Gut Reaction:  Browns trade Trent Richardson to Colts

Happy Thursday, friends. The Twitter world was set ablaze yesterday afternoon right as I was getting ready to attend an assessment where I was evaluated for competency to teach accounting and cost accounting to college students, as a side gig.

I did well, I think, but half the time, I was thinking about how interesting the Trent Richardson trade was, and what it said about the two teams that made it.

For the Colts, it reinforced the idea that they’re all about winning now, and that they don’t value draft picks very highly. Remember, they traded their 2013 second-rounder for Vontae Davis last year too. There are a couple of risks to this approach, and the main one exists because of the (still relatively new) CBA.

When you trade for a guy like Trent Richardson during his second year, you’ve foregone one low-cost season from the four that you’ll ever get from a top player during his prime. You’ll have to extend Richardson (assuming he’s worth it) a season earlier than you’d have to extend a current-year draft pick. If you do that too often, you can end up with salary cap trouble more easily and quickly than you can if you “build through the draft.”

The other risk is if Richardson never works out as a player. The NFL team that knows him best just got rid of him, and that doesn’t happen if they have a really good internal evaluation of Richardson as a player. Right now, the perception out there is so strong that this a big-time talent, but the reality is that Richardson has shown very little yet. He’s done so behind one of the better run-blocking lines in the NFL, and he now joins a team with a lousy offensive line (albeit a much better QB).

If you ask me, Jim Brown had it right: Richardson was, is, and will continue to be very overrated. All over Twitter yesterday, Browns fans freaked out, and said what if he’s the next Adrian Peterson? Let me save you the suspense: he’s not. He’s got decent talent, but he fooled everybody by benefiting from the Alabama Effect.

I’ve said this in the past, and I’ll say it again. I’m always very suspicious of Alabama football players, because they tend to underachieve at shockingly high rates in the NFL. They look better than they really are in college, because they are surrounded by the most talented teammates, and because they have the best coaching and schemes.

Look at the following list. These are all of the Alabama players drafted in the first three rounds between 2009 and 2012:

Yr # Team Player Pos Notes
'09 1-6 CIN Andre Smith OT One good season in four, during contract year
'09 3-74 SF Glen Coffee RB Played sparingly one season, retired abruptly, and is now a paratrooper
'09 3-76 HOU Antoine Caldwell OL Started 19 games in four years. Now out of NFL; one pick before Louis Vasquez
'09 3-95 ARI Rashad Johnson S Special teamer and backup safety for Cardinals
'10 1-8 OAK Rolando McClain LB Poor play on field, significant trouble off it, out of NFL
'10 1-20 HOU Kareem Jackson CB Below-average starter for Texans
'10 2-50 KC Javier Arenas CB Four years as subpar nickelback for KC; traded to ARI for FB Anthony Sherman in '13.
'10 2-57 BAL Terrance Cody NT Completely average rotation NT for Baltimore; little impact
'10 3-98 ATL Mike Johnson OG One start in 18 games during three-year career
'11 1-3 BUF Marcell Dareus DT Pretty good player who'd go no higher than 12th in a re-draft
'11 1-6 ATL Julio Jones WR Top-notch WR who lived up to his billing; attributes were obvious
'11 1-25 SEA James Carpenter OL Struggled when healthy, usually hurt; 16 starts/games in two+ seasons
'11 1-28 NO Mark Ingram RB Lousy for the most part; still plays in rotation for some reason.
'12 1-3 CLE Trent Richardson RB 3.5 YPC on 298 pro carries; often nicked up in young career
'12 1-6 TB Mark Barron S Starter for Bucs; still waiting to see an impact
'12 1-17 CIN Dre Kirkpatrick CB No impact so far; four career tackles
'12 1-25 NE Dont'a Hightower LB Rotation LB; nothing special
'12 2-35 BAL Courtney Upshaw OLB Touted as a pass-rusher; not that at all (1.5 sacks in career)

That’s a bunch of underachievers (of varying degrees), right? The only exception is Jones, who, as I mentioned, was the only player with athletic attributes that really jumped off the screen. The rest of these guys were pretty good athletes, and good college players, who looked better than they were. To be clear, I'm not denigrating the Alabama program; I'm actually crediting them with maximizing their assets and abilities, while functioning as the best-run college program. I just am reluctant to want to draft their players into the NFL, where the advantages they've enjoyed will disapper.

I’ll say it right now – I am not in love with Richardson, and I never have been. I thought the Browns should have taken Ryan Tannehill, and I said so at the time. Tannehill has improved a lot from Year 1 to Year 2, and it won’t be long before he’s being mentioned with Andrew Luck and the rest of the young star QBs.

I want to delve more deeply into the Browns here, because I think they’re the more interesting player. For one thing, I have a lot of friends who are Browns fans, and they’re all apoplectic. For another thing, having read his writing for years, I feel like I have some insight into the way GM Michael Lombardi thinks.

Let’s start with the fan angle. I have a former co-worker named Meridith who’s from Cleveland, but now lives in the Mobile, Alabama area. She writes about football frequently, and she has a pretty entertaining style. I always enjoy checking out her blog. Yesterday, she said she was going to become a Saints fan because the Browns traded Trent Richardson. Meridith is a big Alabama fan, so this is doubly painful for her, but that's a huge step.

My old friend Matt, whom I’ve known as a Cleveland fan for about 25 years back to my Norwich, CT days, is talking about burning all of his Browns gear, and getting on the Bengals bandwagon.

I have a lot of other Cleveland-based friends who have been variously cursing out the team on Facebook, in terms that were almost scary. They really thought that Trent Richardson was going to make them a winner (Delusionally, but whatever. Hope doesn’t cost anything.).

I’ll tell you this about Michael Lombardi. He’s been trying to get back into the NFL for several years, so he knows how hard it is to get a job, and he had a long time to think about strategy once he got there. Success doesn't favor the meek, and I think he decided that he was going to do things his way, since this is pretty clearly his last and best shot.

In April, the Browns traded their fourth- and fifth-round picks in the 2013 Draft for third- and fourth-rounders in 2014, respectively. The idiot local media grumbled (Tony Grossi, the local grand poobah, has a personal vendetta against Lombardi).

Now, he’s traded Richardson for a first-rounder in 2014. If you don’t like Richardson, this makes all the sense in the world. The guy’s performance has been underwhelming so far, but that’s just on the field. You have to wonder whether the new regime saw things they didn’t like in the guy in practice and in other behind-the-scenes settings too.

One thing that Lombardi said several years ago that always stuck out to me is that he considers durability to be a skill for football players. Some players know how to keep themselves healthy, and some are always banged up. He doesn’t value the ones who are always banged up highly. That basically describes Richardson’s NFL career so far.

I think that the Browns’ braintrust (consisting of team president Joe Banner, Lombardi, and head coach Rob Chudzinski) were cautiously optimistic heading into this season. I think that’s been tempered somewhat by starting off the season 0-2, and even more by the injury to QB Brandon Weeden. There's also the fact that the Browns struggled mightily on offense in both games.

I also think the Browns understand the counterintuitive (but crystal clear) reality that it’s strategically better to be 2-14 than it is to be 7-9, particularly when you view an upcoming draft to be a strong one. You don’t think it helped the Broncos to go 4-12 in 2010, and get the opportunity to draft Von Miller in 2011?

If you don’t love this player, and if you don’t want to go 7-9, and if you know you’ll probably never get a #1 for Richardson again, you do the deal. Andy Benoit has this exactly right:

Unfair to claim the #Browns are tanking season. They got a great offer for a 950-yd RB. Smart move.

— Andy Benoit (@Andy_Benoit) September 19, 2013

You play for 2014, and you continue to load up on draft picks. (Honestly, in terms of ability to play football well right now, Willis McGahee is no downgrade from Richardson.) The Browns can finish turning over their roster with one more draft, and they’re practically guaranteed to have a good shot at one of the many strong QB prospects coming in.

Since 1999, the Browns have been managed by dopes, and they’ve consistently been impatient and mismanaged the team. Now, they make a move to delay gratification, and be patient, while trying to time a bunch of young talent to grow together simultaneously, and their fans go apeshit. SAME OLD BROWNS!

No, actually this is a brand new approach for the Browns. They’re doing the right thing by ignoring the negative comments from the media and fans, and fear of those has consistently been the undoing of the franchise since 1999.

As for the wannabe draftnik dumbasses on Twitter, let me make a point I’ve made a number of times over the years. Sunk costs are 100% irrelevant to the decisions we face today. This is not debatable; intelligent people understand this, and fools dwell on sunk costs. (A sunk cost is any cost incurred in the past that can’t be directly recovered today, for the moron on Twitter who claimed that I shouldn’t call these sunk costs “sunk costs.”)

A lot of chatter focused on the fact that Richardson represented either the third pick in the 2012 Draft, or the fourth, 118th, 139th, and 211th, because Cleveland traded those picks to move up one spot. How could they trade all those picks for a 2014 first-rounder that would probably be in the twenties?

The answer is because now Trent Richardson is a football player with evidence of his skills on NFL game tape, and it doesn’t matter what picks were used to acquire him. Draft picks lose value and meaning the minute you use them, because they can’t be recovered. They’re derivative assets, like an oil future contract. Eventually, if you own the contract on the specified date, you get some physical oil delivered to you. It is completely meaningless what the contract was worth a month ago, because you didn’t sell it then. Now you have a barrel of Light Sweet Crude in your yard, and it’s worth what it’s worth.

Exercised draft picks are sunk costs, and they don’t matter unless you’re an idiot. It would be nice if the people who made those picks did a better job of it, but the clock can’t be turned back, and what is done is done. Frankly, one of the benefits of the new CBA, with its lower rookie pay scale, is that you can move on more easily from a mistake. Do you think that the Jaguars will hesitate to cut Blaine Gabbert, and draft somebody else in 2014?

Trent Richardson may still end up being a really good player, but particularly after seeing him in the NFL, I have serious doubts. Yeah, he had to run against a lot of eight-man boxes, but so do all of the best RBs. He hasn’t shown the ability to defeat the extra guy himself, like an Adrian Peterson or Marshawn Lynch can do.

To my friends in brown: I’m not trying to troll you here. Trust me, the smartest commentators on football almost universally like this trade for the Browns. The dumber ones don’t like it, because they’re the dumber ones. I certainly include Grossi and Mary Kay Cabot (and Peter King) in that mix.  The local assclowns get clicks by bringing it back to your season tickets, and your hard-earned money, and 1964, and all the rest of the emotional appeals.

Stop with the woe-is-me Cleveland sports fan mentality, and have some patience with the new regime. I know that’s a lot to ask, after 14 years of patience, but you can’t logically hold past failures against people who didn’t make them. What Banner/Lombardi/Chudzinski et al are showing is that they have a plan.

I believe that it is the right plan, and the question is whether the quality of the execution will match the quality of the plan. I tend to think the Browns are in better hands than they’ve been in since the Belichick days.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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