The Cleveland Browns have some explaining to do in the wake of the Trent Richardson trade.
As I wrote in this space Thursday, I understand the deal. Richardson simply was not the guy Browns CEO Joe Banner and GM Mike Lombardi viewed as the key to the team’s long-term success.
But the timing and execution of the trade raise serious questions about the franchise’s attitude toward its long-suffering fans, many of whom feel betrayed by the move.
Richardson, the No. 3 overall selection in the 2012 NFL draft, was slowed by injuries as a rookie and again entering this season. He was supposed to have a combination of power and speed that set him apart from ordinary players, but I watched every game Richardson played with the Browns and I never saw the advertised explosiveness.
Still, the trade felt like a punch to the gut for Browns fans. This is a fan base that has shown unconditional love for a team that has given them precious little in return. One Browns regime after another has fed the fans slop and expected them to continue to like it.
Can it be that the taste is starting to get to them?
The Browns have had two winning seasons (2002 and 2007) since returning to the NFL in 1999. They’ve made the playoffs once (’02). And since ’07, when they finished 10-6 under Romeo Crennel, regime change has been the franchise’s only consistent trait.
Now it’s more of the same. Two games into Rob Chudzinski’s first season as coach, Banner and Lombardi elect to blow it up again and their message to Browns fans — many of whom feel betrayed by the Richardson deal — is, “Trust us, we know what we’re doing.”
Actually, that’s Banner’s message. Lombardi couldn’t even be bothered to show up for the news conference at which the trade was announced. And people wonder why Browns fans have no confidence that Lombardi will deliver with the 10 draft picks the team has for 2014.
It’s not so much that the Browns traded Richardson. It’s that they seem intent on another rebuilding project.
Banner, to his credit, seems to realize fans are skeptical, if not openly dismissive of the new regime, especially now. The trade smells bad to fans. Nobody thought this team was getting into the playoffs without tickets, but trading your best skill-position player — left tackle Joe Thomas is the Browns’ best offensive player — now clearly shows Banner and Lombardi are not in it to win much of anything this season.
So why not make that clear to fans in July? If the intention was to use the 2014 draft to get a franchise quarterback (we’ve seen that plan before), why wait until the season began to dangle Richardson?
Season-ticket sales might not have gone so well if the Browns traded last year’s top draft pick over the summer. But now, even if some irate fans decide not to show up on Sundays the rest of the season, their money is already in hand.
And remember, this is coming from someone who doesn’t believe the Browns traded away the next Jim Brown or Marshall Faulk.
The Browns need to embrace transparency. They’re obviously not going to give refunds to fans who feel they were the victims of a bait-and-switch. But Banner and Lombardi must show they’re not taking Browns fans for granted — or to the cleaners.