Without head coach Kevin Stefanski, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, the Cleveland Browns’ playoff success rides on the arm of Baker Mayfield, the legs of running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and the strength of defensive end Myles Garrett. But off the field, the team has been relying in part on the mind of Harvard University senior Ella Papanek, a research and strategy intern who is assisting with the team’s analytical preparation for its AFC wild card game on Sunday night.
The Browns are not without Harvard ties- most notably General Manager Andrew Berry and Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta are alums. But the team’s renewed focus on analytics in a data-hungry league has created opportunities for current students like Papanek.
Her primary task this season is working on a player projection model, using analytics to anticipate every NFL player’s career production. Papanek’s other duties include a weekly game review, where Cleveland’s analytics team divides into different roles and focuses on specific aspects of the game, like clock management.
“For someone as young as Ella, it’s pretty striking how wide she’s traveled in terms of her curiosity,” said Andrew Healy, the Browns’ vice president of research and strategy and a Yale alum himself. (Healy also holds a PhD in economics from MIT.) Papanek, 21, initially got into analytics through playing chess and a general tendency to examine the world from a theoretical perspective. The New York native’s football fandom began after the New York Giants’ victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Years later, she’d arrive at Harvard, where she is currently a senior and majoring in statistics. Her passion also led her to become president of the Harvard Sports Analytics Collective during her junior year (HSAC).
“Her work is still in development, but it’s original and creative and the sky is the limit,” Healy said of Papanek. “She’s got enormous potential.”
Because of the pandemic, Papanek has worked remotely from New York during her internship but was able to attend the Browns’ home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers last weekend.
“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.”
Papanek argues that experience and analytics are simply two different information sets, one accumulated over time through real-world living and the other calculated more instantaneously through technology.
“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?”
The HSAC co-president emeritus told Sportico that when she was competing in chess tournaments growing up, she didn’t notice she was usually the only girl because she was so focused on her match. As Papanek continues to venture through the male-dominated pro football world, the gender disparity still doesn’t bother her.
“I rarely consider whether I’m meant to be in a certain field or community,” said Papanek. “If it interests me and I want to engage with the problems in that field, then I just go for it.”