BOSTON—Paul DePodesta was used to being one of baseball’s most prominent executives. He could walk through the lobby at the Winter Meetings or show up to an amateur showcase and he would be one of the most recognizable people there, with plenty of familiar faces he knew from spending two decades in front offices.
At the NFL combine last month, DePodesta was cloaked in anonymity, despite his high-ranking title of chief strategy officer for the Cleveland Browns, who hired him in January. So anonymous that, when he was standing in line at the Indianapolis airport leaving the combine, he heard officials from other NFL teams talking about him—quite literally—behind his back.
“I was standing right in front of them in line and I could hear them in back of me and they were talking trash about me and the Cleveland Browns,” DePodesta said on Friday at MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. “I said, ‘All right, this is like 17 years ago in Oakland all over again.’ That’s part of the fun.”
The faces and the voices weren’t familiar to DePodesta, but the message, skepticism and derision were nothing new. When the Browns hired DePodesta, the news generated shock across two sports.
“I thought when the Cleveland Browns hired Paul, I thought it was the most interesting sports story of 2016,” said Bob Bowman, MLB’s president of business and media and a co-panelist on the “Leadership And Lineage” panel. “I know the GMs in baseball far better than I do in football, and the assistant GMs and all the people up and down who work in player development, and I think these people are whip smart. They are an absolutely fascinating blend of analytics, data and what we call gut. Gut is experience, search, what ifs. It’s mind blowing how smart these people are. And I thought a football team that hires a GM in baseball is going to do really well, and this happens to be one of the best ones in baseball. I think that’s one of the most interesting hires, and I’m surprised it hasn’t happened more often.”
DePodesta built an impressive resume in baseball. He started with the Indians in 1996 before becoming an assistant GM with the Athletics, GM with the Dodgers, a special assistant in San Diego and most recently vice president of scouting and player development with the Mets.
“I’ve been really surprised at just how many things transfer over,” DePodesta said. “Fundamentally, all these organizations are really about people and about teams and about culture. And those things transfer over from one sport to another, for sure.”
During his 20 years working for MLB clubs, DePodesta developed a thorough understanding of the scouting, analytics and player development practices specific to baseball, and what he felt would be the most predictive markers in player evaluation.
“We had a lot of conversations in baseball in terms of what really drives success in this game,” DePodesta said. “Is it tools—like someone’s physical abilities—is it their skills, is it their mental makeup, or what composition of those three really make the difference? We always felt like skills at the end of the day, at least in that particular game—I feel maybe a little differently about football—that skills were really the driver. But we were always looking at all those different things.”
While some of the fundamental processes and concepts from his baseball experience might have applicability that can carry over into football, there is still a steep learning curve for DePodesta as he changes sports. That’s why, in his first months on the job, DePodesta has spent a lot of time asking questions rather than delivering opinions.
“There’s a challenge for me personally, which is trying to catch up to where I was in baseball,” DePodesta said. “In baseball, I had a 20-year library of players and transactions and all that sort of thing that I don’t have right now, very admittedly. As we were going through free agency this week, I was talking to some of the guys in the room and I was asking a lot of questions, but I said, I literally am not trying to lead the witness here, I truly don’t know and don’t have an opinion one way or the other. So that’s a real challenge for me, and just trying to take our mindset and bring it into football and create processes and systems around that is challenging. As an organization though, and probably even more importantly, we have big challenges in front of us. We have a super competitive league, we haven’t been very successful on the field and we have a big mountain to climb, but I think we have the right team of people in place to do it.”
Coming from a baseball background with no NFL front office experience, DePodesta will likely have even more doubters in football than he ever had in baseball, even when he was trying to do things in baseball that went against conventional wisdom.
“I have a little experience in doing things that are unpopular,” DePodesta said.
One of the keys for DePodesta making the jump to the NFL was making sure he felt comfortable that ownership would be fully on board with his vision, ideas and processes. In any leadership role, getting buy-in from the rest of the organization—both up and down the ladder—is critical.
“When I was going to the Browns,” DePodesta said, “I had met with the ownership, Jimmy and Dee Haslam, and they asked me, ‘What do you want out of an owner?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what I don’t want.’ I said, ‘If you ever take your kids to an amusement park at Disneyland or whatever, they beg you to go on the big daddy roller coaster. They beg you. You say, ‘Are you sure?’ They say, ‘Absolutely, I want to go on this thing.’ So you wait in line for 45 minutes, it takes up a good chunk of your day, you finally get to the front of the line, they eyeball it, and they say, ‘Uh, I’m not getting on that thing. Not at all.’ And that’s what happens to a lot of owners. They would say, ‘Hey, we want ‘Moneyball,’ we want this disciplined approach to what we’re doing.’ But then when it comes time to making that hard decision, they say, ‘I don’t want any part of this.’ I said, ‘I need someone who’s going to want to get on the roller coaster with me knowing that it’s not always going to be fun. There are going to be parts of the roller coaster that are going to be scary, that are going to be uncomfortable, but hopefully at the end of the ride when we get off, you’re going to want to say, let’s do that again.’ But I think that’s how we always got through it, was having that shared vision from the beginning and giving you the conviction to actually go through with it.”
DePodesta will have his skeptics both from the baseball and football industries in his new role. Part of that could be driven by people’s insecurities, but some of it is certainly reasonable. If an MLB team hired an NFL executive to run the team’s baseball operations, there would be an outcry that smart people with demonstrable track records of success in baseball who were better qualified for the job were passed over to bring in a football guy. But dealing with skepticism is an area in which DePodesta has ample experience.
“When I was here in college and I was playing both football and baseball (at Harvard), I was really concerned that all my classmates were just going to think that I was a dumb jock,” DePodesta said. “So I would wear khakis and button down shirts. I would wear my glasses to class, things like that, wanting people to think, ‘Hey, this isn’t just another dumb jock on the football team.’ Then I got into baseball and everyone just started calling me a geek, like there’s the nerd from Harvard. Then it took 20 years of working in baseball and me actually leaving and going to football for people to say, ‘He’s the baseball guy.’ So maybe at some point I’ll be known as a football guy too or the label will catch up to me.”