The Cleveland Browns finished their 2018 season 7-8-1. Undoubtedly, this is an improvement over their past decade. At the end of the season, though, John Dorsey, Paul DePodesta, and the rest of the Browns’ front office had to decide on the team’s future coach.
Ultimately, the team settled on Freddie Kitchens. Kitchens became the offensive coordinate halfway through the season, never called plays before, and is only 44 years old. He is not the sexy choice.
But Kitchens absolutely is the correct choice to lead the Browns.
Qualitatively, many commentators have noted how Kitchens inspires the offense, is beloved by the players, and earned the job through his leadership ability. In today’s Monday Morning QB, Peter King addressed this in detail:
The Browns were looking for a leader of men, a respected man who knew their team, and not the best available offensive mind, which was the flavor of the month. They were looking for the best coach, in terms of presence, building a team, and scheming a modern offense and defense. That is why I respect what Cleveland did in hiring Freddie Kitchens, who, despite his success as offensive coordinator in the second half of the season with Baker Mayfield, had to be better than six other men who spent at least six hours apiece with the interviewers over the course of eight days. This is a coach no one currently in the organization knew—and I am not exaggerating—when he was hired to coach the Browns’ running backs last winter. I don’t know if Kitchens will succeed or fail. But I do know this: The Browns worked to identify strong candidates, ignored the most obvious one (Mike McCarthy, despite his closeness with Dorsey) on the market, and did not know at the start of the process three weeks ago who they would hire.
This is impressive – but as a numbers guy, I find the qualitative reasoning to be no more than old school, non-empirical analysis. Consequently, I chose to dig into the numbers. And initially, I was disappointed.
Pro Football Focus (PFF) uses a combination of quantitative and qualitative analyses to grade player performance. Baker’s PFF grade under Hue Jackson was 71.83 and 75.5 under Freddie Kitchens. Consequently, per PFF, Baker did not play significantly better under Kitchens.
Moreover, the pass blocking did not seem to improve. Under Todd Haley, the Browns’ PFF pass blocking grade was 78.63, and under Kitchens, it is 76.1.1 Using stats that people understand, including Tyrod Taylor, the Browns averaged almost five more pressures allowed per game under Hue/Haley, but it is only one more pressure per game discounting Tyrod.
By counting stats and position-specific numbers, the Browns had not really improved under Kitchens. But then why were they scoring more and converting offensive drives at a much higher rate? Was it all an illusion? I decided to dig deeper.
Why The Real Quantitative Data Makes Me A Huge Freddie Kitchens Fan:
Football Outsiders is a website that uses advanced quantitative methods (primarily regression analysis) to estimate team efficiency and impact while adjusting for a variety of factors including opponent, score of the game, and position on the field. They have a stat called Defense-Adjusted Vale Over Average (DVOA). DVOA is widely considered one the best regression-controlled statistics for the NFL. Here is their summary.
DVOA is a method of evaluating teams, units, or players. It takes every single play during the NFL season and compares each one to a league-average baseline based on situation. DVOA measures not just yardage, but yardage towards a first down: Five yards on third-and-4 are worth more than five yards on first-and-10 and much more than five yards on third-and-12. Red zone plays are worth more than other plays. Performance is also adjusted for the quality of the opponent. DVOA is a percentage, so a team with a DVOA of 10.0% is 10 percent better than the average team, and a quarterback with a DVOA of -20.0% is 20 percent worse than the average quarterback. Because DVOA measures scoring, defenses are better when they are negative.
The biggest variable in football is the fact that each team plays a different schedule against teams of disparate quality. By adjusting each play based on the opposing defense’s average success in stopping that type of play over the course of a season, we get DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. Rushing and passing plays are adjusted based on down and location on the field; passing plays are also adjusted based on how the defense performs against passes to running backs, tight ends, or wide receivers. Defenses are adjusted based on the average success of the offenses they are facing. (Yes, technically the defensive stats are actually “offense-adjusted.” If it seems weird, think of the “D” in “DVOA” as standing for “opponent-Dependent” or something.) The final step in calculating DVOA involves normalizing each year’s ratings. As you may know, offensive levels in the NFL have gone up and down over the years. Right now, the overall level of offense in the league is probably at its highest level of all time. Therefore, we need to ensure that DVOA in a given season isn’t skewed by league environment. For teams, DVOA is normalized so that league averages for offense and defense are 0%. (However, because pass plays are more efficient than run plays, league averages for team passing and team rushing are not zero.) For players, DVOA is normalized separately for individual passing, individual rushing, and the three individual receiving groups (wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs) so that the league average for each is 0%. Of course, one of the hardest parts of understanding a new statistic is interpreting its scale. To use DVOA, you have to know what numbers represent good performance and what numbers represent bad performance. We’ve made that easy. In all cases, 0% represents league-average. A positive DVOA represents a situation that favors the offense, while a negative DVOA represents a situation that favors the defense. This is why the best offenses have positive DVOA ratings (last year, Green Bay led the league at +24.7%) and the best defenses have negative DVOA ratings (with Seattle number one in 2014 at -16.8%). In most years, the best and worst offenses tend to rate around ± 30%, while the best and worst defenses tend to rate around ± 25%. For starting players, the scale tends to reach roughly ± 40% for passing and receiving, and ± 30% for rushing. As you might imagine, some players with fewer attempts will surpass both extremes.
In essence, DVOA evaluated teams’ offense, defense, and special teams by play-by-play efficiency, adjusts their rankings based on the opponents’ strengths, time of play, score of the game, as well as field position, and then normalizes the results over time.
At worst, DVOA provides audiences a way to analyze a team’s performance over time. Therefore, I looked at the Browns’ 2018 offense before and after Kitchens became the offensive coordinator, and the results are staggering.
-Browns’ Offensive DVOA Under Hue/Haley (Weeks 1-8): -21.01%
-Browns’ Offensive DVOA Under Kitchens (Weeks 9-17): +23.66%
-Difference: 44.67 percentage points
-Browns’ Offensive Pass DVOA Under Hue/Haley (Weeks 1-8): -23.95%
-Browns’ Offensive Pass DVOA Under Kitchens (Weeks 9-17): +53.96%
-Difference: 77.91 percentage points
So what does this mean? Under Hue Jackson and Todd Haley, a generic replacement team against the same opponents we played against would have gained roughly 21% more value per play than the Cleveland Browns. Under Kitchens, though, that same replacement team playing those same opponents would have gained roughly 24% less value per play than the Cleveland Browns.
This gets even crazier when you just look at the passing game. Under Hue Jackson and Todd Haley, a generic replacement team against the same opponents we played against would have gained roughly 24% more value per play than the Cleveland Browns. Under Kitchens, though, that same replacement team playing those same opponents would have gained roughly 54% less value per play than the Cleveland Browns.
Thus, under Kitchens, the Cleveland Browns were generating close to an additional 78 percentage points in value per pass than they did under Hue Jackson and Todd Haley
This advanced data shows just how dominant Kitchens’ offense is. The Browns’ offense, even adjusting for our opponents, underwent a complete transformation under Kitchens. Since 2010, the only two teams to make even close to the same transformations in their passing offenses were the 2015 Seattle Seahawks (+72 percentage points from weeks 1-8 to weeks 9-17) and the 2017 San Fransisco 49ers (+57 percentage points from weeks 1-8 to weeks 9-17 ).
Therefore, Kitchens’ playcalling demonstrates a scenario where counting statistics fail to appreciate an offense’s dominance.
Bluntly, Freddie Kitchens led the Cleveland Browns through a historic transformation.
Looking Towards the Future:
Freddie Kitchens – after officially being hired as the new Cleveland Browns’ head coach – brought in Todd Monken to be offensive coordinator. Monken was the offensive coordinator for Tampa Bay this year, embraces analytics, and runs a contemporary version of the air-raid offense.
While Kitchens will still be calling plays, Monken will be a nice voice in game preparation, and is a great choice to unleash Baker Mayfield. Jake Burns has a phenomenal article at Cleveland.com analyzing how Monken and Kitchens will merge their offenses.
The air-raid offense emerged, in large part, because of the BYU passing attack in the 1980s. Hal Mumme, watching this offense, established high school and college teams that, while having less resources to recruit elite talent, beat the best teams in the sport by passing the ball frequently and for long yardage.
Essentially, the air-raid views running the ball as providing less yards per attempt than passing plays. Thus, rather than using the run to establish the pass, air-raid offenses use the pass to establish the run. Additionally, it uses a relatively small number of actual plays, but runs them out of various formations and with different pre-snap movement.
While Hal Mumme was building his offense, his lead assistant was Mike Leach, who then went to Texas Tech and Washington State and had massive success. Todd Leach took the BYU offense, which eventually became Mumme’s offense, and developed it even further. After his success, Leach’s assistants adopted his offense and brought it to the NFL. Monken, who never worked for Mumme or Leach, still was influenced by their collegiate success and system.
Thus, under Kitchens and Monken, the Browns are going to pass frequently, and probably have one of the most efficient offenses in the NFL.
In short, under Monken, the Buccaneers had the fourth fewest third-and-long situations in the NFL, threw the ball more on first down than any team in the NFL, threw the ball more on second down than any team in the NFL, and his runningbacks only ran into a stacked box (eight or more men) the eighth fewest times in the NFL,
Thus, Browns fans should expect an even more efficient offense that uses a spread field to maximize Baker Mayfield’s and Nick Chubb’s performances.
The Browns’ Future and Beyond:
For the Browns’ decisions, while moving on from Sashi Brown’s front office, continue to embrace quantitative analysis; or, at the very least, are making decisions that math supports. Kitchens’ and Monken are some of the most progressive and innovative minds in football that both have recent success.