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The rebuild: Cleveland Browns make radical changes

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When Baltimore Ravens president Dick Cass heard the Cleveland Browns promoted Sashi Brown to vice president of football operations, his immediate reaction was not competitive curiosity regarding the division rival's massive -- and unorthodox -- maneuver, one of several Cleveland would make over the coming days.

It was pride.

Cass was the head of a massive Washington D.C. law firm, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr when Brown first joined as an associate out of Harvard Law School in 2002. The firm, where Cass handled Jerry Jones' purchase of the Dallas Cowboys, offered brilliant minds the opportunity to gravitate toward the intersection of law and professional sports. Brown showed promise in the field right away, and Cass did not hesitate to recommend him for a job with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2005.

"He's always had good judgement," Cass told Around The NFL on Tuesday. "He's easy to get along with and he's a consensus builder. Good temperament. Doesn't fly off the handle. He's well-suited for the Browns' job, I think -- all of those qualities will serve him well."

Most importantly, as Brown prepares to run a Cleveland team that also hired former Mets executive Paul DePodesta to be their chief strategy officer, Cass sees a quality in Brown that will serve him extraordinarily well.

"Sashi is smart," Cass said. "So he knows what he doesn't know."

In that spirit, Around The NFL spoke to several executives either directly informed of the Browns' revamped power structure, or rival executives with intimate knowledge of the team's plans to help parse a week of change in Cleveland. While many are picturing Brown and DePodesta assembling a sequel to Moneyball, a book on the 2002 Oakland Athletics about the infusion of sabermetrics and analytics in baseball which featured DePodesta as a central character, the truth is slightly less complex. Coaches won't be scrolling through Pro Football Focus before drafting a player. Scouts won't be whipping out pocket calculators at the combine.

"This model averts a lot of the real trouble that festers inside organizations," one NFC executive said. "It's not like these guys are going to be calling plays. It's different, but it could work."

ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE

First off, how will this work? According to a person briefed on the team's plans, here's the Browns' power structure: DePodesta and Brown are considered "one and one," or equals. They will both work directly under owner Jimmy Haslam and report to him. The team's new head coach also will report to Haslam. Once hired, the personnel director will report to Brown.

Some rival executives have lampooned Brown's position and have made some valid points against it. Since Brown has control of the 53-man roster, a team can turn down any request the Browns make to interview one of their assistants. In theory, this would make a pool of eager candidates relatively shallow and has more than likely prevented the Browns from lining up certain scouts and evaluators.

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This could put the Browns at a disadvantage heading into their third straight season with two picks in the top 32, but the previous regime's setup didn't help on draft weekend, either. Between 2014-15, the team selected Justin Gilbert, Johnny Manziel, Danny Shelton and Cam Erving in the first round.

Above all else, the move seems to be considerate of recent history in Cleveland and meant to fix bigger problems.

Consider the following, an amalgamation of a few scenarios posed by those familiar with the decision:

Struggling teams often have tension between their coach and general manager. And those teams, especially ones where an owner is not in the building every day like Haslam, consistently struggle to win because the tension never goes away. Small problems create bigger problems. Coaches end up making veiled comments to the media about the roster's lack of talent. General managers disguise comments about players being out of position. Decisions don't really become decisions without motive.

Imagine, then, that Brown's job is to be the liaison in the building every day, making sure the head coach and general manager are on the same page both publicly and privately. Brown's calm and affable demeanor could be well-suited for his role, and his power will prevent a personnel czar from simply stacking the roster as they see fit. Will Brown really be picking the players on the roster, or has he simply been given the opportunity and power to settle a dispute when there is one?

For years, Brown thrived in a corporate environment with far more money -- and far, far larger egos -- at stake and earned a reputation as a problem solver. Football is often described as a world unto its own, but the basic issues of power and respect rarely change.

A BASEBALL MAN?

It is true that DePodesta was Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane's statistical muse during their unexpected playoff runs in the early 2000s. DePodesta helped identify devalued players with overlooked attributes and built a winner.

And while the immediate assumption is that he will revamp the club's analytics department -- which they already have -- there are far more valuable and important matters at hand, especially considering that the NFL is a salary-cap league. Teams are already on an even financial platform.

"Paul completely reorganized the Mets scouting and player development functions and had an extraordinary impact in both areas," Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said in a statement to reporters Tuesday. "But he was also very directly involved in our trade and free agent acquisitions. His commitment to excellence and his passion for innovation will be missed by the Mets and all of baseball. I wish him well with the Browns."

After the analytics swoon in baseball, every club for better or worse employed some version of what the Athletics were doing. This eventually caused a situation where the advantages were less significant for the teams that were already ahead of the curve.

What DePodesta, a former football player at Harvard, does well is look at things from a bird's eye view. When he started working under Alderson with the Mets, he aided the team's infrastructure building process and helped synchronize all facets of the organization.

On some levels, this is called "design thinking," and it has helped countless teams improve everything from morale to player development. Rather than simply being labeled as a former baseball executive, DePodesta is more like a CEO that has been brought in to aid a fledgling company.

"We are fortunate to bring in Paul, an extremely talented, highly respected sports executive who will add a critical dimension to our front office," Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said. "His approach and ambition to find the best pathways for organizational success transcend one specific sport and his experience as a high level sports executive make him a terrific addition to the Cleveland Browns."

DePodesta's fingerprints will be behind the scenes. He will check in with the diet and nutrition department regularly to see if what they are doing harmonizes with the activities players are doing on the field. He will analyze salary cap numbers to see if there is a more efficient way to structure deals or spend on free agents. Like Brown, who will aid in the synchronicity of coaching and scouting, DePodesta will do so for the entire organization.

"Paul has invaluable experience in management and leadership with a number of highly successful sports teams," Brown said in a statement. "His ability to create better processes and systems throughout organizations, his use of data as a tool to produce better outcomes, and his relentless focus on looking for innovative ways to create more success will be a strong asset as we look to be as comprehensive as possible in our decision making."

WILL IT WORK?

The Browns now have our attention, even if it is misdirected. On Tuesday, suspended wide receiver Josh Gordon tweeted that he loved the movie Moneyball. Visions of a plucky fourth-string wide receiver no one thought to unearth at Southwestern Michigan danced through our heads. More than likely, this will not happen.

The common response from evaluators and executives asked about the moves fell into three categories: "What on Earth?" "Well, if everything else fails, might as well..." and "This is brilliant." Cleveland hopes it is the latter.

Is this a last-ditch effort of an owner who has already fired too many coaches and general managers to be taken seriously? Is it the sign of a man who has employed a lot of smart non-football people, and those people have finally taken over? Or is it the start of something much more significant; a way for teams to finally compartmentalize the rapidly increasing amounts of data, analytics, talent, personalities, finances, nutrition, infrastructure and sports science that have only been maximized on an individual level?

Most importantly, is it a move that can save football in Cleveland?

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