Bleacher Report NFL lead writer Mike Freeman handed out his quarter-way grades for each NFL team earlier this week, evaluating all 32 teams' performances and summing them up with a letter grade and a brief explanation.
Freeman gave the Cleveland Browns a grade of A—one that's hard to argue with, considering how they turned their 0-2 start to a 2-2 record after four weeks and look like a completely changed team. However, Freeman adds this note about his reasoning:
The owner and the GM gave up on the season, but the players did not. An incredible story for the moment. The players have a lot of guts. Management doesn't.
Freeman's positive grade may be spot-on, but his analysis isn't. Cleveland's front office has not given up on this team or on the 2013 season.
This feeling was widespread in the wake of the Browns' decision to trade running back Trent Richardson, the third-overall pick of the 2012 draft, to the Indianapolis Colts for their 2014 first-round pick. Prior to the trade, Richardson was seen as underused by the Browns. He had only 31 carries through two games, netting him a total of 105 yards and no touchdowns.
Widely believed to be Cleveland's top offensive player, it seemed baffling that they wouldn't base their offense around him to start the year and even more so that they'd be willing to trade him away without an adequate backup plan in place (Willis McGahee notwithstanding).
It was seen as a sign that the front office—general manager Michael Lombardi and CEO Joe Banner—would rather stock up on 2014 draft picks and, presumably, take the Browns' next quarterback of the future instead of trying to win in 2013. They clearly had no intention of winning this year if they were so willing to part ways with such an important player, right?
The Richardson trade fueled further rumors that the Browns were shopping other prominent offensive players, namely wide receivers Josh Gordon and Greg Little. However, both Gordon and Little remain on the roster, with Gordon's return from a two-game suspension being a big hit and Little taking a smaller role in receiving while also taking on kick return duties.
Two wins later, and there's no talk of Cleveland trading away anyone else, making the proclamations of a Browns "fire sale" or the team intentionally tanking look entirely off-base.
How the Richardson trade means the Browns front office has given up makes no sense. The Browns have proved that they can win games and play good football without him—and it's not in spite of the Richardson trade.
This team isn't fighting to show Banner and Lombardi how wrongheaded they were to think the season was lost—they're all on the same page, trying to field the best team possible and win as many games as they can.
The team isn't saying "we'll show them," to the management; rather the team and management, together, are showing up those who declared one simple (yet unprecedented) trade a sign of the Browns throwing in the towel on their season after a mere two games.
Perhaps, contrary to outside opinion, Richardson was not considered the best offensive player on the roster by those who make the decisions in Cleveland. At this point, it appears that player is Gordon, or tight end Jordan Cameron or perhaps even current starting quarterback Brian Hoyer.
While the trade does expose the current regime's belief that this year's run game is somewhat of an afterthought, it also hasn't collapsed the offense. In fact, the offense is performing better than it had with Richardson and better than it did last year.
This is the first year since 2001 that the Browns have been 2-2 through four games, and they've done this while ranking 28th in rushing attempts per game, at 20, and 27th in rushing yards per game, at 76. Running well isn't all it's cracked up to be, with just two teams (the Colts and Seattle Seahawks) having both top-10 rushing yardage and a winning record.
And about those Colts: Those rushing yards aren't because of Richardson. Backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Donald Brown and quarterback Andrew Luck all surpass him in yards, with Richardson rushing 33 times in two games for 95 yards—just two more attempts than he had in the first two weeks of 2013 in Cleveland and for 10 fewer yards.
Richardson is averaging 2.9 yards per carry, a low number that is worse than his disappointing 3.6 last year. He has two rushing touchdowns, something he didn't have in Cleveland this year, but he's also seen more red-zone opportunities with the Colts. He hasn't looked like the running back he was touted to be when he declared for the draft, nor one who lived up to his third-overall billing.
Richardson was a vestige of the old Browns regime's decisions, ones that did not mesh with this current front office. Lombardi and Banner got a steal for him in trade by snagging the Colts' first-round 2014 pick.
That doesn't look like giving up—that looks like savvy football business. The team has proved better off for it now and should be even better next year when they have two first-round draft picks to play with. A bold, dramatic trade such as this will draw scrutiny, but the Browns made a smart move. Look at the player, not his draft pedigree, for answers.
Did anyone truly think that the Colts had given up on their franchise when they let quarterback Peyton Manning leave? No, because their plan was evident—draft Andrew Luck and build for the future. Only because we are in the fifth week of the 2013 season and have no true clue what the 2014 draft class or order will look like does the Richardson trade get criticized and the front office accused of tanking.
No, the Browns, as a team, did not press on in the face of management bent on throttling this season for the sake of the next. No front office in the NFL decides to give up on a season, no matter how it may look from the outside. There's a plan in Cleveland which is just beginning to take shape at this early stage of the season.
Let it develop, and then make a grand declaration that the front office is gutless—and only then, if it doesn't work out.