Sucking for Success: Rebuilding a Beleaguered Sports Franchise

Posted: September 21, 2013 in Sports
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

A major NFL trade almost never happens.  It’s about as rare and beautiful as an albino alligator.

I was at work listening to ESPN Radio when the news broke that the Cleveland Browns traded Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for their 1st Round Draft Pick.  When I first heard it mentioned, I thought it was in the context of a Fantasy Football League.  But I went to to confirm the blockbuster–because I have Richardson on my Fantasy Football team and I’m an Indianapolis Colts fan who stuck on after the Manning Debacle—and indeed the deed had been done.

There’s been a lot of discussion already in reaction to Cleveland trading last year’s 3rd overall selection to the Colts in exchange for their first-round selection in the supposed Embarrassment of Riches Draft in the coming year.  In fact, Bill Simmons completely fucking shattered Patrick Stewart’s infamous quadruple take by toiling through his 14 reactions to this monster NFL trade.

Many have not and will not understand, but this is how you rebuild a franchise and structure yourself as a perennial contender—on both sides.  Yes, this is the cliché win-win trade situation in sports.  Both the Browns and Colts are coming away in a better position for this year and next, but it’s just in different ways.

Cleveland is in a miserable state of affairs right now.  They haven’t had a franchise quarterback with this new version of the franchise.  Brandon Weeden is not the answer.  Neither is Jason Campbell.  And Brian Hoyer would have probably shown some signs of life already if he was capable of commanding a team, but I can’t blame the Browns for at least trying to see if Tom Brady’s former back-up has anything to contribute.

If there’s a time to land someone who can be the overused “face of the franchise,” then it will be in a draft that’s likely to have Teddy Bridgewater, Brett Hundley, Marcus Mariota, Tajh Boyd, Johnny Manziel, and even more signal callers.  An Andy Dalton clone would probably be someone the Browns fans would cherish at this point in their long line of incompetence at the position.  Cleveland is already being killed for “giving up on such a talent too soon” and being lauded as “the same old Browns” who are destined to be the doormat of the NFL. Don’t buy the hype.

“In every country, they make fun of city. In U.S., you make fun of Cleveland. In Russia, we make fun of Cleveland.” – Yakov Smirnoff

Jim BrownYes, Trent Richardson was talented enough to justifiably draft him 3rd overall behind Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin.  There is the train of thought outlined in Simmons’ column about not drafting a running back high in the draft, but Richardson is a physical runner capable of becoming even more dynamic if used properly in passing situations.  Sure, Cleveland might be kicking itself for passing on Ryan Tannehill, but that’s a forgivable move considering he was a WR turned QB who was fortunate to be drafted as high as he was by Miami.  And I’m still not convinced that Tannehill is any different than the aforementioned Andy Dalton.  But as much fantasy hype as Richardson carries and potential talent he possesses, he was not able to prove that he could carry Cleveland on his back.  That’s not his fault.  He’s not Jim Brown and there’s only one Adrian Peterson.  Richardson is a Pro-Bowl caliber runner with a bright future.  I don’t blame the Colts for giving up their first-round selection next year for him and I don’t blame the Browns for nabbing as high of a pick as possible in a deep draft.  But that hasn’t stopped anyone from hammering Cleveland (including former head coach and current walrus Mike Holmgren) for making such an atypical maneuver.

“Philosophically, if I am the coach and someone came in anywhere and did that, I’d say ‘OK, fire me, or I’m going to quit. Or we’re going to both go into the owner and talk about this and the we’ll see who’s still standing.” – Mike Holmgren

Congratulations, Mike.  You just proved in one statement why you or any football coach should also be making decisions.  That desperation to win is a sentiment that a front office shouldn’t allow to cloud their judgment.  Sometimes, it’s the smart decision to suck in order to set up a brighter, longer period of success.

This is a prime example of how you rebuild a franchise.  It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the NFL, MLB, or NBA.  The thrust of the strategy is the same regardless.  You dump all of the remaining assets you possibly can to tank the season and put yourself in a better position to draft well in the coming year and in the future. The more opportunities you have, the better your odds are of striking it big.

In the MLB, you get rid of all the contracts you possibly can to cut payroll and draft as high as possible to increase the potential of landing a young superstar—primarily pitchers because it’s the most cost-effective solution, but you jump at a perennial run-producer if there’s an elite one available.  This is how the Tampa Bay Rays have efficiently maximized their money to constantly contend against the more expensive, risk-embracing Red Sox and Yankees.  And this is exactly how the Pittsburgh Pirates have transformed their organization from a laughing stock of lovable losers into their first winning team in 20 years.  There was a time when new Pirates GM Neal Huntington couldn’t escape the scorn of the media and the Pirates fan base after trading away Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson because they were All-Stars that signified some form of success for a crappy franchise.  Pittsburgh was going to lose more games than they won with or without Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson.  It made all the sense in the world to trade away those assets while they were assets to shed their contracts, get talent in return, make their team worse in the short-term, and set themselves in a position to succeed in the long-term.  And if you hit huge on superstars at the top of the draft, then you end up like the Washington Nationals who landed Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.

Bill Simmons also describes this philosophy in terms of the NBA, but it’s too narrow-minded to think this only applies to basketball—though he’s accurate to say it’s more widely accepted in the NBA.  But it’s a concept that easier to accepted because of the structure of the game because one superstar can immensely impact your five-man starting lineup.

“They might not like it, but they get it. They see the light at the end of the tunnel — you can only land LeBron, Durant, Rose and Griffin by being shitty enough to draft them. That concept never trickled into the NFL because of the league’s commitment to parity (also-rans transform into juggernauts almost overnight), the physicality of its games (it’s impossible to mail in an NFL game), its lavish rookie salary scale (until 2011, that scale penalized anyone with a top-five pick unless he became a superstar) and the size of NFL rosters (only a superduperstar QB can swing your fortunes overnight). Everyone always wants a franchise quarterback — that hasn’t changed since the Namath era — but we’ve never seen anyone preemptively stack the deck to get one.” – Bill Simmons

Oddly enough, it was the Indianapolis Colts who just employed this strategy by holding back Peyton Manning from competing and sticking with the likes of Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter, and Dan Orlovsky.  The Colts were doing anything possible to make sure they could select Andrew Luck and set their offense in stone for the next 10 seasons.  And now that they’re coming off a playoff appearance in Luck’s rookie season, Indianapolis is striking again to acquire more major offensive pieces to support Luck and improve their chances of another playoff appearance—especially after losing starting RB Vick Ballard and TE Dwayne Allen for the rest of the year.  The Colts are terrible on defense, but adding someone the caliber of Trent Richardson will help them offensively and it adds value defensively by limiting their exposure on the field.

Even if this move doesn’t pay off ultimately like the Colts intended, it’s still a smart decision.  Indianapolis was not going to land a difference-maker on defense where they’ll end up drafting this year, and Richardson could potentially push the Colts offense to an elite level.  When you have the opportunity to make a franchise-changing impact, you have to seize the opportunity.

And from the perspective of the Browns, you also have to seize that same opportunity when you are going nowhere fast and need all the help you can get.  Cleveland can easily plug their hole at running back in the short-term and run the risk of finding a long-term solution later in a deep draft after taking a quarterback in the first round.  I can understand fans being upset after they bought into the delusion that Brandon Weeden could suck just enough for their defense to make them a playoff contender.  And I really feel bad for season ticketholders who want their money back.

Cleveland will have to instill some goodwill, but a winning team is the safest way to soothe the pains.

If the Browns add Bridgewater or any of the Top 5 QBs in this year’s draft, then those same fans that are cursing the franchise and swearing them off forever will be rushing back to buy their new QB’s jersey.

Fans are fickle like that.

I applaud Cleveland for taking the hits and doing what they deem best for the franchise.  It’s better to rip off the bandage than to slowly tear your hairs out peeling it off ever so carefully.  If the Browns commit to overtaking Jacksonville as the worst NFL team, then expect the dividends of this to pay off quickly.

While the Browns will suck in the short-term, there’s a renewed reason for hope in Cleveland.


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