Browns’ Higgins & Njoku Burst Free of Analytics Nerd DePodesta

During Baker Mayfield’s shootout with Joe Burrow during the Brown’s victory over the Bengals on Sunday, WR Rashard Higgins dazzled fans with his ball-catching prowess, grabbing all six balls thrown to him by Mayfield. Higgins filled the void left by the injured Odell Beckham with ease & style, and TE David Njoku made a superb diving touchdown catch.

It was especially joyous for long-sufferring Browns fans because it rekindled the “Golden Age” of late 2018 when Higgins & Njoku caught pass after pass from Baker. But Hig and Njoku were pretty much benched for all of 2019 and most of 2020. Not only that, but the Browns actually let Higgins go back in March. That’s how he lost his number 81, and why he is 82 now. While Higgins was in the wind, the Browns signed Austin Hooper, and gave him Hig’s old number.

Before Baker, Hig, and Njoku go on to light-up the back half of the schedule, I want to make it clear exactly what happened here. Because I believe that this episode is a textbook example of chemistry defeating analytics, and should be taught to all aspiring coaches, GMs, and analytics nerds.

So, here is my version of events in a nutshell: after playing superbly in 2018, Higgins & Njoku were benched in 2019 by Browns analytics chief, Paul DePodesta because “numbers.” Freddie Kitchens was made the fall-guy for the infamous “no reason” benchings that infuriated Browns fans. In 2020, coach Stefanski was given the same orders, and also made to take the fall. Then, a series of injuries forced Higgins & Njoku into the Cincinnati game where they proceeded to make DePodesta look like a fucking fool.

Talented players, who displayed a palpable chemistry with their quarterback were benched on orders from an analytics nerd. Don’t forget, I am a nerd myself, and I can see analytics being very valuable when, for example, scouts are sorting through hundreds of players. But to actually call the shots on the field? That’s just plain crazy. Chemistry is so much more important in football that coaches need to think long and hard before breaking up established player relationships. Football is the ultimate team sport. Baseball, on the other hand, is actually closer to single-combat where you have one pitcher facing off against one hitter, and analytics can readily be used to make substitutions.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the reason why the Browns’ infamously talented roster has yet to pay off is because it is being deployed with analytics.

When it comes to DePodesta, mum is the word for Browns employees. In fact, I would bet that all Browns employee contracts for coaches, players, and staff, have a no-DePo clause forbidding anybody to talk about him. I think it is also obvious that DePodesta has veto power over coaches. Exactly how much power he has is unclear, and I regard this lack of transparency as a black mark for ownership.

Browns fans should pressure the Haslams to reign in their power-mad nerd.

Note: further evidence happened during training camp when Higgins’ position coach, Chad O’Shea announced that Higgins had won the #3 receiver job. But then coach Stefanski barked back, and overruled O’Shea, saying the decision had not yet been made. Then Hig went on to be the infamous “healthy scratch” and forbidden to even wear the uniform. I think that was an obvious case of DePodesta speaking through Stefanski, the kinda-sorta head coach.

Note: Many OBJ supporters are denigrating Baker’s performance in Cincinnati saying: “that was the Bengals sucking, not Baker being good.” Then they go on to cite how great OBJ was during the Dallas game. But Dallas has a terrible defense too, so wasn’t that just “Dallas sucking instead of OBJ being great?” Anybody who doesn’t think that something profound happened to Baker after OBJ left the Cincinnati game is just plain blind, deaf, and dumb.

The Second Coming of Baker Mayfield

Note: I have been criticizing Odell Beckham, Jr. long before his tragic injury on Sunday. (See what I wrote about him back in April). And at the risk of appearing insensitive, I need to continue campaigning against OBJ because I think the Browns are better without him, and should trade him as soon as another team will have him.

At the end of the 2018 season, Baker Mayfield was Football Jesus in Cleveland. Then the Browns traded for Odell Beckham, Jr. who we later discovered to be Football Poison, and Baker was cast into Football Hell where he languished as the very worst quarterback in the NFL in 2019.

Baker wasn’t doing much better in 2020, until OBJ was removed from the scene. Then Baker completed a franchise record 22 passes in a row.

Do you think that was a coincidence? I don’t.

My theory all along has been that OBJ’s celebrity created a Steve Job’s style “reality distortion field” that clouded Baker’s mind. Just as soon as that field was switched off, his mind cleared, and Baker went back to being his true self: a Heisman Trophy caliber quarterback.

Most of Baker’s 22 passes went to 2018-vintage Bake-Packers: Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, and David Njoku, all of which Baker has good chemistry with. Baker also hit rookies Harrison Bryant and Donovan Peoples-Jones. Does that mean that Baker has good chemistry with them too? Yes; yes it does.

Here’s the thing: chemistry is the rule, not the exception.

The exception is narcissistic personalities like OBJ, who regardless of talent, simply cannot gel with a team. Normal athletes will play better-and-better with each other as time goes on, more-or-less automatically.

Even worse was the fact that Baker was a young man when OBJ arrived. If he were more seasoned he might not have been as affected by OBJ’s demands for the ball, and the sports media’s amplification of those demands.

In any case, Baker is now free to re-ascend into Football Heaven where he had previously spent his entire life before OBJ came to town.

Note: There are people saying that nobody can fill Beckham’s shoes because of his crazy skills. Did these people not see the Cincinnati game? OBJ’s shoes were filled immediately. We saw spectacular catches from Njoku, Higgins, and DPJ, a great throw by Landry, and two TDs by Bryant. A few games ago, we saw Kareem Hunt make an acrobatic, one-handed catch. During the last game against the Bengals last year, we saw Nick Chubb make an unbelievable TD catch.

The Browns are just oozing with talent. With OBJ exorcised from the team other players are free to dazzle.

Note: Let the record show that the Browns passing-game worsened substantially after OBJ joined the team. In 2008, the Browns had the #13 passing offense in the league. After OBJ joined the team in 2019, the Browns dropped to #21. You can blame that on Freddie Kitchens if you want, but how does that explain that the Browns are only #18 here in 2020 after a major coaching upgrade?

Note: I wish OBJ a speedy, and full recovery, and that he gets many targets on his next team after he is hopefully traded. I think the Browns will finish strong, just like in 2018, and management will feel, at a minimum, reluctant to repeat the OBJ debacle.

Breaking-Up the Bake-Pack

Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield holds the NFL record for the most passing touchdowns (27) by a rookie quarterback. That was during the 2018 season when Baker only played in 14 of the Browns 16 games. By contrast, Kyler Murray started all 16 games in his rookie season of 2019, and only threw 20 TDs. Not even close to Baker’s record.

During the final 7 games of the 2018 season, the once-lowly Browns finished with a 5-2 record. It was the Golden Age for long-suffering Browns fans. Euphoria broke out at the plausible notion that the team had found its franchise quarterback.

And then…Freddie Kitchens destroyed the team. Or did he?

But first, let’s talk about what I call the “Bake-Pack.” Exactly who did Baker throw all of those touchdowns to in 2018?

Jarvis Landry was the workhorse of the season with 81 receptions and 4 touchdowns.

David Njoku was second with 56 receptions and 4 touchdowns.

Duke Johnson was third with 47 receptions and 3 touchdowns.

Antonio Callaway was fourth with 43 receptions and 5 touchdowns.

Rashard Higgins was fifth with 39 receptions and 4 touchdowns. Hig had as many touchdowns as Landry with only half the receptions.

In 2019, Callaway self-destructed and only had 8 receptions before being released. And Duke Johnson requested a trade after the Browns signed Kareem Hunt. So, the Bake-Pack was reduced to three players. And then, unbelievably, Njoku and Higgins were benched, and the Bake-Pack was no more. Deprived of his favorite targets, Baker went from being a record-breaking phenom to one of the worst quarterbacks in the league.

Kitchens was blamed. Higgins and Njoku were said to be in Kitchens’ dog house, but nobody knew why. It was a huge mystery that fans lamented, loudly, throughout the entire 2019 season. Indeed, this issue generated a huge chunk of the hatred directed toward Kitchens.

When Kevin Stefanski was named head coach for the 2020 season, Browns fans were elated at the prospect of the Bake-Pack riding again. But, unaccountably, Stefanski continued the Kitchens policy of benching Higgins and Njoku. This made it obvious that the shots were not being called by the coaches, but rather by Coach Spreadsheet, Paul DePodesta.

And so the Golden Age Bake-Pack was put to death by a calculator-wielding analytics nerd. And the Browns regressed from going 7-8-1 in 2018 to 6-10 in 2019. Oddly, DePo gets very little criticism, or even mention, by the Browns media, like he is Voldemort or something.

After Browns “blocking receiver” (whatever the fuck that is) KhaDarel Hodge was put on the injured-reserve list on October 6, 2020, Higgins was actually permitted to put on his uniform. He then promptly caught two touchdown passes against the Colts and Steelers while Landry and Beckham caught zero.

Higgins likes to be called “Hollywood” or “Wood” but I call him “The Touchdown Man” because he has the uncanny ability to get open in the end zone, and to catch Baker’s eye. It’s almost like he lives under the end zone, and when the Browns enter the red zone, he pops up unseen like a Disney character going on duty at Disney World, and catches the TD.

During the Browns’ only two losses this year, the savage beat-downs administered by the Ravens and Steelers, the team was only able to score two touchdowns. The TD against the Ravens was caught by Njoku. The TD against the Steelers was caught by Higgins. If it weren’t for the Bake-Pack, those games might have been shutouts.

But Higgins will probably be benched when Hodge comes back, because analytics. (The Browns need Hodge on special teams, but not at receiver.)

Was the Golden Age of 2018 the apogee of Baker’s life-long quarterbacking career? It’s starting to look that way. Would Baker do better if Higgins were his #1 or #2 receiver? I think so.

Trying to shoehorn OBJ into the Browns offense hasn’t produced the hoped-for results. OBJ has put up mediocre stats this year. For example, on “big” pass-plays of 20+ yards, OBJ ranks at #54 with 3. CeeDee Lamb has 10.

Note: when Baker walked out onto the field before the Steelers game, he strutted along like he was god’s gift to football. He was comically overconfident, and a few minutes later, he hit Minkah Fitzpatrick for a touchdown. (In case you don’t know, Minkah is not on the Browns.) After being humbled, I expect Baker to play much better during the next few games. Being overconfident clouds your judgement; though it is hard to remain humble after a four game winning streak in the NFL.

Note: after the Steelers game, OBJ threw his helmet down in anger. He probably thinks that if he had gotten more targets, the Browns could have won. Not the case. Not even close. The Steelers mauled the Browns in the trenches. It had nothing to do with Odell. (Note to Odell: it’s not always about you.)

Note: Podcaster John Middlekauff has been watching the Browns more closely lately. He thinks that Baker should become a strict pocket-passer like Drew Brees because Baker is not fast & athletic enough to outrun defenders. I must say that I react the same way when Baker is scrambling: I cringe and brace for a sack or interception. On the other hand, there are people who laud Baker for his elusiveness. And indeed, Baker does seem to weasel out of a lot of precarious situations. I guess it’s a matter of taste. On Sunday, the Steelers’ plan was to keep Baker penned-up in the pocket where he can’t see downfield as well as he can while rolling out. It worked. In any case, Baker’s “Total QBR” is up nicely on the year so far:

Year – QBR – Rank
2018 – 51.2 – 25th
2019 – 52.4 – 19th
2020 – 67.9 – 18th

Even though Baker isn’t fast, he has a very graceful gait. He reminds me of Cuban sprinter Alberto Juantorena, who was a star of the 1976 Olympics. But of course, the NFL is not a beauty contest. I also think that Baker really wants to be a running quarterback. He wants to be Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray, as unrealistic as that is.

Note: Patrick Mahomes probably would have beaten Baker’s record, but he was only allowed to play one game in his rookie year. On the other hand, Mahomes was playing with a first-class team, while Baker inherited the very worst team in the league, yet still managed to make it fly.