Confusion in Cleveland: Browns trade Richardson

CLEVELAND – This has Jan. 26, 1970 written all over it.

That was the day the Browns traded receiver Paul Warfield to the Miami Dolphins for the Dolphins’ first pick in the draft, which was used to select Purdue quarterback Mike Phipps.

How did that one work out for the Browns? Warfield has a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and a brand new statue bearing his likeness outside of Mollenkopf Stadium in his hometown of Warren. Phipps had a career passer rating of 52.6.

Such is the gamble the Browns took Wednesday when they traded running back Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for the Colts’ first-round pick in the 2014 draft. The shocking development indicates the lack of confidence management had in Richardson, the third overall draft pick in 2012, and the belief that stockpiling picks next year is the only way to build a consistent winner.

“I don’t want to tip our hands as to what we’re going to do or what we’re prioritizing to do, but I think it puts us in a very good position having made progress with the team this offseason to be in very good cap space and having acquired those picks to be in position to build the type of team that’s good and sustainable that we’re talking about,” CEO Joe Banner said.

The Browns, who have scored a combined one touchdown in opening the season with losses to the Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens, now have two picks in the first, third and fourth rounds and seven picks in the first four rounds of next year’s draft. As of today they have 10 total picks.

This is what happens when new management, including owner James Haslam, takes control. The trio of Haslam, Banner and General Manager Michael Lombardi didn’t make the 2012 first-round selections of quarterback Brandon Weeden and Richardson. They apparently feel they can make such a bold move and not take a big hit because Richardson wouldn’t have been their choice.

A similar scenario is playing out with Weeden, who could face the possibility of losing his starting job to Brian Hoyer. Hoyer will get the start against the Vikings because of a thumb injury suffered by Weeden in Baltimore. Coach Rob Chudzinski said he will re-evaluate the quarterback position when Weeden is healthy enough to play.

Richardson has been a disappointment to date. He had a slow start to his rookie season because of two knee surgeries – one in February of 2012 and the other in August. He then suffered two cracked ribs in the second game of the season and was clearly less than 100 percent for the rest of the season.

Healthy this year, it was assumed that Richardson was primed for a big season, but through two games he has 105 yards and no touchdowns on 31 carries. He’s been replaced by Chris Ogbonnaya on most third-down plays, ostensibly because of his inability to effectively handle blitz pickup assignments.

Banner avoided speaking poorly of Richardson’s talent.

“This was more about the moment presenting itself based on the situation the Colts found themselves in,” Banner said. “It wasn’t something where we could say, ‘Let’s wait three weeks and let’s think about this.’ We had to decide whether we thought it was a move that would make us better. We had to make that decision now. We decided we had to move forward.”

The Colts, who split their first two games, are desperate to improve their ground attack to complement the passing game of quarterback Andrew Luck. They lost running back Vick Ballard for the season with a torn ACL, leaving the position woefully deficient.

Chudzinski now faces the difficult task of selling the move to veterans like Joe Thomas and D’Qwell Jackson who started the season with high hopes.

“The group we have is an extremely competitive group,” Chudzinski said. “They understand the business side of football. I’m a competitive guy. I expect we’ll have the same goals. We’ll play to win every week. Nothing has changed from that standpoint.”

The more difficult sell will be to a fan base that has had to deal with losing records in 12 of the last 14 seasons. There are only so many rebuilding projects fans can be asked to accept before throwing up their hands in bewilderment.

“I really can’t get into a critique of what’s happened in the past,” Banner said. “I’m aware enough of it to totally understand the emotions that the fans are experiencing. All we can do is what we think are the best decisions to look forward and make it the best team it can be.”

When the late Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore after the 1995 season, he often said, “I had no choice.”

The Browns had a choice this time, and they made the biggest trade in the last 43 years of franchise history.

The difference between the two situations was that Modell could run and hide in Baltimore. Banner and Lombardi won’t be afforded the same shelter if this deal goes terribly wrong.