My first reaction: What?????
My second reaction: Wait, shouldn't the Browns have gotten more for Trent Richardson?
My third reaction: If Richardson turns into Edge James 2.0 for the Colts, Lombardi will be back on my podcast in time for the 2014 draft!
My fourth reaction: Come on, Trent Richardson! KILL IT FOR THE COLTS! I WANT LOMBARDI BACK!
My fifth reaction: (That's terrible. I feel bad. I shouldn't have thought that.)
My sixth reaction: Wait a second … are we sure Trent Richardson is good?
(Did some Googling … looked at his numbers … noticed he ran for just 3.4 yards per carry behind what we thought was a solid offensive line … noticed he played only half of Cleveland's plays last week … noticed the Browns converted only five of 29 third downs in two weeks … noticed Richardson had only 14 runs of 10 yards or more in 267 carries last season … remembered he's battled multiple injures … remembered that he never showed any real explosiveness anytime I ever watched him … realized that he might have been a bigger part of Cleveland's offensive futility than I realized … and then, I wondered if that was the case because the Browns have horrible quarterbacks, because he's not that good, or both.)
My seventh reaction: Just because Richardson went third overall in the 2012 draft, does that mean that's where he should have been drafted?
(More Googling … found a PFT piece with Jim Brown saying he thought Richardson was "ordinary" and that he "wasn't impressed" with Mark Ingram one day before the draft … found Mel Kiper calling Richardson a "rare talent" in his 2012 draft grades … found a bunch of "Richardson is overrated" articles heading into that draft … remembered how dumb Cleveland's old regime was for trading up one spot to get him when Minnesota just wanted to take Matt Kalil anyway … vaguely remembered that at Alabama Richardson backed up Ingram, someone who absolutely sucks for the Saints right now … in general, the consensus seemed to be split between "can't-miss franchise guy" and "overrated.")
My eighth reaction: But wait — Lombardi worked for NFL Network and NFL.com back then. Now he's the GM of the Browns. What did he think of Richardson before that 2012 draft? I looked up his NFL.com archives. Here's what Lombardi wrote.
"I believe the safest pick in the draft — beyond Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III — is Alabama running back Trent Richardson. He's a blue-chip player and has all the skills to quickly establish himself as a top-five player at his position. Forget the nonsense about not taking backs early — everyone would love the chance to get this guy."
My ninth reaction: Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat? THE PLOT THICKENS!
My 10th reaction: Was Lombardi's premise, "Forget the nonsense about not taking backs early," flawed? Yes and no. He's right if you're talking about Adrian Peterson, or a prospect close to Peterson. He's wrong if it's anyone iffier than that. You don't need a franchise back to win a Super Bowl in the 21st century, as the Willie Parkers, Joseph Addais, James Starkses and Ahmad Bradshaws taught us.
Also not helping: The league's shift to pass-pass-pass-pass (the new rules pushed us there); specialization (many teams love juggling multiple backs with different skills); wear and tear (elite backs lose it almost overnight, as we might be seeing right now with Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice); the Concussion/Safety/Caution Era (it's dangerous to build your offense around franchise backs when they take the biggest hits out of anyone); and the abject randomness of finding a quality back (as the likes of sixth-rounder Alfred Morris and undrafted Arian Foster show us). Think about the haphazard dudes who swing your fantasy league every year. How many of them are running backs? Just about all of them, right?
In real life, that's why everyone waits until the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s to draft them.1 This wasn't happening three decades ago. In a five-year stretch from 1986 through 1990, an inconceivable 34 backs were taken with top-32 picks. Only four rushed for more than 4,500 career yards: Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Rodney Hampton and Neal Anderson … one less than the number of guys picked after the top 32 who did it (Christian Okoye, Thurman Thomas, Marion Butts, Terry Allen and Chris Warren). After that bloodbath, teams wised up and started waiting … until 1995, when everyone forgot and five backs went in the top 25 (Ki-Jana Carter, Tyrone Wheatley, Napoleon Kaufman, James Stewart, Rashaan Salaam). Or as it's better known, the Backocalypse of 1995.
But 1995's draft DID have two stud backs. They just went in Round 3 (Curtis Martin) and Round 6 (Terrell Davis). Hmmmmmmmmmmmm. After that, we saw first-round running back binges only two other times: in 2000 (we went 3-for-5 — Jamal Lewis, Thomas Jones and Shaun Alexander) and 2008 (we went 1.7-for-5 — Chris Johnson made it, and Darren McFadden kinda sorta made it). In 2013, we made history: No first-round backs whatsoever, but five taken between picks 37 and 62.
As for "luxury" running backs like Trent Richardson, teams have spent 13 top-16 picks on backs since 2002: Richardson (3), C.J. Spiller (9), Ryan Mathews (12), Knowshon Moreno (12), Jonathan Stewart (13), McFadden (4), Marshawn Lynch (12), Reggie Bush (2), Peterson (7), Ronnie Brown (2), Cedric Benson (4), Cadillac Williams (5), William Green (16). It's a grisly list. Only Peterson and Lynch made it. Bush and McFadden kinda sorta made it. Spiller made it in the "everyone overpaid for him in fantasy this year" sense. And that's it. Leading to …
My 11th reaction: If the Browns had just trumped Washington's offer for Robert Griffin III in 2012, they never would have found themselves in this pickle.2 Instead, Cleveland inexplicably traded up one slot for Minnesota's third overall pick (giving up a fourth-, fifth-, and seventh-rounder even though Minnesota was always taking tackle Matt Kalil), passed on Ryan Tannehill (who went eighth), then rolled the dice with Brandon Weeden at no. 22. To recap: They were outwitted by Daniel Snyder and the Vikings (Daniel Snyder and the Vikings!), then "landed" their QB by rolling the dice with a 28-year-old rookie.
Would you rather have Richardson and Weeden … or Tannehill and Doug Martin?
I mean …
My 12th reaction: Is it possible that Cleveland's old regime had no idea what they were doing? We knew the Weeden experiment was probably doomed, but why didn't it bother us more at the time when the Browns spent a top-three pick on a back? Two additional notes here …
• When my illegitimate son Barnwell wrote his 2011 and 2012 Trade Value columns, you might remember, he almost completely devalued running backs. Only Peterson made 2013's list (no. 30). Only Ray Rice made 2012's list (no. 39). So why take one in the top five? What's the point?
• Shouldn't it mean something that, over and over again, quality running backs have fetched relatively cheap trade packages? Justin Higdon of DraftBrowns.com defended the Richardson deal and made a shrewd point: He's the first back since Ricky Williams to fetch a first-rounder in a trade. Normally, they go for much less. St. Louis gave up a fifth- and second-rounder for Marshall Faulk. Seattle gave up a fourth and a fifth for Lynch. Indy allowed Edgerrin James to leave for nothing. Now Richardson is fetching a first-round pick? Doesn't this seem … off?
My 13th reaction: Could Cleveland be the first NFL team to steal my NBA-centric concept of "It's better to bottom out than be stuck in no-man's-land?"
In the NBA, you either want to be really good or really bad (with no in-between). You don't want to finish 42-40 and lose in Round 1 every year. Basically, you don't want to be the Bucks. With next June's watershed draft looming, one-third of NBA teams either threw away their 2013-14 seasons or might be headed that way. The Sixers have pole position — they made history by tanking away June and July, which had never happened before and should probably win them some sort of award that's shaped like a port-a-potty. Next March and April, it's only getting worse. We'll see more tanking than we saw in the final 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan.
But whenever this happens in the NBA, the general public gets it. They might not like it, but they get it. They see the light at the end of the tunnel — you can only land LeBron, Durant, Rose and Griffin by being shitty enough to draft them. That concept never trickled into the NFL because of the league's commitment to parity (also-rans transform into juggernauts almost overnight), the physicality of its games (it's impossible to mail in an NFL game), its lavish rookie salary scale (until 2011, that scale penalized anyone with a top-five pick unless he became a superstar) and the size of NFL rosters (only a superduperstar QB can swing your fortunes overnight). Everyone always wants a franchise quarterback — that hasn't changed since the Namath era — but we've never seen anyone preemptively stack the deck to get one.
Well, until this week. And that's the most compelling part of this Richardson trade: For the first time, an NFL team is thinking like an NBA team. Fifteen years of futility nudged them there. Since football returned to Cleveland in 1999, the wretched Browns have ripped through seven head coaches and 957 starting QBs (all numbers approximate), including Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Colt McCoy and, most recently, the unequivocally atrocious Weeden (who is somehow older than Alex Smith). Every season for 15 straight seasons, they've been dead on arrival because they couldn't find the right coach and the right QB.
The 2013 Browns have hung around in both losses but haven't been able to run or throw. Sadly, those are the only two ways to score in football. (Hold on, I'm using my Talking Head Voice.) If you can't run the ball or throw the ball, you can't win in the National. Football. League! So they accepted their fate much like the 76ers did and said, "Screw it, this is ridiculous, WE'RE NEVER GONNA HAVE A CHANCE until we find a franchise quarterback."3 Every 2013 contender employs either an elite QB (Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, New England, Green Bay, New Orleans, Atlanta) or a decent-enough QB that they can't be ruled out (Chicago, Miami, Houston, maybe K.C.). That's just the NFL in 2013. It's flag football with pads. If you don't have someone who can chuck the ball and take advantage of the pass-friendly rules, you're DOA.
You know what else? The revamped rookie scale practically begs teams with top-12 picks to roll the dice on quarterbacks. In retrospect, Miami grabbing Ryan Tannehill with 2012's no. 8 pick wasn't just smart, it was borderline brilliant. He could absolutely be Joe Flacco 2.0 … and they have him on a four-year guaranteed deal worth $12.67 million. That's an insane price. San Francisco and Seattle are even luckier — they have Kaepernick and Wilson, respectively, locked up for this year and next for less than $5 million combined. Compare those numbers to St. Louis's situation with the eternally half-decent Sam Bradford — under the old rules, he signed a six-year, $78 million deal with $37.2 million guaranteed. Yeeesh.
So if you think about Cleveland's Richardson trade like it's an NBA trade, it makes more sense: The Browns will have a top-five pick at worst (probably higher), and then, if Indy misses the playoffs, that gives them a second chance at finding their QB. Let's say Jacksonville lands that first pick after losing to Cleveland in the Toilet Bowl on December 1 (yes, they play). Cleveland then ends up with the no. 2 and no. 12 picks, and let's say everyone agrees that Jadeveon Clowney and Teddy Bridgewater dwarf every other prospect. Flipping Richardson for that extra first-rounder gave Cleveland better options, especially because (a) his price would have dropped if he kept struggling, and (b) only the Colts were desperate enough to make that trade. The Browns could make a Godfather offer for Bridgewater, or they can pick Clowney at no. 2 (Clowney and Barkevious Mingo????) and pick Johnny Football at no. 12. Or they could make it easy by out-sucking everyone else and picking first.
Translation: Thanks to that trade, the Browns are officially in Drowney for Clowney AND Play Dead for Ted mode. Well, why not? How is that strategy any different from what eight NBA teams just did? Cleveland's brain trust just told its fans, "We've sucked for 14 years, and we're tired of it … it's Quarterback or Bust." Of course, that didn't stop every Browns fan from freaking the fuck out. Why trust these guys when they've had a revolving door of shortsighted dummies in charge since 1999? What makes these guys different?
The short answer: Until they prove otherwise, we don't know if they're different. I know Lombardi, obviously. I know team president Alec Scheiner, a Sloan Conference staple who happens to be one of the smartest sports people I've ever met. I don't know CEO Joe Banner, or owner Jimmy Haslam, or coach Rob Chudinssksglskgskdkskski. I know they're trying to build a first-class organization, and I know they believe that big decisions are made collectively, with everyone on the same page, from the owner down to the coach. I know they also believe that an NFL franchise cannot succeed short-term and long-term without such a decision-making structure in place.
So for them to flip Richardson into a future pick, that tells me (with no inside info, by the way) they didn't want to build around him, worried about his durability and various injuries (red flags when you're trying to get 375 touches per year from the same back), believed he was the wrong fit for Chudinssksglskgskdkskski's offense, and didn't believe he would come back to haunt them.4 They saw the same things we saw — that for a blue-chip running back, Trent Richardson sure looked average as hell. And they KNEW they'd get absolutely murdered for the trade, only they did it anyway. What does that tell you?
The only catch: What if the change of scenery lights a fire under Richardson? What if the embarrassment of getting dumped turns him into a cross between Steven Jackson 2.0 and Edge James 2.0? What if he develops an Eff You edge and devotes his career to haunting the Browns? Can you think of a more likely franchise to endure that ongoing "God, why did we give that guy up?" pain than the Cleveland Browns? And what if they don't land a franchise QB in May, or even worse, what if they land one … and he sucks?
Here's what happens: Their severely tortured fans will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER forgive the people running this team.
Put more simply: THERE IS NO GOING BACK.
That's what makes this such a riveting trade, and that's why it left the football world so stunned. NFL teams rarely make these kind of trades; when they do, it's usually a panic move by a regime on the outs (like Oakland foolishly sacrificing a first and a second for Carson Palmer). For the Browns, their "it's a marathon, not a sprint" mind-set is almost an anti-panic, even if their beleaguered fans don't want to hear it.
For the Colts, the trade felt a smidge panicky, even if you can't blame them for taking the plunge. (Other than drafting an elite player, the easiest way to get one is by acquiring a former high draft pick whose first team gave up on him too early.) Owner Jim Irsay spent the week hyping this deal as one of those "WE ARE SERIOUS ABOUT CONTENDING RIGHT NOW!" moves, which was a horrible mistake. These Colts weren't one good back away from making the Super Bowl; if anything, they were this season's no. 1 regression candidate, and that's even before they nearly lost to the Raiders and got bested at home by a better Miami team.5 After the Colts lose in San Francisco this Sunday, they'll be 1-2 with a home-and-home against Houston, home games against Seattle and Denver, and road games at San Diego, Tennessee, Cincinnati, Arizona and Kansas City remaining. They won't be favored in any of those nine games. It's true.
And by the way, Luck continues to get creamed behind a shaky offensive line; as Barnwell pointed out on Wednesday, he's getting knocked down at a legitimately unsustainable rate. Twice as much as any other starting QB, basically. So instead of Richardson propelling them to 10 or 11 wins, there's a much better chance this trade swings the other way, with Indy missing the playoffs and maybe even losing a top-10 pick. Our friends at PredictionMachine.com simulated the 2013 season 50,000 times and earmarked the "improved" Colts for 6.5 wins, projecting that they'd be handing Cleveland the sixth pick in next April's draft.
(And if Luck gets hurt … I mean … )
My 14th and final reaction: Whatever happens, it's the ballsiest NFL trade in years — two teams that said, "SCREW IT!" for wholly different reasons. We'll remember it as a watershed transaction, because either …
A. The Browns ushered in a new era of football thinking (the NBA's "avoid no-man's-land at all costs, even if it means throwing away a season" mind-set) right as the Colts were retiring an antiquated way of thinking (that running backs matter this much when they really don't).
B. The trade became Cleveland's latest sports disaster (and chapter 38 of someone's "God Hates Cleveland" book) right as the Colts were being hailed for improbably building another post-Manning offensive juggernaut.
I can't wait to see how it plays out. Phenomenally entertaining trade. One of the best in a while, in any sport. Just know that, if the Browns REALLY want to bottom out while keeping their fans vaguely intrigued by their 2013 season, I have a 27-letter word for them: