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The Last Browns QB to Win an NFL Championship Is, Ironically, a Math Genius

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) throws a pass against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first half of the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pa., January 10, 2021. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Last weekend, the Cleveland Browns, in their first playoff game since 2002, won their first postseason game since 1994, in an AFC wild-card matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers (48–37).

As the Cleveland Browns make their first NFL playoff run in decades after an 11–5 season fueled by analytics, it’s ironic and worth noting that the last quarterback to take them to a national championship, Frank Ryan, was in fact a mathematics PhD.

Indeed, the pinnacle of Frank Ryan’s 13-year professional football career was leading the Browns to a national championship in 1964. He did so alongside the all-star Browns fullback Jim Brown, whom many believe to be the greatest fullback in NFL history.

Ryan, after earning his mathematics PhD at Rice University during the off-season (very much like Ravens lineman John Urschel who recently earned his mathematics PhD at MIT), started teaching at Rice while still with the Browns.

On top of teaching, Ryan conducted research in complex analysis. While at training camp, he would teach math in the morning and attend football practice in the afternoon (something almost unthinkable for an NFL player today given their rigid training schedules). For the real math nerds, Ryan has an Erdos number of three.

Ryan claims that his particular attention to detail helped him as a quarterback when trying to precisely hit his target (i.e., by aiming for not just a receiver’s head but more precisely, his chin).

After his time with the Browns, he went on to play as a backup quarterback for the Washington Redskins under Vince Lombardi in the 1969–1970 season.

He also served on the mathematics faculty at Case Western Reserve University until 1974, and then worked in U.S. Congress as the first director of Information Services. There, he grew his office to a staff of 225 and introduced some of the first computers in Congress (in addition to creating its first electronic voting system).

Ryan later held several administrative and faculty roles at Yale and Rice University. He also led several ventures analyzing the statistical behavior of futures markets, perhaps around the same time fellow mathematician and Stony Brook University professor Jim Simons was starting Renaissance Technologies (one of the world’s most successful hedge funds).

The last time I checked in with him, Ryan was living in Vermont spending most of his time in retirement trying to solve/prove various twin prime conjectures — some of the most popularly unresolved mathematics problems in the world, part of David Hilbert’s famous 23 unresolved problems, proposed in 1900. If the Browns can perform a miracle this year and win the Super Bowl, perhaps Ryan can provide a proof for one of those old math problems, too.

Either way, the success of the Browns this year under the leadership of an analytics-driven front office (led by Paul DePodesta and Andrew Berry) and a coaching staff (led by Kevin Stefanski) very much follows the Frank Ryan tradition of Cleveland Browns quantitative analysis.

Jon Hartley is a master’s student at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Visiting Fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. He formerly served as a senior policy adviser to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee.

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