Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Bashing the Browns

  In 1999, the city of Cleveland was given an expansion National Football League franchise three years after their Cleveland Browns were moved to Baltimore in 1996 by then owner Art Modell. The new Browns fit right in with the rest of Cleveland’s sports teams with losing records in 12 of their first 14 years and began this season on pace to continue their consistent losing with an unsurprising 0-2 record.

  As one would expect with a perennial loser, the Browns have gone through multiple coaches, general managers, and team presidents in their 15 years. In July 2012, the team was sold to businessman Jimmy Haslam by Randy Lerner (son of the deceased original owner Al Lerner). After witnessing last year’s 5-11 season (a one game improvement over the previous year), Haslam cleaned house by firing head coach Pat Shumer and general manager Tom Heckert. Team president and former Super Bowl winning head coach Mike Holmgren had previously had his duties stripped and was offered the chance to serve as a consultant and gracefully retire at the end of the season, but Holmgren decided to leave the organization after one of the teams infrequent victories.

  In the 2012, the Browns had the fourth pick in the draft and Holmgren traded it and the Browns 4th, 5th, and 7th round picks to the Minnesota Vikings for the third pick in the draft and selected All-American Trent Richardson from Alabama. Despite missing the preseason with arthroscopic knee surgery and playing most of the season with two broken ribs Richardson had an impressive rookie season with 1,300 rushing and receiving yards and 12 touchdowns but wasn’t close to being the transcendent running back he was projected to be before the draft.

  Holmgren knew he was running out of time to turn the Browns around and that led him to gamble half his teams draft to move up one place in the first round. Holmgren paid the steep price because he was afraid the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were going to pay the Vikings to move ahead of the Browns and select the Richardson. Ironically, the Buccaneers took running back Doug Martin with the 31st pick in the draft and Martin gained over 1800 yards last year.

  The last time a football team traded multiple draft picks for a ‘transcendent’ running back was when the New Orleans Saints traded the 12th pick in the draft along with their third through seventh round picks AND their first and third picks in the next season’s draft for the fifth pick in the draft which they used to select Heisman Trophy winning Ricky Williams. Williams was an All-Pro caliber running back who helped the Saints to the playoffs in 2000, but was traded to after the 2001 season to the Miami Dolphins for four draft picks.

  The reason so few teams pay a steep price in order to draft a running back is that productive running backs can be found much later in the draft. Of the 16 running backs that gained 1,000 yards last season, six were picked in the first round of the draft, two in the second round, four in the third round, and four were picked in the sixth round or later or were undrafted. Two of the top three and five of the top ten runners were first round picks, but it is clear that a top running back doesn’t have to have been picked in the first round of the draft.

  Even if the best running backs were exclusively first round picks, having the best running back is no guarantee of team success. There are rarely championship teams that have been built around a running back. The only exceptions I can think in the last 30 years of were the NFL’s all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith (three super bowl championships with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990’s) and the man whose record he broke, Walter Payton (leader of the 1985 Super Bowl Bears). The Bears were built around their great defense and only won the Super Bowl when quarterback Jim McMahon had a rare healthy year, and the Cowboys had all-pros throughout their lineup. If I want to go back 50 years the great Jim Brown (who retired with every rushing record) was clearly the best player and centerpiece of the 1964 champion Browns which had only two other Hall of Famers on the roster (rookie wide receiver Paul Warfield and the aging kicker Lou ‘The Toe’ Groza).

  With an 0-2 start and the prospect of a sixth straight losing season looming larger, new Browns general manager Michael Lombardi traded Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts last week for the Colts first pick in the 2014 NFL draft. The Colts were a playoff team last year but lost their starting running back to a season-ending knee injury. The initial reaction was that Cleveland was giving up on the season after only two games and that all they had to show for last year’s fourth, fifth, seventh round draft picks AND the number four pick in the entire draft is a top 20 pick in next year’s draft. The harshest critic of the trade was none other than Holmgren, the engineer of the trade to get Richardson in the first place. Holmgren told KJR of Seattle “Philosophically, if I am the coach and someone came in anywhere and did that, I’d say, “OK, fire me, or I’m going to quit…Or we’re both going to go into the owner and talk about this and then we’ll see who’s still standing”.

  It’s all well and good for Mike Holmgren to defend the draft pick he invested heavily in and I know that the Super Bowl winning coach Mike Holmgren would have quit if one of his favorite players were traded without his blessing but I doubt that first year coach Mike Holmgren would have quit his first head coaching job after two games because he didn’t approve of his boss trading his starting running back. If Richardson hadn’t gotten hurt last year or had been a running back worth trading half his draft for, perhaps Holmgren would still be running the Browns, but he did get hurt and wasn’t worth half the draft and the Browns continued losing 2 thirds of their games after three years of Holmgren’s tenure the same as they did before Holmgren arrived. Holmgren would be better served by talking more about three Super Bowl appearances during his coaching tenures with the Packers and Seahawks and less about his failure to improve the Browns' record during his time as President of the team.

  Perhaps Richardson will become the player many think he can be now that he is with a better team, but I like the trade for the Browns and I like it a lot. Running backs rarely can be traded for a first round pick but the injury to Bullard put the Colts in a position to overpay for Richardson and to me it wasn’t a question of what the Browns gave up for Richardson – it’s a question of what he’s worth now and what he will be worth in the future and once he established he was not the franchise running back the Browns thought he was it makes perfect sense to trade him at a premium before he gets hurt or he value is further diminished by next year’s crop of running backs.

  The other reason that the trade makes sense is that with an entirely new management team a losing year or two can be blamed on the previous regime, especially since the new management is not coming in with a track record of success. When a 'proven' winner is brought in to take over a franchise, 3 years is about the limit of fan and owner patience as Holmgren and Kansas City Chief ex-GM (and former New England Patriot wonderboy) Scott Pioli have discovered. Since virtually every good team is built through the draft, if the Browns are to become a consistent winner new GM Michael Lombardi will have to draft quickly and draft well and it makes sense for him to stockpile as many draft picks as he can because if he can’t draft the Browns will be losers for another decade and if he can they will be winners that much quicker.

  Despite the Browns 31-27 road win over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday (which said more about the hapless state of the Vikings than the Browns), there is a lot of work to be done for the Browns. During the Vikings game, the Browns’ offensive line seemed so awful that Richardson’s pedestrian production last year looks much more impressive. While third string Brian Hoyer did throw three touchdown passes in his second career start, the poor offensive line play had him running for safety too often and he threw three awful looking interceptions. The Brown’s receiving corps is above average and their defense was competent but slow in a lot of spots. It’s a hit or miss proposition to draft franchise quarterbacks and running backs, but if the Browns can use the draft to assemble a strong defense and offensive line they can build a playoff team with journeymen at quarterback and running back and then start gambling on getting superstars in the draft.