A Harvard Chess Whiz Is Helping The Cleveland Browns Predict Player Production

You ever come across someone who immediately made you think, “wow… that person is going to be rich.” And then you thought, “if I can just become friends with him/her, I might become a little rich myself.” That’s exactly the thought I had when I started reading about Ella Papanek—the statistical whiz behind the Cleveland Browns’ data analytics research.

Turns out, Ella is a senior at Harvard (ever heard of it?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!!??!!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!), where she is also president of the Harvard Sports Analytics Collective—a group of students who would probably have counseled me against placing that four-team parlay this weekend (Hey! Dare to be great!)

Ella says:


“It’s really great to see the way analytics plays a role in the Browns’ success,” she said. “So often the traditional football community will butt heads with the analytics community [over] validity of analytics-driven insights. I’ve had discussions about the relative value of experience versus analytics as it plays into decision-making on the coaching side or management side, but I think people need to realize that those shouldn’t be at odds.”

“Experience is just a data set,” she added. “People who have more experience have better understanding of what is likely to occur in the future, because they have more data in their head [that] they’ve internalized. So if we have a data set in a computer, how is that different than somebody that draws on as their personal experience?”

That statement echoes the thesis of Jonah Hill’s character in Moneyball, and is wonderfully illustrated in this scene:

“I like guys like that, that’ve got a little hair on their ass.”

Well, Mr. Old White Man Scout, you’re about to lose your job to Jonah Hill. Because he cares about players’ OBP instead of their anus follicle count.

(Gotta post this scene too because it’s so wonderful)

“You got a kid in there who’s got a degree in economics from Yale. You got a scout here with 29 years of baseball experience. You’re listening to the wrong one.”

I wonder if Ella has run into conversations like this. Baseball bought in to sabermetrics following the Oakland A’s historic 2002 season, but football has always been a bit stubborn when it comes to embracing science (see: concussion protocol, marijuana for pain management policy, etc.) It’s not hard to picture Ella in a room full of burly, grumpy Mike Ditka disciples, grunting their praise for players who show “grit” and “heart.” Meanwhile, she’s quietly sitting in the corner with an iPad, playing chess online until the morons are done talking. Then, she’ll swoop in with a power point presentation that leads to the Browns restructuring their roster with oddballs and CFL players. Maybe they take another look at Johnny Football. LOL.

I see the movie already. It’s The Queen’s Gambit meets Moneyball. You bet I’ll watch that on someone else’s HBOMax account.