BEREA: As the Browns dive into the start of free agency this week and prepare for the NFL Draft next month, analytics is playing a much more prominent role in the organization than ever before.
The new regime believes the study of advanced statistics is a tool powerful enough to give it an edge if applied correctly. The hope is that it’ll help guide player acquisition, salary-cap strategy and game management.
“You will have minor victories every single day at an NFL team if you’ve got analytics in house,” Browns President Alec Scheiner said during an interview Thursday at the team’s headquarters.
The Browns, of course, want to parlay it into major victories on the field, too.
Scheiner bears a significant amount of responsibility for the franchise’s cultural shift. He brought analytics to the Dallas Cowboys a few years ago and oversaw the department while serving as one of owner Jerry Jones’ right-hand men.
The practice is not new, but Scheiner believes more NFL teams have become more committed to it in recent years. The sabermetrics revolution launched in Major League Baseball has been well documented by book-turned-movie Moneyball. The NBA also bought in.
“I want to win, and it’s almost impossible right now to ignore how baseball and basketball and soccer teams are using this,” said Scheiner, who held the title of senior vice president and general counsel with the Cowboys. “I read an article about this, and it piqued my interest. And look, I was lucky. The Joneses gave me a lot of support. Let’s be real. If they didn’t support me, it never would’ve happened. I asked them, ‘Do you mind if I pursue this?’ They said, ‘Of course not.’ And I just started pursuing it.”
Scheiner knew Browns CEO Joe Banner would also embrace it. During his reign as president of the Philadelphia Eagles, Banner was instrumental in the organization’s use of analytics.
So about a month after Scheiner joined the Browns in December, he brought Ken Kovash to Northeast Ohio. Kovash, 35, spent the past few years running calculations for Scheiner and the Cowboys. Now Kovash’s title with the Browns is director of football research and player personnel assistant.
Kovash, a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, has a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of California, Berkeley and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Chicago. Before joining the Cowboys in 2010, he worked for software company Mozilla and co-authored a research paper in which two central topics were examined: choice of pitch in MLB and whether to run or pass in the NFL.
“He can do things that none of the rest of us can do,” Scheiner said of Kovash. “He’s an advanced economist who can run regression models and do all kinds of data analysis that we can’t do. So No. 1, he’s got the core skill set that you need to have for a job like that. And then he came highly, highly recommended from some people I really trust. I spent about 2½ years trying to find someone for that role [with the Cowboys] because my feeling was if we don’t get the right person, we’re going to fail. That’s how important it is to me. So we did a very broad search, and all roads came back to Ken.”
The Browns denied the Beacon Journal’s request to interview Kovash. Although the team’s brass is willing to discuss analytics, no one wants to delve too deep into the subject. The details of Kovash’s role in free agency, which officially begins at 4 p.m. Tuesday, and the draft, which runs April 25-27, are kept hush-hush.
The mum approach might seem strange considering Scheiner and Kovash were a part of the Browns’ contingent that attended the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on March 1-2 in Boston. Scheiner has gone to the conference for the past four or five years, serving as a speaker each time.
“Why is it secretive?” Scheiner said with a laugh. “Ultimately you do this to gain a competitive advantage. That’s why you’re doing it. So there are certain things that you’d want to talk about, but if you go to the conference, you’ll see people aren’t sharing a lot. Now [when] people who work for the media go up there, they’ll say anything they want. Now when you get people working for teams, they don’t say much.”
Scheiner suspects most NFL teams now use some form of analytics, but he doesn’t know the exact count partly because it’s not always publicized. For example, the Browns did not announce the hiring of Kovash.
The defending Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens, though, announced they hired Sandy Weil as their director of football analytics in August. The runner-up San Francisco 49ers have used analytics for years, and Paraag Marathe, their chief operating officer, was a featured panelist this year at MIT’s conference. The New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers have also used statistical analysis for more than a decade.
But despite the success of those franchises, Scheiner acknowledged not all NFL coaches and decision makers have faith in analytics.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in sports who doesn’t come across some challenges in this area, but also remember it’s just a tool,” Scheiner said. “People say it, but you’ve really got to look at it that way. It can’t be a substitute for watching tape, for example. It cannot. So really what you’re doing is you’re kind of supplementing your learning or you’re confirming your hypotheses.
“You have to be honest about it as a tool. If you start looking at it like it’s the only answer, then everyone will sense that. … That’s got to be there. You’ve got to accept that this is not a computer program, what we’re doing here.”
Gaining people’s trust
Building relationships is another key to ensuring the Browns capitalize on Kovash’s work.
“Outsiders, I think, look at it like you plop down this analytics group, and, boom, you have all the answers,” Scheiner said. “But it’s like any other business. You have to gain trust from people, find out what they need, find out how they run their business.
“I think it’s very hard for people to accept you recommending what they should do if you don’t know their business. So spend time just getting to know their challenges, what their day to day looks like, as much time as you can, so that when you say, ‘Hey, what about this,’ they’re not close-minded to it.”
Scheiner believes Browns coach Rob Chudzinski is receptive to analytics.
“I have no doubt,” Scheiner said. “Chud is incredibly smart and incredibly open-minded. He’s not the only coach like that, but he fits that criteria. So I think Chud will listen to any good ideas, and I think Chud will have a lot of great ideas on his own.”
And the ideas will continue to evolve. Scheiner said football analytics is still in its infancy and wonders if it’ll ever move beyond that stage. He doubts it will ever catch up with baseball and basketball, but it’s a worthwhile pursuit in his mind.
“We might as well try,” Scheiner said. “Let’s see what we can learn.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.