.

Manziel has mostly been AWOL from the Browns since before the last game of the season.  His bizarre trip to Las Vegas as his earnest but overmatched teammates played out the string, his brief visit to the facility afterward and then his party tour in Texas has been well documented.  So, too, has the fact that Manziel hasn’t reached out to his new head coach nor has the new head coach reached out to Manziel.

Yet at this week’s Senior Bowl Haslam talked as though the relationship with Manziel has simply hit a rough patch in the same way a marriage hits a rough patch, as if divorce is possible but reconciliation more likely.   Well, that rough patch just got rougher.  Manziel is again under investigation for domestic violence and irrespective of what the official police report ultimately concludes I suspect the NFL is going to take this one more seriously than the last time he got into a public argument with a girlfriend.

Mostly I attribute the talk to Haslam’s ill-conceived attempt to build value in a player where there is none as a prelude to some sort of trade.  But on the off chance that Haslam is serious that kind of thinking would qualify him as the biggest lunkhead to occupy an owner’s box since Ted Stepien.  Manziel is a person with a smattering of NFL skills who lacks both the maturity and the temperament to ever be anything more than a guy who used to be somebody in college.  And that’s giving him the benefit of the doubt.  More likely he’s an addict deep within the grips of drugs and booze for whom his first stint in rehab had no lasting impact. You don’t continue to have the kind of incidents that surround Manziel without drugs and/or alcohol being at the center
It doesn’t matter, at least to most fans.  The Browns aren’t running a social services agency.  The team has invested significant money and resources in Manziel and all it’s received in return is the attendant league-wide embarrassment that comes with having made such an awful choice in drafting him in the first place.  There is no set of circumstances, not one, where Manziel returning to the Browns for another disastrous season makes a lick of sense to anyone.  Stated differently, if Haslam is serious and ends up hanging on to Manziel it will be at the expense of undoing whatever good will Haslam’s cultivated this offseason.

That’s what has me most worried about the Browns’ new structure.  It’s not that there’s anything theoretically wrong with it.  It’s that the person making the key judgments in putting it together, Haslam, is the same guy who has botched every other decision he’s made up to this point regarding the fans.

Cleveland fans will always worry.  It’s a comfortable space.  They’ve known no real prosperity and when fleeting victories come they are just often preludes to bigger letdowns.  This franchise is finally trying something different for which there is no downside.  Having escaped the vicious cycle of their previous insanity, however, doesn’t put them on the right road.  It just puts them on a different road.  Where it leads is anyone’s guess but at least they’ll have a bunch of algorithms to explain why they got lost this time.

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