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.