There is a method to the madness in Cleveland

There are times when the front office of the Cleveland Browns appears as dysfunctional as a modern-day television family.

The image of the father figures – in this case CEO Joe Banner, general manager Mike Lombardi and coach Rob Chudzinski – is generally one of absent-minded, care-free bumpkins. The children – each of the players – are selfish, give-me-what-I-want brats, and the outside world – the fan base – is insensitive and impatient to an extreme.

That’s the sitcom version of the Browns and everything that surrounds the team. In reality, it’s nothing like it might seem to those on the perimeter who overreact every time Banner sneezes.

Banner is actually one of the smartest executives the franchise has had in a long time. Compared to former president Mike Holmgren, who was totally miscast in his role, Banner presents the image of calm, rational thinking. Holmgren was more California cool with his Bahama-style shirts and an apparent disdain for the trivial aspects of his job, which is to say he was clueless.

Banner deals with the difficult issues with the savvy of a well-trained White House Press Secretary. When something breaks that the organization knows won’t sit well with the fans – i.e. the Trent Richardson trade – Banner is rushed to the front lines to take all the shots from the media.

Lombardi remains an enigma. He seems to have locked himself behind closed doors and appears only when it’s dark and he can sneak to his car without being seen. Fans can only hope that there’s a method to his madness.

Chudzinski is the calming centerpiece in the middle of the room every day. He doesn’t deliver much insight, but at least he does so in a way that isn’t insulting to the assembled media corps that wants to have a civil relationship with him.

The most important question out of all this concerns the direction the team is headed. To fans stung by the Richardson trade, it’s as former coach Chris Palmer once said – “A runaway train.” Those words widened the door for Palmer’s exit after the 2000 season.

Those who have moved beyond their initial outrage at the trade should realize that it was a necessary move by a front office that has to make unpopular decisions to reach the objective set forth by owner James Haslam, which is to field a consistent winner. When has a new owner of a company of any kind not cleaned house in some areas in an attempt to fix perceived existing problems?

Were Banner and Lombardi supposed to keep Richardson around because little Johnnie got Richardson’s autograph on a trip to training camp with mom and dad? Forget about a player’s popularity and look at his worth to the end product.

Richardson never should have been selected third overall in last year’s draft. Holmgren and ex-general manager Tom Heckert were perhaps the only two executives in the NFL who valued Richardson to the point that they traded up one spot for the chance to pick him.

The fact that a year later Richardson is no longer a fit seems odd on the outside looking in, but to at least one former Brown – retired linebacker Scott Fujita – it makes sense.

“I can’t speculate about what’s in any one person’s head, but when a player enters the league wearing headphones incessantly, shows up late for treatments and makes little effort to engage with his teammates, he can quickly develop a reputation for being insular and high-maintenance,” Fujita wrote in a column for “Fox Sports.”

Fujita further said, “I don’t think he was ever happy there,” insinuating that Richardson struggled with the concept of going from a national championship team at Alabama to a team with a long history of losing.

The Browns received a first-round choice for someone who has played like a mid-round pick and has had a litany of injury problems dating back to high school, when he had ankle surgery because of his accelerated growth. What seemed crazy when the trade was consummated last Wednesday makes total sense today.

You might not like the men calling the shots for the Browns, but you have to trust that they aren’t steering a runaway train.