No matter what, there exists no NFL team that chooses to lose games.
In the span of 12 hours on Wednesday, the Cleveland Browns offense shifted dramatically. First, quarterback Brandon Weeden was replaced by third-stringer Brian Hoyer because of Weeden's sprained thumb.
The Hoyer promotion makes sense—it came as a response to an injury, and though Hoyer leapfrogs Jason Campbell for the job, it's not an unexpected move. The front office, particularly general manager Michael Lombardi, has long been a champion of Hoyer.
But trading Richardson? The 2012 first-round pick, the player the Browns moved up for to make sure they could get him? Would they really trade him after just 18 games? It seemed like the Browns were playing to lose, to have a better shot at getting the franchise quarterback next year and build for the long term at the expense of the 2013 season.
It's a fair reaction. However, no team in the NFL, no matter how desperate for a quarterback or for wins, tanks their season for hypothetical rewards later.
Before the trade, the Browns hadn't won a game. Granted, their use of Richardson was questionable during those two games. Richardson had just 105 yards and 31 carries with no touchdowns through the first two games and had no touches on third downs.
Now, it seems clear that Richardson wasn't the type of back that best suited the offensive plans of coordinator Norv Turner and head coach Rob Chudzinski. They want someone more shifty and fast and less reliant on north-south running and forcing missed tackles.
The Browns also need a quarterback for the long term. The move from Weeden to Hoyer was one of necessity, but framed in the context of the Richardson trade, it's hard to imagine Weeden coming back and taking over the starting job once his thumb is healed.
This is a coaching staff and front office ready to move on from the players chosen by the previous regime. They have a plan, and those players who don't fit the plan aren't going to be on the roster. Circumstances—like a weak quarterback draft class in April and an attendant weak quarterback free agent market—forced them into 2013 with Weeden under center, but it's clear they are now planning to make an aggressive move at a rookie in 2014, depending on who chooses to declare.
With the Richardson trade, the Browns have seven picks in the first four rounds of next year's draft—two in the first, one in the second and two each in the third and fourth. With the defense very nearly where it needs to be, the offense should get a lot of attention with those picks. Quarterback, running back and wide receiver—the Browns are now in the position to get a top-tier player at each position, ones that suit their offensive philosophy better than Richardson.
And it's not to say that the Browns didn't understand Richardson's value. He was a first-round pick in 2012, and they got a first round pick in 2014 for him. He's still a first-rounder in their eyes and got the best equivalent value from the Colts.
It takes more than a running back to win. In fact, teams win all the time without a feature back or even a very good run game in general. And it was going to take more than Richardson to turn the Browns into a playoff team in 2013. While the Browns indeed made a sacrifice to help them in the future, trading Richardson can hardly be considered intentionally trying to lose.
Richardson is a very good running back. He was part of an offense that wanted something different from their run game—think Dion Lewis, before he was lost for the year with a leg injury. That's why Willis McGahee is in town, taking his physical and about to sign with Cleveland. He fits their mold and you can't blame a team for knowing what they want to do on the football field, even if it means they have to trade a talent like Richardson away.
Richardson was not the 2012 draft pick of Lombardi, nor of CEO Joe Banner nor Turner or Chudzinski. They were clearly not beholden to keeping him around simply because of when he was taken in the draft. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement has kept rookie salaries low and the cap hit to trade Richardson was thus not as enormously prohibitive as it would have been just a few years ago.
This gave the Browns the ability to get creative and snag themselves another high draft pick in the process. "We will be BOLD," it reads on the wall of the Browns' war room, the first step in their "critical path to the Super Bowl." There is a plan, clearly defined, that this team's front office has for the long term.
Browns fans have, unfortunately, heard this before. "Two years away from being two years away," "the five-year plan," "be patient," it goes on and on. But this is the most savvy, experienced group of decision-makers the Browns have had since coming back to the league in 1999.
What's the point of being 9-7 in 2013 if it sets the team up for six more years of sub-.500 records with a quarterback they aren't excited about (step two in the path to the Super Bowl is "We will have a championship-level QB") and a back who doesn't fit the scheme?
Which do you prefer?
The opportunity has been presented to the team to get better—truly better—for the long term and they embraced it. It's not that they don't want wins or that they're trying to lose games. This is is just an organization not afraid of losing games in 2013; they're afraid of losing games in 2014, 2016, 2018.
That's why they traded Richardson. That's why they opted to trade picks in the 2013 draft rather than select players from a weak class. That's why they now have seven picks in the first four rounds of the 2014 draft with which they can do a great number of things.
In the NFL, each team gets only 16 games to define their season. Not one of those teams, no matter what their record ends up being in January, seek to lose a single one. The Browns are not "tanking for Teddy" or "giving up on football for Johnny Football." No team intentionally loses, no team wants to lose.
The Browns found a way to leverage themselves for long-term success by trading Richardson, and no matter how much it stings, that was their decision, one that could pay huge dividends in 12 months' time.
It was simple, it was business, but it wasn't part of a nefarious plan to ruin the team.