In the wildcard thread, in the course of explaining why you can’t build a winning NFL team around a running game, I reiterated in passing that the Browns were idiots to trade up to take a running back with a top-3 pick. Given that the Browns, in exchange for the additional draft picks and $5+ million this year received replacement-level running, had another terrible year, and everyone responsible for picking Richardson has been fired, I didn’t think this would be terribly controversial. But because Brien Jackson, while sabermetrically inclined in baseball, is apparently a Murray Chass-style sentimentalist in football it was:
Somebody else would have traded up to get him at #3.
If the Browns had come out of the draft with Richardson AND Wilson, I think we’d have a pretty damn different outlook on their future.
He was “low impact” for a guy who was injured all year and had a shit quarterback. Also, tell the Ravens, Vikings, or Texans that running back is a “low impact” position.
To deal with the silly argument first, it may be true that somebody else would have traded up to trade Trent Richardson, but I trust that the irrelevance of this question is obvious. (“If the Jets didn’t trade for Tebow, the Jaguars would have! If Dave Littlefield didn’t trade for Matt Morris Bill Bavasi might have!”) The question is would a competently run organization not merely waste a top-3 pick on a running back but waste additional draft choices for the privilege? I would submit that the answer is quite clearly “no.” Would Bill Belichick make that move? Sure, right after he resigned to be Charlie Weis’s defensive coordinator.
Anyway, there are two reasons that the pick doesn’t make any sense, and both are important to an understanding of contemporary football. First, running backs are inherently unpredictable and inconsistent. To quote Barnwell again, “Of the 14 running backs who have been taken in the top five since 1990, only a handful have delivered on their promise. Most have flashes of brilliance mixed with injuries, which is exactly what you get from guys like Jerome Harrison, who cost nothing.” Brien is right that Richardson was injured in the second half and is capable of better, but that’s the point — because of the pounding they sustain the performance and availability running backs varies wildly. There’s no reliable way of identifying elite runners, and even those who reach that level tend not to sustain it.
And yes, yes, Tom Brady went in the 6th round — but this is mentioned so often because it’s the exception. The best QBs in the league — the Mannings, Rodgers, Griffin III, Luck, Ryan, Roethlisberger — are generally first round picks. This isn’t at all true of running backs. And Brees and Wilson, aside from Romo the most obvious exceptions, are classic Moneyball inefficiencies — guys who projected as good NFL QBs who fell in the draft because a lot of scouts thought they didn’t look like NFL QBs. (It’s not coincidental that the Browns believed in this line of old-school bullshit too.) If you know what you’re doing, projecting QBs isn’t unusually difficult. Moreover, once you discover a hidden gem like Tom Brady, he generally stays good every year, while top running backs don’t.
But this unpredictability isn’t even the most important reason the Richardson pick was dumb. Even if Richardson could be as reliably projected as a quality player as Luck and be expected to be good every year, it still would probably be a bad idea to draft him. The bigger problem is that in modern football the quality of a team’s offense is determined almost entirely by the quality of its passing attack. The marginal quality of a team’s running game has virtually no correlation with winning, while the quality of a team’s passing game has a very tight correlation with winning. This is disguised in part because a lot of people look at the wrong metrics, focusing on gross yardage instead of yardage per play. Winning teams often run more often, because if you have a big lead in the 4th quarter burning the clock and minimizing turnovers is more important than maximizing your scoring, but they don’t run more effectively. And the idea that you have to “establish” a good running game to have a good passing game is also a myth. If you don’t believe the systematic evidence, just look at the career of top quarterbacks, from Starr to Brady and Manning. You’ll see a wide variety in the quality of their team’s running game that has no discernible effect on their performance. Then, look at the kind of QB play that has gone along with the rare consistently elite runners like Sanders and Peterson. See? If you can pass you can pass and if you can’t you can’t. If you can pass, a below-average running game will do just fine, and if you can’t a quality running game won’t lead to a good offense. (Brien’s examples are a case in point. Foster was below-average this year, and last year while he was outstanding when Houston’s #1 QB went out their offense was immediately hideous. The Vikings have generally had mediocre-to-awful offenses even with Peterson, including during his historic season this year.) There just isn’t that big a gap between the best and worst running backs available to NFL teams, and there’s a lot of movement between the two groups.
An expensive running back is a luxury item. If you’re a good team, it’s a bad-odds gamble that might or might not work. If you’re a bad team, it’s about as useful as a Burberry trenchcoat in a hurricane.
…as for the Seahawks/Falcons game, let us never speak of this again. Except to say that as utterly horrible as the conclusion was every time icing the kicker fails God saves many struggling orphans.