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The Browns’ Suckiness Defies Math And Reason

The Cleveland Browns will soon embark on their 20th season since the city got a second chance at an NFL franchise. And in one very specific, very depressing way, the team is right back where it started. When we fire up our NFL Elo ratings for the new season in a couple of weeks — Elo being FiveThirtyEight’s preferred method of tracking a team’s performance over time — the Browns will begin the year with a rating of 1302. (Average is about 1500.) Roll the clock back to Sept. 12, 1999, and Cleveland’s Elo going into the rebooted franchise’s very first game1 was 1300, the same as any expansion franchise. In other words, two decades later, the Browns are essentially starting from scratch — again.

If only the past 20 years of misfortune could be erased that easily. After the team lost its final game of the 2017 season to give the 2008 Detroit Lions some company in the 0-16 club, Cleveland fans held an ironic parade to “celebrate” the team’s anti-accomplishment. But it is perversely impressive to craft a pro football team so dreadful. No other team in the entire history of the NFL has ever suffered through a stretch of 31 losses in 32 tries like the Browns just did. (The next-worst 32-game period belonged again to those Lions, who won two contests total during the 2008 and 2009 seasons; even the infamous expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers were 4-28 in their first 32 outings.) On paper, the chance of a totally replacement-level team winning just once in two seasons against a typical schedule is about 0.1 percent.

Cleveland’s futility, then, borders on impossibility. It’s almost like you have to be trying to be terrible in order to reach the depths the Browns have encountered these past few seasons. And even if you were trying, you probably couldn’t pull it off. So how could such a hopeless situation emerge organically? And as we sit on the cusp of Year 20, is there any hope for the franchise to reverse its own brief, unpleasant history, restoring the tradition of the original version that won four NFL titles right before the Super Bowl era began?

For one thing, this team was not well-positioned to succeed in its second NFL go-round. When the original Browns packed up and left for Baltimore in 1996, they took with them the core of a team that had been built by future coaching GOAT Bill Belichick2 and would be improved upon greatly by standout Ravens general manager (and former Browns tight end) Ozzie Newsome. That team — the old Browns/new Ravens — won the Super Bowl within a half-decade of leaving Cleveland. The team that took its place was an expansion squad built from other teams’ leftovers. Although some new clubs (such as the 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers) have had early success, it usually takes five to 10 years before an expansion team can reach respectability.

And as longtime Cleveland Plain Dealer sports writer Terry Pluto notes in “False Start,” his book about the New Browns,3 those teams had a significant advantage over Cleveland from day one. According to Pluto, the amount of time between owner Al Lerner being granted the new franchise and the team’s inaugural game (369 days) was the shortest for any expansion club since the New Orleans Saints in 1967 — and the third-shortest of any new team since 1960. By comparison, the Houston Texans (who joined the NFL just three seasons after the Browns were reborn) had a full 1,068 days to fill out their front-office and coaching staffs, and the Jaguars and Panthers each had in excess of 640 days.

By Pluto’s estimation, the NFL spent two-and-a-half times as long (911 days) stalling to drive up the bidding on the Browns’ new ownership as the team had to actually build infrastructure and scout players for its new roster once an owner was finally in place. Is it any wonder, then, that the overmatched Browns went 5-27 over their first two seasons of existence?

That, of course, doesn’t excuse the 17 seasons that followed. Even given the disadvantaged start, the Browns simply haven’t progressed like other expansion teams of the modern era.4 As noted above, in terms of Elo, Cleveland is the first modern expansion team to tumble back to square one after its first two decades in the league.

A central paradox rests at the core of the Browns’ struggles. Since returning to existence in 1999, Cleveland has enjoyed the most valuable collection of draft picks in the NFL, according to the Approximate Value5 we’d expect players selected in those slots to generate early in their careers.6 Yet the Browns have also been — by far — the worst drafting team in the league, in terms of the AV its picks have actually produced relative to those expectations.

Cleveland’s curse: Draft highly, pick poorly

Since 1999, NFL teams with the most valuable draft picks (in terms of expected future Approximate Value by slot) and the best record of draftees exceeding the expected value of those picks

Most Valuable Picks Best Drafting Teams
RK Team Expected AV RK Team AV vs. Expected
1 Cleveland 1884 1 Green Bay +296.3
2 L.A. Rams 1860 2 Indianapolis +258.2
3 Cincinnati 1806 3 Seattle +210.9
4 San Francisco 1806 4 Carolina +166.2
5 Tennessee 1747 5 Atlanta +164.4
28 N.Y. Giants 1483 28 Tampa Bay -170.9
29 Indianapolis 1472 29 Oakland -205.2
30 Houston 1434 30 L.A. Rams -241.6
31 Washington 1389 31 Detroit -246.9
32 New Orleans 1360 32 Cleveland -307.6

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

It’s a vicious cycle: If you pick highly and the draftees actually work out, then your future picks become less valuable because (duh!) you’re picking lower in the draft. By continually missing on high picks, though, the Browns keep spinning their tires in a constant loop of promising drafts gone to waste.

Previous research suggests that much of draft success — after controlling for the typical value of a pick, as we did above — is just luck. But after getting negative pick-adjusted value 15 times in 19 drafts — and only one positive draft since 20077 — “bad luck” is no longer a satisfactory answer. Since its reboot, Cleveland has gone through three owners,8 nine general managers and nine head coaches. Somehow, all of them have contributed to the Browns’ poor decision-making in one way or another.

Their unifying crime might be a penchant for all-or-nothing, quick-fix gambles. For instance, the Browns are infamous for their quixotic pursuit of the NFL draft’s biggest prize — the Franchise Quarterback™ — and they’ve burned through 29 different primary passers9 (including seven taken with first-round picks)10 since 1999 trying to find one. (Numbers that don’t even include their No. 1 pick from this past spring, former Oklahoma signal-caller Baker Mayfield.) At the same time, they’ve also gotten easily the worst production from their QBs (in terms of yards above backup QB) of any team in the league:

At QB, the Browns are the bizarro Patriots

Most, and least, total yards above backup quarterback (YABQ) for NFL teams since 1999

Top Passer
RK Team Total YABQ Name YABQ
1 New England Patriots 21,050 Tom Brady 19,743
2 Indianapolis Colts 19,266 Peyton Manning 16,559
3 New Orleans Saints 17,900 Drew Brees 15,628
4 Green Bay Packers 16,894 Aaron Rodgers 10,992
5 Pittsburgh Steelers 12,954 Ben Roethlisberger 10,945
6 Los Angeles Chargers 11,999 Philip Rivers 10,634
7 Denver Broncos 11,795 Peyton Manning 4,659
8 Philadelphia Eagles 10,171 Donovan McNabb 6,713
9 Dallas Cowboys 9,478 Tony Romo 8,138
10 Atlanta Falcons 9,100 Matt Ryan 8,251
23 Carolina Panthers 3,827 Cam Newton 2,831
24 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 3,664 Jameis Winston 1,414
25 Jacksonville Jaguars 3,551 David Garrard 2,117
26 Miami Dolphins 2,569 Jay Fiedler 998
27 Buffalo Bills 2,457 Tyrod Taylor 1,130
28 Baltimore Ravens 2,059 Joe Flacco 2,490
29 New York Jets 1,886 Chad Pennington 2,588
30 Arizona Cardinals 1,676 Kurt Warner 3,069
31 Chicago Bears -949 Jay Cutler 1,504
32 Cleveland Browns -2,805 Derek Anderson 353

YABQ compares a quarterback’s passing and rushing performance (in terms of adjusted net yards) to that of a hypothetical backup-level NFL QB.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Altogether since 1999, the Browns have sunk the league’s highest percentage of pick capital in the most volatile positions in the draft — receivers, quarterbacks and running backs — and the seventh-lowest percentage of capital in the most reliable positions — offensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs. It’s indicative of the team’s get-rich-quick mindset: Cleveland keeps buying scratch-off lottery tickets, trying to end the franchise’s problems overnight, but instead it just keeps coming up empty. Super Bowl winners aren’t built in a day — but if you operate as though they are, there’s a good chance that your team won’t get to the Super Bowl anytime soon.

As all the losses and the failed picks have piled up, Cleveland has also gone through countless leadership changes up and down the organization. Since the Browns were reborn, no team has made more season-to-season switches at general manager or quarterback, and only one (the Raiders) has changed coaches more often.11 Our research shows that these moves come with a heavy price: Even after controlling for a team’s Simple Rating System (SRS) score the previous season,12 teams that change primary quarterback tend to decline by 1.31 points per game of SRS the following season, while that number is 0.91 SRS points for teams changing coaches, 0.36 SRS points for teams changing GMs and 0.26 SRS points for teams with new ownership.

We can roll those relative values up into an overall turmoil tally I’m calling the CHAOS (Cumulative High-Activity Organizational Strife) Score. Between any pair of seasons, you get 2 points for changing owners, 3 for changing GMs, 7 for changing coaches and 10 for changing your primary QB. And since 2000,13 the Browns are the undisputed kings of CHAOS:

Cleveland is leading the league in instability

Since 2000, the NFL teams with the most (and least) total CHAOS* points

Times team changed…
Rk Team Owner GM Coach QB ⚡CHAOS Points⚡
1 Cleveland 2 8 7 16 237
2 Miami 1 6 7 11 179
3 Buffalo 1 6 7 10 169
4 Oakland 1 2 10 9 168
5 San Francisco 2 4 7 9 155
28 New Orleans 1 2 4 3 66
29 Green Bay 1 3 2 3 55
30 N.Y. Giants 1 2 3 2 49
31 New England 0 1 1 3 40
32 Pittsburgh 1 1 1 2 32

* Cumulative High-Activity Organizational Strife points are a weighted sum of a team’s total year-over-year changes at owner (2 points), general manager (3), coach (7) and quarterback (10). Those weights are based on the effect of each type of change on a team’s performance, after controlling for a team’s baseline level of play.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

It’s this kind of constant upheaval that probably helps explain Cleveland’s deficiencies in so many of the proverbial “little things” that add up to improve a team’s talent base. They botch easy trades for credible QBs and cut solid defensive backs just before opening day. They waste the prime of a Hall of Fame left tackle and watch him retire from football at age 33. They draft a first-round receiver (after trading down from potentially taking a franchise QB), only to pawn him off for a seventh-round pick within 28 months. The basic operations of running a football team can’t be taken for granted in Cleveland.

And just like the franchise’s abhorrent draft record, there are plenty of other factors plaguing the Browns that we’d normally chalk up to bad luck, but in Cleveland’s case we probably have to blame on something bigger. The team went 0-6 in one-score games last season, for instance, and had one of the worst turnover margins in NFL history. They had the third-worst red zone Total Quarterback Rating (2.7) of any team since ESPN began tracking the stat in 2006. As statheads, we know these things tend to regress to the mean over time. But for the Browns, who never stick with any strategy — whether concocted by old-school scouting types or newfangled math nerds14 — long enough to give it a chance, it’s fair to wonder whether this endless string of calamities was always more likely to happen in Cleveland, thanks to the scattershot way the team operates in the big picture.

As always, there are new reasons that the Browns might begin to break their cycle of despair in 2018. Between underrated ex-Bills starter Tyrod Taylor and the analytics darling Mayfield — plus incoming receiver Jarvis Landry and more games (maybe) from former All-Pro Josh Gordon — Cleveland’s passing game should be substantially improved this season. (It’s not like it could get much worse.) The rest of the roster is littered with new faces as well, presumably the sort of “real players” new GM John Dorsey lamented the team’s lack of at the end of last season. And among the holdovers, second-year defensive end Myles Garrett has the potential to break out as a star. One would even think at least some of the luck-based failures detailed above will reverse themselves eventually.

But for now, the Browns are a case study in how bad things can get when a franchise starts on the wrong path and keeps trying shortcuts to get back to the right one. The NFL is a league designed for parity, so it seems like any ordinary bad team would have stumbled across a winning formula by now, even if just by chance. But by the same token, some team eventually had to be as bad as the Browns are now. Although Cleveland may not be cursed, it does play host to the perfect storm of hasty expansion plans, terrible drafting, constant on-field miscues, perpetually bad roster risks, no clear long-term vision and a historic level of instability.

Against such forces, did the Browns ever really have a choice but to start from scratch again sooner or later?

Footnotes

  1. A note for all the sticklers out there: Yes, the NFL technically considers the “New Browns” to be a continuation of the franchise that left Cleveland to become the Baltimore Ravens in 1996. We don’t, at least not for the purposes of Elo. Since they directly carried over the Old Browns’ roster, the 1996 Ravens were given the initial Elo implied from Cleveland’s performance in 1995, and the 1999 Browns started out with the Elo of an expansion club.

  2. Whose Browns tenure was admittedly rocky but who also brought to Cleveland elements of the system that would later help turn the New England Patriots into a dynasty.

  3. The book was written in 2004 but feels as applicable today as it did then — which speaks volumes about the Browns’ lack of progress during the intervening years.

  4. Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

  5. Pro-Football-Reference.com’s method of approximating a player’s value in any given season. It’s far from perfect, but it’s one of the only methods available for comparing performance across positions and ascertaining where on the roster teams are getting their production from.

  6. Specifically, their first five NFL seasons.

  7. That was in 2011, when the Browns didn’t have an especially high pick and simply snagged a few useful players down the board, such as pass-rusher Jabaal Sheard and defensive back Buster Skrine. That’s the best draft they’ve had in more than a decade.

  8. The second, Randy Lerner, was the son of original owner Al Lerner.

  9. Defined as a QB who led the team in passing attempts for at least one game.

  10. By either the Browns or another team.

  11. We aren’t including in-season switches in our count if the new quarterback or coach weren’t the primary person in that role the following season.

  12. Since bad teams tend to shake things up far more frequently than good ones.

  13. The 1999 Browns aren’t included here because brand-new expansion teams aren’t eligible for a CHAOS score — it’s taken for granted that they have all-new personnel, so the metric wouldn’t mean much for them.

  14. The latter of whom (including chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta) have since been banished from the draft process. Because the team’s pre-analytics approach was working so well before the number crunchers came along.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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