If nothing else, the last 14 months have marked a time of severe change for the Cleveland Browns. On Aug. 2, 2012, Jimmy Haslam purchased majority ownership in the franchise from Randy Lerner. Haslam has since found new men to be his CEO, general manager, head coach, and offensive and defensive coordinators. Haslam bought the Browns just a few months after former team president Mike Holmgren and ex-GM Tom Heckert selected Alabama running back Trent Richardson and Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden with their two first-round picks.
In one day, the new Cleveland Browns set fire to the remnants of the old Cleveland Browns -- and that blaze could not have been more definitive had it happened on the Cuyahoga River. On Wednesday morning, the team announced that Weeden would not play against the Minnesota Vikings this Sunday because of a thumb injury. Brian Hoyer, a longtime favorite of current GM Mike Lombardi, will replace Weeden in the short term -- and if you read the tea leaves, in the longer term as well.
Then, the bombshell. The Browns traded Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts Wednesday afternoon for the Colts' first-round draft pick in 2014. This was not a move made because there's untold talent behind Richardson. In fact, the new brain trust is reportedly looking hard at former Bills, Ravens, and Broncos running back Willis McGahee as a short-term solution. McGahee hasn't been with a team since the Broncos cut him loose in June. He's a 32-year-old back who will most likely be a cheap alternative, and that's important for the Browns' positional accounting. According to NFL business expert Andrew Brandt, Cleveland has already paid out more than $13 million of Richardson's $20.489 million rookie contract.
Clearly, this is not about the here and now -- this is about the Browns' future, and who will define it. Now, Lombardi, CEO Joe Banner, and head coach Rob Chudzinski are in the same position Holmgren and Shurmur were in 2012; they just have to wait until next April to reap the benefits of a draft in which they hold the table with two first-round picks.
"Trent's a great player and we expect him to have success in this league," Banner said on Wednesday. "Right now, based on how we're building this team for sustainable success, we're going to be aggressive and do what it takes to assemble a team that consistently wins."
The present is far more nebulous for these Browns. There had been talk that Chudzinski didn't feel that Richardson fit in his offense, and this move certainly gives him a clean slate down the road. Chudzinski was McGahee's offensive coordinator at the University of Miami in 2001 and 2002, so there's a familiarity there, as long as "Chud" understands that he won't be getting the same guy who ran for 28 touchdowns for the Hurricanes in that second season.
From a usage standpoint, it was already clear that the new Browns had an issue with their old running back. After the team's season-opening loss to the Miami Dolphins, new offensive coordinator Norv Turner was asked about the curious practice of taking Richardson off the field in third-down situations in favor of Chris Ogbonnaya. Turner cited the fact that Richardson had missed time in training camp, which was a strategy sold by the organization as a way to keep him fresh for further opportunities.
“A lot of it is where we’re at as a group,” Turner said at the time. “We want Trent on the field. There’s some things he’s ready to handle in that third down stuff and our nickel package ... there’s some things we want to use him in there and we’re going to use him when we can.”
Richardson was surprised by the switch, but endorsed whatever strategy that worked.
“All my life, I’ve been that guy,” he said. “If it’s going to help the team that I get less carries, or more carries, then I’m all for it. I can’t way for that day to come when I’m getting 25 reps plus. I know coach felt like he let me down. It’s not like that. I’m behind coach 100 percent.
“I told him, fine, I know you had a game plan and when you get behind, it’s hard to run the ball.”
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Richardson will no doubt get more chances in a Colts system that features backs in different ways, and with a quarterback in Andrew Luck who thrives on play-action opportunities. As for the Browns? Well, they spent most of their free agency money on the defensive side of the ball, and it's clear that whatever resources they have in 2014 will be allocated to the offense -- especially in the draft.
And in that regard, Banner and Lombardi will have a better shot at a franchise-defining quarterback than Holmgren and Heckert did. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin went with the first two picks in 2012, leaving the Browns to take Richardson third overall. And by the time their 22nd-overall pick came around, Ryan Tannehill was gone as well. Weeden was thought to be the best available quarterback option in a pool that then contained Brock Osweiler, Nick Foles, Kirk Cousins, Ryan Lindley, and some kid from Wisconsin named Russell Wilson. Of course, had the Browns taken a shot on Wilson before the Seahawks took him 75th overall, we'd be telling a very different story now -- but that could be said of quite a few franchises.
The 2014 quarterback class looks just as compelling up top, and it could be far more definitive from a depth perspective. Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater and Clemson's Tajh Boyd are the big names, and Johnny Manziel is the ultimate wild card. At the second level, A.J. McCarron of Alabama, Miami's Stephen Morris, San Jose State's David Fales, and Georgia's Aaron Murray are among those potential NFL signal-callers who could be on the Browns' radar. As for running backs, that position generally takes more time to even itself out through the draft process.
One thing's for sure: From top to bottom, the current Browns are on the hook for whatever happens next. And while that gives the new regime a similar shot at franchise redefinition, it's entirely possible that these new Browns have simply set fire to the same old lake.
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