What are the Browns doing?

The Cleveland Browns have been the epitome of futility since they were refounded in 1999. The original Browns franchise moved to Baltimore in 1995, was renamed the Ravens, and has since won two Super Bowls, further proving that Cleveland is where sports teams go to die.

After another disappointing season and a transfer of ownership to businessman Jim Haslett, the Browns replaced their entire management, firing head coach Pat Shurmur and general manager Tom Heckert. Rod Chudzinski was hired to replace Shurmur and Michael Lombardi to replace Heckert.

The new management began the slow and arduous process of bringing the Browns out of the gutter and back to the level of their AFC North brethren: the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Cincinnati Bengals.

Normally, the standard ineptitude of the Browns isn’t headline news with the merry-go-round of head coaches, starting quarterbacks, and exceptional teams. This time is different, however, as the Browns have made one of the most shocking trades in NFL history: trading running back Trent Richardson, the third overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, to the Indianapolis Colts for a 2014 first-round pick.

The trade came as such a surprise that no one is quite sure who made the better deal, and more importantly, what in the world the new Browns management was thinking.

Richardson has been a polarizing player since his days at the University of Alabama. He first made an impact as the backup to the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner and current New Orleans Saint Mark Ingram. He then lead Alabama to a national championship in 2011 as the feature back, being named an All-American and winning the Doak Walker award for best college running back.

In the 2012 draft, the top two players were clearly quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. The Colts had the first pick and drafted Luck, while the Washington Redskins traded up from the sixth pick to snatch Griffin. The Browns were also interested in trading with the St. Louis Rams for the second overall pick but were outmatched by the Redskins offer of three first-round picks.

This left the Browns in an interesting spot, holding the fourth overall pick while the Minnesota Vikings sat in front of them with the third pick. The Browns decided to pass on quarterback Ryan Tannehill who fell to the Miami Dolphins at No. 8, and instead made the curious move to trade up one spot with the Vikings. The Browns then filled their quarterback need by taking Brandon Weeden, the oldest-ever player taken in the first round, with their 28th pick.

Which brings us to the present day. Normally, moves such as bailing on the third overall pick after only 18 games are reserved for coaches and general managers who know their days are numbered. But in this case, it appears that Cleveland’s front office is taking the exact opposite approach, looking to the long term.

To return to relevancy, the Browns need a franchise quarterback. The Weeden experiment has failed; its failure is further pronounced when the other quarterbacks of Weeden’s draft class — Luck, Griffin, Tannehill, and third-round pick Russell Wilson — have established themselves as franchise cornerstones.

This upcoming draft is likely to be full of NFL-caliber quarterbacks with Teddy Bridgewater and Heisman Trophy-winner Johnny Manziel leading the way. The trade appears to be setting the stage for the Browns to pick any incoming quarterback and make the necessary trade to get him with multiple first-round picks in their arsenal.

For the Colts, this is an interesting move. Rarely do teams get the chance to bring in a potential Pro Bowl talent for only a first-round pick. The Colts gave up a chance to draft a great player for one they believe is already proven. But history will tell whether or not Richardson becomes a Hall of Famer, or another in the long line of running back busts who can’t last more than a few years, given the wear and tear they receive on a weekly basis.

If Richardson can help protect Luck from blitzing linebackers making the Colts offensive line look like Swiss cheese, and if the Colts can rebound from a tough 1–1 start to make the playoffs, the move will be considered genius. In addition, if the Colts’ legitimate passing threat forces teams to stop crowding the line of scrimmage against Richardson — thus making his pedestrian yards-per-carry rise to the level of a great player — the Browns will have added another item to their long list of poor moves.

The two teams are clearly heading in opposite directions, with the Browns looking toward the future and the Colts making it clear that they aim to win now. Let’s see how both teams fare in a year or two after all of the pieces have fallen into place.