It must be really tough to be a Cleveland sports fan. I know several of them, and none are even surprised any more when their beloved teams find new ways to exercise their ineptitude.
The internet was abuzz with the rarest of NFL transactions Wednesday night – a trade involving a marquee player and a top draft pick.
Instantly, Cleveland fans were outraged, wondering why the team would trade its best player, Trent Richardson, before even giving him a chance to fulfill his destiny as a dominant running back. Some claimed that the trade would haunt Cleveland for years to come.
Why would the Browns give up three extra draft picks to move up and draft Richardson, only to trade him two games into new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s revamped offense? Why didn’t the Browns design an offense to maximize their talented back’s abilities? Why give up on a potential stud running back when it’s clear the Browns have no answer at quarterback? Why, oh why, do the sports gods despise Cleveland, Ohio so much?
The answer to the first three of those questions is simple: running backs are not important. At all. They are among the most expendable positions in all of sports. Unless the running back is named Adrian Peterson (and even then it’s only 50 percent factual), the truth is that there is little value attached to him.
Oh, and as for that last question, the one about the sports gods hating Cleveland? I don’t know, but I can’t imagine the sports gods being that unmerciful forever. Maybe this is the beginning of redemption.
To prove that Cleveland made the right move, let me point out a couple of key things.
You don’t need a great running back to win in the NFL
Here’s a list of the leading regular season rusher from every Super Bowl winner since 2000:
2012: Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens – 1,143 yards, 9 touchdowns
2011: Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants – 659 yards, 9 touchdowns
2010: Brandon Jackson, Green Bay Packers – 703 yards, 3 touchdowns
2009: Pierre Thomas, New Orleans Saints – 793 yards, 6 touchdowns
2008: Willie Parker, Pittsburgh Steelers – 791 yards, 5 touchdowns
2007: Brandon Jacobs, New York Giants – 1,009 yards, 4 touchdowns
2006: Joseph Addai, Indianapolis Colts – 1,081 yards, 7 touchdowns
2005: Willie Parker, Pittsburgh Steelers – 1,202 yards, 4 touchdowns
2004: Corey Dillon, New England Patriots – 1,635 yards, 12 touchdowns
2003: Antowain Smith, New England Patriots – 642 yards, 3 touchdowns
2002: Michael Pittman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 718 yards, 1 touchdown
2001: Antowain Smith, New England Patriots – 1,157 yards, 12 touchdowns
2000: Jamal Lewis, Baltimore Ravens – 1,364 yards, 6 touchdowns
Just over half of the previous 13 Super Bowl winners had 1,000-yard rushers, and only Dillon and Lewis had what can be described as dominant rushing seasons, and both of those occurred eight years ago or more.
Running backs rarely stay healthy
Running back is one of the most physically demanding positions in football. Therefore it makes little sense to invest large sums of money or valuable early draft picks in a player that won’t pay dividends for years to come. Even the great Adrian Peterson suffered a torn ACL, and he’s an alien designed by some sort of supreme being to run over defensive backs and heal like the T-1,000
Running backs drafted in the first round over the last 10 years include:
Stephen Jackson (24th in 2004, solid career, worth the pick), Chris Perry (26th in 2004, always injured, out of the league), Kevin Jones (30th in 2004, just bad), Ronnie Brown (second overall in 2005, journeyman back), Cedric Benson (fourth in 2005, underachiever in all but a couple of seasons), Cadillac Williams (fifth in 2005, perpetually injured), Reggie Bush (second in 2006, still a starter), Laurence Maroney (21st in 2006, injury prone and mediocre when healthy), DeAngelo Williams (27th in 2006, has had a decent career in Carolina), Joseph Addai (30th in 2006, had some solid seasons behind Peyton Manning, injuries derailed career), Adrian Peterson (seventh in 2007, already discussed), Marshawn Lynch (12th in 2007, an actual beast and worthy of a top pick), Darren McFadden (fourth in 2008, constantly injured), Jonathan Stewart (13th in 2008, currently on the PUP list), Felix Jones (22nd in 2008, used as a complimentary back since being drafted), Knowshon Moreno (12th in 2009, platooned behind Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman in Denver, injured frequently), Donald Brown (27th in 2009, no longer starting), Beanie Wells (31st in 2009, constantly injured), C.J. Spiller (ninth in 2010, has become a solid starter), Ryan Matthews (12th in 2010, frequently injured), Jahvid Best (30th in 2010, career ended by concussions).
The jury is still out on most of the guys from the last three drafts, but that list doesn’t provide much evidence that it’s worth it to spend a first-round pick on a running back. Out of the 21 backs listed, maybe four or five have avoided serious injury trouble.
To win in the NFL you must be able to throw the ball
Clearly, the NFL has morphed into a passing league.
The current rules – no hits on defenseless receivers, no hits below the knees on quarterbacks, strict illegal contact rules – and the league’s emphasis on player safety have created a free-flowing game that rewards offenses that attack through the air.
It’s early to tell, but let’s suppose Trent Richardson is one of the best running backs in the NFL. That doesn’t change the fact that he is a running back, and the league has repeatedly demonstrated for over a decade that you don’t need a great running back to win. You do, however, need either a great quarterback, a great defense, or both.
Cleveland has several good pieces on defense, and with some maturity (I’m looking at you, Phil Taylor) they could become a Super Bowl-caliber unit.
Quarterback, on the other hand, is an abject disaster right now. The Richardson move makes sense because it gives Cleveland another first-round pick to try to land a franchise quarterback. I’m of the opinion that teams should keep drafting quarterbacks until they get one with the talent to lead the team to the playoffs. It might take years, and those years might be ugly, but that’s the only way to win in the NFL today.
Indianapolis will regress this year, making the draft pick obtained by Cleveland more valuable
Grantland’s Bill Barnwell was on the record in the summer saying that there are red flags abound in Indianapolis, suggesting that the Colts won’t be able to follow up their surprise playoff campaign from last year. I tend to agree, not only because Barnwell is a really smart dude, but because I’ve watched the first two Colts games this year.
Andrew Luck is a rare quarterbacking talent, but Indianapolis is having a great deal of trouble keeping him upright. The Colts can’t block, and Luck is being forced to move more than he probably should, meaning his risk of injury is increasing. That team would revert quickly to something resembling the 1-15 mess Luck inherited if he were to go down.
Even if he stays healthy, the chances of the Colts being good enough to bump the pick they gave up down into the 20s seems slim.
Personally I predict that Cleveland will end up picking somewhere between 10th and 15th with Indy’s pick, but even if ends up being somewhere near 20th it is still a solid value for a franchise looking to rebuild around a young, aggressive defense and the right quarterback.
As tough as it is, just take a deep breath and take this all in, Cleveland fans
The knee-jerk reaction is to blame Cleveland for surrendering a great player for a good pick. And we all know that Cleveland has earned the right to freak out a little when things even start to go awry. But if you truly examine this deal and what it means for the team in the landscape of today’s NFL, you have to admit that Cleveland got a valuable piece that it can use to build the team in the way the new brain trust of owner Jimmy Haslam, coach Rob Chudzinski, and offensive coordinator Norv Turner want.
If the Browns can find organizational stability, this could be a great move for the franchise, with only the expense of a player on the verge of becoming extinct in the NFL.