On the surface, the motivation for Wednesday’s seismic trade between Indianapolis and Cleveland is obvious. The Colts needed a running back after losing Vick Ballard to injury. The Browns are looking to rebuild and find a franchise quarterback next offseason, and Trent Richardson was one of the few valuable pieces on the roster.
But the trade was about a lot more than swapping Richardson for a first-round pick.
It was about Robert Griffin III. And Stanford. And the 2000s Philadelphia Eagles. And a horrifying list of Browns quarterbacks.
Blockbuster in-season trades are rare — the notable few including Carson Palmer’s trade to Oakland in 2011, Herschel Walker to Minnesota in 1989, and Eric Dickerson to Indianapolis in 1987. But the Browns’ decision to trade Richardson barely more than a year after drafting him No. 3 overall, and the Colts’ decision to spend a first-round pick on a running back position that has been greatly devalued, gives a good window into the thinking of each front office.
“Certainly an upgrade for Indianapolis — at a steep price,” said one NFL assistant general manager. “They forfeited a 1 at a position that has proven to be one you can find outside of the first round. You don’t usually do that, unless you feel the back is special. They must feel that way.”
For the Colts, Richardson, 23, gives them another young offensive star, along with quarterback Andrew Luck, receiver T.Y. Hilton, and tight end Coby Fleener. Richardson only rushed for 950 yards on 3.6 yards per carry last year as a rookie, but added 367 receiving yards and scored 12 total touchdowns. Richardson hopes to see more running room now that he’s playing with an accomplished passer in Luck.
“People can’t just stack nine in the box no more,” Richardson said.
The Colts got aggressive and went after a potential star, instead of replacing Ballard with retreads such as Ahmad Bradshaw and Donald Brown.
“There’s no siestas in the NFL,” said Colts GM Ryan Grigson. “You can’t hug it out today. Yesterday was fun, but it’s back to work.”
The trade helps the Colts re-create the Stanford offense. Already they have Luck and Fleener, who starred together at Stanford. This offseason they hired Pep Hamilton as the offensive coordinator, who held the same role at Stanford.
Now Richardson helps them round out the Stanford offense by providing a physical presence in the running game.
The “Power O” run was a staple of the Cardinal’s offense, and in 2011, Luck’s final season at Stanford, the top four running backs all weighed more than 200 pounds. The top two running backs were also active in the passing game, combining for 59 catches.
Richardson is a punishing back at 5-9, 225, and has excellent hands, catching 51 passes last year.
“The guy is a rolling ball of butcher knives,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “We did not bring him in here to, I guess, be the water boy on Sunday. He’ll be ready to roll.”
The Colts’ decision to trade a first-round pick for Richardson raised many eyebrows across the league, but Grigson clearly hasn’t been afraid to make bold moves. Since taking the job in January 2012, he has executed 16 trades involving 21 players, turned over nearly 70 percent of the roster last year, and searched far and wide for players.
Grigson, 41, began his career in the late 1990s as a scout in the Canadian Football League and later the Arena League, before breaking in with the Rams in 1999. Among the players on his Colts roster: inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, whom he signed from the CFL and finished fifth in the NFL last year with 145 tackles; backup tight end Dominique Jones, who played in the Indoor Football League; cornerback Teddy Williams, who came from the United Football League; and practice squad linebacker Daniel Adongo, a former Kenyan rugby star who had never played football until this summer.
The Colts improved by nine games last year to finish 11-5, and Grigson was named Executive of the Year by the Pro Football Writers Association.
“He’s a total scout’s scout — a lot of experience out on the road, mining players wherever he can find them,” said NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, who worked alongside Grigson in the Eagles’ scouting department for two years. “He grinds through a ton of players and he’s aggressive, so it doesn’t really surprise me that he’s bold. He understands the value of upgrading one player on your roster, it’s worth making the move.”
Grigson obviously felt that Richardson is better than any players the Colts could draft in the 20s, which is where their first-round pick is expected to land after they compete for a playoff berth this year. But the Browns’ willingness to trade Richardson also brought out the skeptics.
“I can’t help but think there’s more to the story,” said former NFL safety John Lynch, who will be calling Sunday’s Patriots-Buccaneers game for Fox. “Having played against [Browns offensive coordinator] Norv Turner a bunch, that just seems like the perfect type of back for him. You’ve got to wonder what was going on behind the scenes.”
Actually, unless there was a big rift between Richardson and the new regime that took over in Cleveland this offseason, the Browns’ motivation for this trade seems obvious.
This is a team that hasn’t been able to find a franchise quarterback in the 14 years since its rebirth. The list of names is ugly: Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Jake Delhomme, Brady Quinn, Colt McCoy, and now Brandon Weeden. Not surprisingly, the Browns have been to the playoffs just once since coming back into the league in 1999.
It’s a team that failed to win the RG3 bidding, a wound that is still healing for Browns fans. It’s a team with a weak-armed quarterback (Weeden) paired with a coach (Rob Chudzinski) who likes power arms who can throw deep, like his previous quarterback, Cam Newton.
And it’s a team being run by Joe Banner, formerly the Eagles’ president (and Grigson’s old boss for eight years) who helped build a team that reached the NFC Championship game five times. The Eagles won by investing heavily in the passing game — first-round picks on Donovan McNabb and Jeremy Maclin, the trade for Terrell Owens, and a high second-round pick on DeSean Jackson — and using mid-round picks on running backs, such as third-rounder Brian Westbrook.
“Joe Banner came from Philly, where they had sustained success with the passing game,” Jeremiah said. “They’re realizing being a power running team with Trent Richardson is not doing them any good. They need to upgrade the quarterback position, get more explosive at receiver, and they can pick up a running back somewhere else.”
The Browns, in their first season under Banner, Chudzinski, and new GM Michael Lombardi, are now well-stocked with draft picks for 2014: Two 1’s, two 3’s, and two 4’s.
“Something tells me they want the latitude to take multiple players or trade up to get a quarterback, as I don’t think they believe Weeden is a franchise quarterback,” the assistant GM said.
If the Browns are lucky, they’ll finish with the No. 1 overall pick and draft Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, who is a much better fit for their downfield passing offense than Johnny Manziel or any of the other top-rated college quarterbacks.
But there’s a good chance they’ll have to battle Oakland or Jacksonville for the top pick and the right to draft Bridgewater, and now they have great trade ammunition with the Colts’ first-round pick in addition to their own. If they are unable to land Bridgewater, they could try to trade for a young backup ready to be a starter, such as Washington’s Kirk Cousins or perhaps the Patriots’ Ryan Mallett, whom Lombardi has always liked.
Or they could simply take one of the other top-rated quarterbacks — Manziel, UCLA’s Brett Hundley, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, or Oregon’s Marcus Mariota — and use the other first-round pick on a receiver.
“There will be some cynicism about giving up on this year,” Lynch said. “The Browns clearly feel this is a rebuilding year, and have positioned themselves to find that franchise quarterback.”
Buccaneers may soon make change at QB
If the Buccaneers didn’t extend quarterback Josh Freeman’s contract this offseason as a way to motivate him as he plays through the final year of his contract, it certainly isn’t working.
Freeman comes to Foxborough Sunday with an 0-2 record and NFL-low 45.3 completion percentage as the Buccaneers have scored just three offensive touchdowns in two close losses. He has not clicked well with second-year coach Greg Schiano, and has had to deny reports that he wants a trade.
“There’s a lot of drama surrounding Josh and this team, and I can’t help but believe some of that has affected him, just the burden of going into your last year and they haven’t extended your contract,” said John Lynch, who played 11 seasons for the Buccaneers.
Many around the league believe it’s only a matter of when, not if, the Buccaneers replace Freeman with third-round rookie Mike Glennon. But Freeman is not a lost cause, and would be attractive on the free agent market next offseason for a team looking to bring competition to its quarterback room.
Freeman did throw for 4,065 yards and 27 touchdowns last year, and had a five-game stretch in which he won four games, threw 13 TD passes against one interception, and averaged 293 passing yards.
“Last October he was putting up silly numbers, and they were the highest-scoring offense in the league,” Lynch said. “I think he has the talent to turn it around, they just have not hit a rhythm offensively this year.”
49ers’ Smith in trouble with law, league again
What’s that old saying about leading a horse to water but not being able to make him drink? NFL Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith certainly can relate, following the arrest of 49ers star pass rusher Aldon Smith on Friday morning.
Smith was arrested on charges of DUI and marijuana possession after crashing his car into a tree around 7 o’clock. It came just two weeks after the NFLPA announced a partnership with Uber, the mobile application that connects riders with taxi drivers within minutes, as a way to promote driving responsibly.
And Smith, who had 33½ sacks in his first two seasons and already has 3½ this year, could be in big trouble with the league in addition to the law. Friday’s arrest was his second for DUI — his first such arrest in Miami Beach in January 2012 was later reduced to reckless driving. But a second arrest for DUI is likely to eventually earn a suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell under the league’s personal conduct policy.
His skills can’t be questioned, but the 49ers can’t be happy that Smith, 23, continues to show questionable maturity. In addition to the two DUI arrests, the San Jose District Attorney’s Office is still considering whether to prosecute him on charges of possessing illegal assault rifles — guns that were found when a party he hosted last summer was crashed by gang members, which resulted in Smith getting stabbed and two other people getting shot.
And the fact that he’s out drinking all night — he registered a blood-alcohol level of .15, according to the San Jose Mercury News — and coming home at 7 a.m. on the Friday before a game can’t make his bosses happy.
Smith, the No. 7 overall pick in 2011, has guaranteed salaries of $1.68 million and $2.34 million due this year and next. But he needs to clean up his act if he wants to cash in during free agency in 2015.
They picked a fine time to do the wrong thing
Week 2 brought another hefty dose of fines, with the Buccaneers racking up $142,000 between just three players, and the Patriots-Jets producing $88,500, including $72,750 for the fight at the end of the game.
Patriots nemesis Bernard Pollard was fined $42,000 for hitting Andre Johnson in the head. Titans teammate Jackie Battle ($21,000) became the first running back fined under the NFL’s new rule against lowering the crown of the helmet into an opponent.
And Buccaneers safety Dashon Goldson was fined $100,000 for his shot to Darren Sproles’s head — Goldson’s league-high 15th personal foul since the start of the 2010 season — but he’ll gladly take the fine over the alternative.
Goldson was originally suspended for Sunday’s game against the Patriots, which would have cost him a game check — $264,705, in his case. But the suspension was overturned in lieu of a $100,000 fine — which is hefty, no doubt, but he still gets to keep $164,705 for a week’s work.
■ The NFC East enters Sunday with a 2-7 record after the Eagles’ loss to the Chiefs on Thursday. And the two wins are in the division: Cowboys over Giants, Eagles over Redskins. The AFC West has been the best division at 7-2, while the AFC East is next at 6-2.
■ Of 33 qualifying quarterbacks, Tom Brady ranks 31st in completion percentage (52.7), while Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman ranks 33d (45.3).
■ As pointed out by the great Gil Brandt of NFL.com, the 32 current starting quarterbacks come from 30 different colleges. Only Florida State (E.J. Manuel, Christian Ponder) and Michigan (Brady, Chad Henne) have multiple starters, and that will change to 31 schools if the Jaguars replace Henne with Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert when he comes back from injury.
■ With three touchdown passes today, Peyton Manning will break Brady’s record of 11 through the first three weeks of the season.
■ The Jaguars tied an NFL record this week — an ignominious one. The Seahawks are favored by as many as 20 points over the Jags in sports books and on websites, tying for the earliest week in which the NFL has had such a significant underdog. The 1992 Bills were 20-point favorites in Week 3 over the Colts.
■ Since 1990, 22 teams have started 0-2 or worse and still made the playoffs. Three teams won the Super Bowl — the 1993 Cowboys, 2001 Patriots, and 2007 Giants — and the 1996 Patriots lost in the big game.