Are the nerds taking over NFL front offices? Certainly they are in Minnesota, where a former commodities trader is now the general manager.
Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s first moves were to make six trades during last month’s draft as if he was swapping wheat futures in hopes of grabbing some oil futures. Then his next step was to bring in a guy with an MBA that had an emphasis in analytics to fill a newly created position in Minnesota of vice president of football operations. Somewhere Billy Beane, the originator of the “moneyball” school of building a baseball franchise, is smiling. Whether Vikings fans will be remains to be seen but the overall track record of pro sports’ Geek Squad has not been great…depending on how you crunch the numbers of course.
Beane’s efforts to build a baseball winner in low budget Oakland were so successful they spawned both a best-selling book and a hit movie. What they never produced was a championship team. That small detail seems to have gone unnoticed by NFL owners seemingly growing obsessed with quantum physics and data analytics.
Six years ago the Cleveland Browns kicked this analytics mania off by hiring ex-Los Angeles Dodgers’ general manager Paul DePodesta to run their football operation. DePodesta was an acolyte of Beane’s in Oakland and continued the “moneyball” tradition established by him. He didn’t win anything in L.A., where he was fired after taking a playoff team and transforming it into one that in 2005 posted the second worst record for a Dodger team since they left Brooklyn in 1959.
This was followed by similarly ineffective stints with the Padres and Mets. That didn’t stop the Browns’ ownership from deciding analytics was the future of football however, hiring DePodesta in 2016 to become chief strategy officer of the Browns.
So far that strategy has led to a 37-63-1 record, one playoff appearance, and a 1-15 season followed by a remarkably consistent 0-16 season and a failed experiment with a miniature quarterback that has left the team saddled with the final year of Baker Mayfield’s first contract fully guaranteed for $18,858,980. Mayfield’s record as a starter is 29-30, meaning he has cost the Browns slightly over $1.12 million per victory provided. The 30 losses came slightly cheaper but not much.
Worse, now the Browns want to dump Mayfield because they traded for troubled ex-Texans’ quarterback Deshaun Watson this offseason and then signed him to the largest fully guaranteed contract in NFL history, a five-year, $230 million deal without any assurances he won’t be suspended for the year by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for his alleged hijinks in Houston. Moneyball? I guess.
Although DePodesta is technically not the Browns’ general manager he is, after all, their chief strategy officer is he not? So this is their numbers crunching strategy?
Which gets us back to Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. He cut his teeth, or rather worked the numbers, for the 49ers from 2013 through 2018, becoming director of football research and development after being plucked from a career as a commodities trader for Credit Suisse. Not sure what Credit Suisse knows about football but they certainly know numbers.
Impressed by his work in San Francisco, the Browns hired him to become vice-president of football operations under DePodesta in 2020. He served in that role for two years before the Vikings named him their general manager in 2022. His teams during all this time have thus far won zero championships, which is a number easy to crunch. Also easy to love, apparently.
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During those seven years with the 49ers, San Francisco went from losing a conference championship game to missing the playoffs five straight years to losing the Super Bowl in 2019. Although Adofo-Mensah wasn’t ever in charge of the front office there the teams he helped developed didn’t win a thing. In fact, five of their seven years they didn’t even have a winning record.
That inspired the Browns to name him vice-president of football operations in 2020. Two years later, Cleveland has a financial quarterback mess on its hands and Adofo-Mensah has left to run the Vikings alongside Demetrius Washington, who is the young former financial analyst he hired to fill a newly created position of vice president of football operations in Minnesota.
What are Washington’s football bona fides? Well he worked with Adofo-Mensah for five years in the 49ers’ analytics operation and has that MBA with an emphasis in finance analytics from the University of Missouri going for him. In a press release from the Vikings, it was announced that one of his tasks with the 49ers was to “optimization and process, and develop statistical analysis for player evaluation, acquisition and strategy.”
Is that how they got stuck with Jimmy Garoppolo’s guaranteed $24,200,000 base salary this season with a cap hit of $26,950,000, to be on a team that no longer wants him around? How do you crunch those numbers without swallowing hard?
Adofo-Mensah said in a club statement, “Demetrius is one of the most uniquely gifted people I have 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 has learned from some of the best minds in the game today and he will continue to flourish in his role with Vikings.”
I’m quite sure he can. I’m equally sure that he, as well as Adofo-Mensah and DePodesta (who between them have degrees from Harvard, Princeton and Stanford but no championship rings), are all among the brightest minds in America. The question is does that mean they can build a championship sports team?
All the numbers aren’t in, to be fair, but so far “Moneyball” advocates don’t have much of a ring collection. Theo Epstein, a ‘Moneyball” advocate, 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 both Boston and Chicago and had the high payroll and big rings to prove it.
So will the Vikings finally launch “The Revenge of the Nerds Tour” this season? Will they sweep through the NFL with a roster of discount talent and finally bring a championship to Nerdsville?
Maybe, but they’ll have to do it with a career .500 quarterback they signed to a one-year contract worth $35 million guaranteed, including a $25,000,000 signing bonus. Maybe they crunch the numbers differently in the commodities business but that sounds like a lot of cash for Kirk Cousins, a guy who is 59-59-2 in 10 years as an NFL starter and who has failed to lead his team to the playoffs in seven of those seasons.
But, hey, who’s counting?