Browns, NFL prepare for real-life version of fantasy football
Ultimately, the current Browns brain trust, led by General Manager Andrew Berry with input from chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta and coach Kevin Stefanski, will be judged by the selections they make beginning Thursday in the three-day NFL draft.
With the coronavirus pandemic making it impossible for it to be conducted as usual, the Browns and the NFL will be forced to duplicate the efforts of many a fantasy football team owner and conduct the draft from their kitchens and home offices.
Berry's combination of youth, as the youngest general manager in the league at 33, and background, a master's degree in computer science from Harvard, and DePodesta's well-documented analytics background should position them well to adapt to a virtual draft reliant on today's technology.
Significant thought and planning went into the process once the NFL made the decision to move to a virtual draft earlier this month, Brandon Covert, the Browns' vice president of information technology, said during a phone interview recently.
The virtual draft room, like it was for much of the league, was implemented with the help of tech giant Microsoft. Utilizing their Microsoft Team's platform, that involves multiple screens, dedicated cell phones and internet speed based on individual needs to accommodate every possible angle, including broadcast television. In some instances, backup generators and internet will be employed.
"I've got to give the football guys credit for really working with us and communicating and running a lot of tests that we asked them to run at their house," said Covert, who leads the team's IT department, "so that we could really be prepared and offer the best solution for them and the best tools that they need to get through this process as normal as possible."
Berry expressed confidence during a recent conference call recognizing the uniqueness of the situation league wide.
"We are fortunate to live in an age of technology so it has not disrupted the work product or workflow from that standpoint," he said. "Look, obviously, you miss a little bit of something with not being able to engage with people in person, but it really has not slowed the free agency or draft process from my perspective.
"We felt very prepared going into free agency, and we feel very prepared at this point in the draft process. It has had its challenges, but we have navigated them pretty well."
Few would argue with the team's success in free agency to this point. They addressed a number of needs, even without being able to take meetings with potential roster additions other than via phone and video chats.
But they are a far cry from establishing what's essentially a massive conference call with video for 32 teams, the NFL office and its broadcast partners.
The key is getting the picks to the league office correctly and with a minimum of outside interference, Peter O'Reilly, executive vice-president, club business and league events, said during a recent conference call. That's where Microsoft Teams, which allows teams to coordinate with the league office, comes in.
"And then there are other redundancies beyond that on the email side. So that process, again, has multiple layers of redundancy, (and) is being tested now."
The league will test, test and test some more to ensure the event goes off with as few glitches as possible, Brian McCarthy, vice president of communications for the NFL, said.
And what happens in the event something goes go awry with communicating a selection to the league office?
"If there's an issue at one person's residence, two other team executives can submit. And, also to clarify, if a team experiences technological issues, the player personnel department would be in a position to stop the clock until picks can get submitted or a trade can occur. So we have built that in, as well."
With all of that technology comes the issue of cybersecurity. In this current reality shaped by the coronavirus, which has led many to work from home, hackers have plagued some services, such as Zoom. O'Reilly said his team has taken those contingencies into consideration.
Another significant issue is that the participants involved need to have a degree of comfort with the technology involved in the league's real-life fantasy draft. The influx of youth on the coaching side has been evident for years. Teams have used Microsoft Surface laptop-tablet hybrids on the sidelines since 2014. That doesn't necessarily equate to comfort for a league that still has its share of "old school" coaches. Berry said he doesn't see a problem for the Browns.
"I would say that regardless of age, we have a pretty progressive group. I would say even just people who are significantly older than I am that we have on staff, they realize the benefits of technology now," he said.
O'Reilly said the league's situation is similar.
"I think, though, the beauty, as we're seeing here, and many of us do any video conferences on a minute-to-minute basis, that the technology is pretty straightforward and pretty reliable," he said. "And I think that the IT folks have been rock stars throughout this, but the team IT folks, as well as the league IT folks, are really keeping it simple, keeping it clear."
That's why the Browns' DePodesta doesn't view it as a significant challenge.
"I think if you look at the grand scheme of things with what people are dealing with in the world, what we have had to deal with is trivial," he said. "Trying to make sure that we get set up and have virtual meetings as opposed to doing it face-to-face pales in comparison to what a lot of real people are dealing with on a day-to-day basis right now.
"I do not think any of this is seen as a really big deal. It has just been a challenge to overcome, but we are completely focused on the players just like we always are."
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