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Trading Places: The Browns and the 49ers are the NFL's New Ghost Teams

This offseason, the Cleveland Browns and the San Francisco 49ers are trying to outsmart the NFL. So far, they've only succeeded in outsmarting themselves.
By Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

As I wrote early last week, the Jaguars and the Raiders are both clearly on the rise. For a long time, nobody wanted to be a part of either organization; thanks to improved quarterback play, however, both teams started to show signs of life; this offseason each has been busy signing talented free agents by the bushel. Since that article, the Raiders have managed to bring back tackle Donald Penn, the best player on their line last year, and the Jaguars signed left tackle Kelvin Beachum, which is great insurance to take out on Luke Joeckel's fading hopes of competence. They also brought in corner Prince Amukamara on a one-year prove-it deal.


This is great for the long-forsaken fans of those two teams, but in the circular Game of Thrones world of the NFL, someone has to lose whenever the fortunes of another faction rise. Right now, those losers are the Browns and the 49ers—and no one in the league wants to be dragged down with them. As of Thursday morning, San Francisco and Cleveland had the first- and third-highest amounts of cap space left in the league, respectively. They are so bad, and so steeped in bad vibes, that they cannot persuade NFL players to take their money.

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For the Browns, this isn't exactly a novel experience. They found only Josh McCown in the opening days of free agency last year. They gave center Alex Mack the transition tag in 2014, but that was about it. Cleveland fans are used to their team failing to bring in new guys. They've been bad. That's what happens when your primary business is manufacturing for one-and-done coaches and general managers.

This year, you'd be forgiven for thinking the Browns' plan was to knock down attendance to the point where they could move the team. Aside from signing linebacker Demario Davis, a Jets disappointment, and then cutting Karlos Dansby, the Browns have spent the offseason watching their talented young players go to other teams, sometimes for less money. Tashaun Gipson, gone. Alex Mack, gone. Travis Benjamin, gone. Mitchell Schwartz, gone. Cleveland has spent most of the last few years trying to build a ground-and-pound identity, with a sideline business in picking bad quarterbacks. Now all that's left are the bad quarterbacks they brought in to replace the ones they drafted.


When all you have left is Austin Davis. — Photo by Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

The darkest possible reading of Cleveland's offseason is that it's a misbegotten Moneyball experiment; some of this suspicion owes to the lack of clarity about just how much sway Paul DePodesta has in Cleveland's front office. They've accumulated a bunch of cap space that they may believe is valuable for bringing in new players, and they successfully avoided "overpaying" their own players. But this isn't baseball, where a farm system full of talent can buoy a team's fortune even while it loses games. It isn't basketball, where one hit on a top-five pick turns an entire franchise's ceiling up. There's a great deal of work to be done, here, and the Browns will either need to sign good players or nail every draft in a row for three years if they want to be competitive again. By not overpaying now, they've just guaranteed that they'll overpay later.

Cleveland's Davis-for-Dansby swap seems very much a Moneyball-style attempt to buy low on an undervalued asset. You can find a ton of gushing about Davis' potential on the internet from people who believed in him; one of those people is me. But, as a player, he's thus far been a bust, and there's not much reason to believe the Browns can turn him around. Dansby, for his part, is still a pretty good player, even if he is 34. He's good enough that cutting him reeks of trying to "tank" into a contender. The move makes perfect sense through the eyes of the old Baseball Prospectus theory that "Old Player X won't be on our next playoff team." But in doing so, Cleveland has downgraded one of the few positions that might have been considered a bright spot on what is, at this moment, arguably a historically untalented team.


Another example of applying sports analytics poorly is one that binds the 49ers and the Browns: quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The Browns see a quarterback who once finished in the top 10 in DVOA two years in a row. They look at his raw tools and cannon arm and see another buy-low opportunity and a player primed for a rebound. But Kaepernick achieved that DVOA in a different, run-first offense. As soon as the 49ers tried to rework their system to feature him, Kaepernick was exposed. That doesn't mean Kaepernick isn't the best quarterback on the market, and it doesn't mean Kaepernick is a bad quarterback. But pretending that he's an undervalued asset that could turn a team around is ludicrous at this point. Still, that has to be the stance the Browns are taking, because if they don't believe it, why would they want to waste their time and money on him?

Colin Kaepernick, probably valued at just the right level. — Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Like the Browns, San Francisco is trying to outsmart the league and only outsmarting themselves. The 49ers front office won their power struggle with Jim Harbaugh last offseason, but in doing so managed to lose just about everything else. San Francisco didn't lose as many quality players as Cleveland did this offseason, but they didn't have as many to lose in the first place—most of them had already retired or walked after Harbaugh was let go. They were able to salvage a few decent free agents in 2014, but all they've done this offseason is re-sign nose tackle Ian Williams, tight end Garrett Celek, and running back Shaun Draughn. No major free agents have signaled any desire to come to San Francisco—not shocking, considering that the team signed a new head coach who was crucified at his old job for his lack of communication with his players.

Aside from linebacker Navorro Bowman and tackle Joe Staley, San Francisco can't claim that any of their starters are better than average at this point. All the 49ers have going for them at the moment is their unfulfilled quant belief in Chip Kelly, but neither Kaepernick (if he stays) nor Blaine Gabbert have the ability to competently execute the passing parts of his system.

The 49ers and the Browns are the NFL's new ghost franchises. They'll appear on Sundays and take their lumps, winning two or four games a season on random chance. Maybe they'll stumble into a star quarterback in the draft and will be able to speed up the rebuilding process a little bit. Of course, the Browns have been trying to do that since 2002 with no success—it's not exactly a clear and simple path, especially when a front office doesn't show much scouting aptitude. Otherwise, the best hope for Cleveland and San Francisco is that, in three years or so, they'll have applied enough lessons from all that losing to field an actual team again.