Against “Ground and Pound” Sentimentality

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.

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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.

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