Forget for one minute how bizarre it is that the Cleveland Browns just traded running back Trent Richardson, the third overall pick in the 2012 draft, to the Indianapolis Colts just two games into this season. Ignore the obnoxious celebratory tweets by Colts owner Jim Irsay, who responded to the news as if he'd won the Super Bowl with this deal. All you have to do with this stunning transaction is consider one obvious fact: The Browns weren't going anywhere with Richardson as their franchise back.
That had to be the biggest factor in this trade, and it's the major reason why Browns fans should be happy when the 2014 draft arrives. Thanks to this deal, Cleveland now has two first-round selections to go with two each in the third and fourth rounds. That should be more than enough for this new regime, led by general manager Michael Lombardi and head coach Rob Chudzinski, to create the franchise it envisions. As long as the Browns don't waste their options, they should emerge with something resembling a solid foundation for the future.
That's what this entire deal is about, by the way -- the future. It's about a dismal franchise recognizing that a huge gamble was necessary for it to actually become competitive down the road. This year's Browns weren't likely to win more than five or six games, and there wasn't much to be excited about on the roster. It was time to think outside the box, which meant their best offensive weapon had to be expendable.
For those who are lamenting the idea of a player selected that high being dealt so quickly, let's look at the hard facts of Richardson. He didn't fit into the wide-open offense Chudzinski wants to run. He also apparently didn't impress offensive coordinator Norv Turner -- the same Norv Turner who has maximized the talents of star runners such as Emmitt Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson and Ricky Williams during his career. Remember, Browns Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown called Richardson "an ordinary talent" after Cleveland drafted the former Alabama star. That assessment looks spot on right now.
It's not that Richardson can't be a productive back for the Colts. He's clearly their best option after starter Vick Ballard sustained a season-ending knee injury. It's just that Richardson isn't special. He averaged 3.6 yards per carry in his first season (granted, he didn't have much help) and he didn't have the explosive speed to be a game-breaker.
The reality is that Richardson wasn't going to be the next Adrian Peterson or Marshawn Lynch. Given that he played part of his rookie season with bruised ribs, the Browns likely saw more injuries coming his way. That's what happens when you're a hard-charging banger who happens to make a living at a time when workhorse running backs aren't nearly as valued as they once were. The people paying the bills have a harder time appreciating your strengths.
The beauty of this trade is that Cleveland understood that talented runners aren't hard to find in the NFL anymore. The Houston Texans signed their Pro Bowler, Arian Foster, as an undrafted free agent. The Baltimore Ravens found Ray Rice in the second round, while Kansas City nabbed Jamaal Charles in the third. Add in the fact that Washington's Alfred Morris -- a player selected 170 picks after Richardson -- gained a team-record 1,613 yards in his rookie season, and you get the picture. The Browns will have plenty of opportunities to make up for what they lost today.
The bigger question is what Cleveland is prepared to do with those picks. It says here that quarterback Brandon Weeden, the Browns' other first-round selection in last year's draft, must be feeling a little anxious about his job security. Given the certainty of another lousy season in Cleveland, Lombardi could have a legitimate shot at some promising passers in this upcoming class, including Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater (should he leave school after his junior season) and Clemson's Tajh Boyd. In an era where dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks are all the rage, the Browns see the need to add one to their own roster.
The nice thing about all this is that the Browns actually have options. They may not be the kind of choices that excite fans over the next four months, but there was going to be some pain associated with this process eventually. Dallas Cowboys fans were shell-shocked when Jerry Jones traded Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings during the 1989 season. That trade still ranks as the biggest steal ever, largely because Dallas turned a bevy of resulting draft picks into the foundation of a three-time Super Bowl champion in the 1990s.
It's way too early to think of this trade in the same class as that. Jerry Jones had Jimmy Johnson identifying talent for him, and the Browns have struggled under every regime they've had in place since their return to Cleveland. It will be at least three to four years before we know how well the Browns really did on this day. The players who will change their organization have yet to step one foot into their headquarters.
We do know this much, however: The Browns aren't afraid to chase excellence with Lombardi and Chudzinski in charge. This trade demanded serious courage and even more vision than they might get credit for at the moment. And in the end, this was about more than dumping a player whom a different general manager drafted. It was about deciding that the future looks brightest when you truly believe in the direction you're heading.