By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
Updated at 9:27 p.m.
The Browns blew up their offensive team on Wednesday and essentially announced they will be a player for the top quarterback in the 2014 draft – whomever that may be.
In the morning, they turned over the starting quarterback duties to Brian Hoyer and benched receiver Greg Little. After practice they dropped the bombshell – trading running back Trent Richardson to Indianapolis for the Colts’ first-round draft pick in 2014.
They also announced they were bringing in Willis McGahee, 31, for a physical. He will be the replacement running back for now if he passes. McGee suffered a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee in November and was released by the Denver Broncos in June.
Regardless, the Browns head to Minnesota for Game 3 with Chris Ogbonnaya and Bobby Rainey as their active running backs.
The appearance of an all-out tank job to position themselves to finagle for the highest-rated quarterback on May 8 could not be denied.
“I don’t want to tip our hands, but I think it puts us in a very good position,” said Browns CEO Joe Banner. “To have made some real progress with the team this season (in free agency), to be in good cap shape … I think we’re positioning ourselves to build the kind of team that is good and sustainable.”
It is well-documented that Banner and General Manager Mike Lombardi were skeptical of the offensive talent they inherited – particularly quarterback Brandon Weeden and Richardson – and were intent on blowing up the offensive side of the ball. Nobody could envision them doing it after two games, though.
But it was eerily reminiscent of the last time Lombardi worked in Cleveland, for the old Browns as Bill Belichick’s top lieutenant.
In one of the all-time controversial moves in Cleveland sports history, Belichick released popular quarterback Bernie Kosar in the middle of the 1993 season with the team’s record at 5-3. That bombshell reverberated long and polarized the city. The team slumped to 7-9. But a year later, the Browns rebounded to 11-5 and won a first-round playoff game. It’s the last time a Browns team won a postseason game.
“I really can’t get into a critique of what’s happened in the past,” Banner said. “I’m aware enough of it to totally understand the emotions the fans are experiencing. All we can do is make the best decisions to make the team the best it can be and sustain success.”
Banner continued: “I just think we have to earn their belief and trust in the decisions we’re going to make as a group. I don’t expect them to trust that until we prove to them that trust is well-placed, so I understand the skepticism for now. We have to do what we think is right and move the franchise forward and get it to where we want it to be.”
The trade leaves the Browns stocked with 10 selections in the May 8 draft – their own in each of the seven rounds, plus the Colts’ first- and fourth-round picks and the Steelers’ third-round pick.
Banner indicated the impetus for the bombshell deal was the Colts’ interest to acquire a running back to bring balance to their offense. Banner said the teams started conversations on Tuesday. The deal was completed after players had left their workplace following their first practice for the Vikings.
Banner said Lombardi spoke with Richardson, and both Banner and Lombardi spoke with his agent. Coach Rob Chudzinski said he reached out to deliver the news to team captains Joe Thomas, D’Qwell Jackson and Quentin Groves. The coach will address the full team Thursday morning with the message that “nothing has changed.”
“The group we have in that locker room is an extremely competitive group,” Chudzinski said. “These guys understand the business aspect of football. We’ll have the same expectations, the same goals. We’re gonna play every week to win every week. Nothing’s changed from that standpoint.”
Richardson was the third overall pick of the 2012 draft, the signature move of the Mike Holmgren-Tom Heckert regime. The Browns gave up three mid- and late-round draft picks to move up one spot to select Richardson as rumors spread of a possible trade up by Tampa Bay.
Word spread quickly as the season began that the coaches already had become disenchanted with Richardson’s hesitant, limited running style, his grasp of the third-down package, and his growing outspokenness.
Chudzinski denied the trade had anything to do with any of that.
“It had nothing to do with Trent from that standpoint,” Chudzinski said. “The opportunity as an organization was there for us to have a chance to get better, ultimately. I felt it was the right decision overall.”
Banner said, “This was more about the moment presented itself based on the situation the Colts found themselves in. It wasn’t something where we could say could you wait three weeks? We had to decide whether we thought it was a move that made us better.”
Weeden’s thumb injury gave the Browns the opportunity to insert Hoyer. On Wednesday morning, before the Richardson bombshell unfolded, Chudzinski refused to deny that Hoyer could, in fact, hold the starting job all season. Weeden will see a specialist on Thursday; it’s possible he has played his last game for the Browns as the undisputed starter.
The only offensive player of note whose future is now in question is receiver Josh Gordon. He was given his starting job back this week after serving a two-game suspension for failing a drug test in February. Trade interest in Gordon probably is minimal because he is another infraction from being suspended for a full year.
Banner said, “We’re not looking to be making any more trades. At the same time -- I don’t think any NFL team would say anything different -- if something presents itself that made us better, we’d listen. I think we feel better about where we’re at moving forward now.”
Browns fans are accustomed to turning their attention to the next draft, but rarely has it happened so early in a season.
It gives them ample time to scout the early franchise quarterback candidates – Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and, the new name to watch, Brett Hundley of UCLA.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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