Are the nerds taking over the NFL’s front offices? Certainly in Minnesota, where a former commodity trader is now general manager.
Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s first steps were to take six trades during last month’s draft as if he were swapping wheat futures in hopes of snagging a few oil futures. Then his next step was to hire a man with an MBA with a concentration in analytics to fill a newly created position as Vice President of Football Operations in Minnesota. Somewhere, Billy Beane, originator of the “Moneyball” school of building a baseball franchise, is smiling. Whether Vikings fans will be there remains to be seen, but the overall record of pro sports’ geek squad hasn’t been great… of course it depends on how you calculate the numbers.
Beane’s efforts to build a baseball winner in low-budget Oakland were so successful they spawned both a bestseller and box office hit. What they never produced was a championship team. This small detail seems to have gone unnoticed by NFL owners who seem increasingly obsessed with quantum physics and data analysis.
Six years ago, the Cleveland Browns started this analytical frenzy by hiring ex-Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Paul DePodesta to run their football operations. DePodesta was a follower of Beane in Oakland and continued the “moneyball” tradition he started. He didn’t win anything in LA, where he was fired after taking a playoff team and turning it into one that set the second-worst record for a Dodger team in 2005 since they left Brooklyn in 1959.
Similar ineffective stints with the Padres and Mets followed. That didn’t stop the Browns’ ownership from deciding that analytics was the future of football, however, and hired DePodesta as the Browns’ chief strategy officer in 2016.
So far, that strategy has resulted in a 37-63-1 record, a playoff appearance and a 1-15 season, followed by a remarkably consistent 0-16 season and a failed experiment with a miniature quarterback that the team with the saddled of Baker Mayfield’s first contract last year, fully guaranteed for $18,858,980. Mayfield’s record as a starter is 29-30, meaning he’s cost the Browns just over $1.12 million per win. The 30 losses came a little cheaper, but not by much.
Worse, now the Browns want to ditch Mayfield for trading for struggling ex-Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson this offseason and then signing him with the largest fully guaranteed contract in NFL history, a five-year, $230 million contract -Dollar Without assurances, he will not be suspended for the year by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for his alleged hijinks in Houston. money ball? I guess.
While DePodesta isn’t technically the Browns’ general manager, he’s their chief strategy officer, right? So this is your strategy for processing numbers?
Which brings us back to Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. From 2013 to 2018 he cut his teeth, or rather worked, with the 49ers, becoming director of football research and development after being snapped out of a career as a commodities trader for Credit Suisse. I’m not sure what Credit Suisse knows about football, but they certainly know numbers.
Impressed with his work in San Francisco, the Browns hired him in 2020 as vice president of football operations under DePodesta. He held that role for two years before the Vikings appointed him their general manager in 2022. His teams throughout all this time have won zero championships, which is a number that’s easy to crack. Apparently easy to love too.
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During those seven years with the 49ers, San Francisco lost a conference championship game, missed the playoffs five straight years, and lost the 2019 Super Bowl. Although Adofo-Mensah was never in charge of the front office there, the teams he helped develop were nothing to gain. In fact, they didn’t even have a winning record for five of their seven years.
That inspired the Browns to appoint him vice president of football operations in 2020. Two years later, Cleveland has financial quarterback mayhem on its hands, and Adofo-Mensah has left to run the Vikings alongside Demetrius Washington, the young former financial analyst he was hired to fill a newly created position of vice president of football operations to occupy in Minnesota.
What are Washington’s football bona fides? Well, he worked at Adofo-Mensah in the 49ers’ analytics operations for five years and has that MBA with a major in financial analytics from the University of Missouri that speaks for him. A Vikings press release announced that one of his responsibilities with the 49ers was “optimization and processing and development of statistical analysis for player evaluation, acquisition and strategy.”
Is it that they got stuck this season with Jimmy Garoppolo’s guaranteed base salary of $24,200,000 and a cap hit of $26,950,000 to be on a team that doesn’t want him anymore ? How do you crack these numbers without swallowing hard?
Adofo-Mensah said in a statement from the club, “Demetrius is one of the most unique people I’ve met in my time in the NFL. He is able to learn complex ideas, make them simple and apply them in all facets of the organization. He’s learned from some of the best minds in today’s game and will continue to thrive in his role at Vikings.”
I’m pretty sure he can. I’m also certain that he, along with Adofo-Mensah and DePodesta (who have degrees from Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford together but no championship rings), are all among America’s brightest minds. The question is, does that mean they can build a championship sports team?
Not all numbers are included, to be fair, but so far moneyball proponents haven’t had much of a ring collection. Theo Epstein, a “moneyball” proponent, did win with the Red Sox and Cubs, but he did it the old-fashioned way. He spent his team owner’s money like a drunken sailor in Boston and Chicago and had the big payroll and big rings to prove it.
So will the Vikings finally start The Revenge of the Nerds Tour this season? Will they sweep the NFL with a roster of discount talent and finally bring a championship to Nerdsville?
Maybe, but they have to do it with a .500 career quarterback they signed on a one-year contract worth a guaranteed $35 million, including a $25,000,000 signing bonus. Maybe numbers are calculated differently in the commodities business, but that sounds like big bucks for Kirk Cousins, a man who is 59-59-2 in 10 years as an NFL starter and failed to lead his team to the playoffs in seven these seasons.
But, hey, who’s counting?