The Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts sent a jolt through the football world Wednesday evening, giving us all one of professional football’s rarest moments: the in-season blockbuster trade. The Browns agreed to send running back Trent Richardson, the team’s first-round pick in 2012, to the Colts for a first-round pick in 2014, a move that boosts Indy’s profile as a contender and makes it clear that the Browns are looking toward 2014 and beyond.
Browns fans hate the fact that their team is giving up on 2013 after an 0-2 start, but they shouldn’t: Richardson has been underwhelming in his first 17 games, and with no passing attack to speak of, he wasn’t going to develop in Cleveland. Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden weren’t going to win there, and in the NFL, there’s nothing worse than mediocrity: if you don’t have a Super Bowl contender, scrap your non-essential pieces, pile up draft picks, and rebuild. The Browns now have a really bad team and 10 draft picks going into 2014, so they’ll have plenty of chances to grab an elite quarterback (like Teddy Bridgewater), wide receiver (like Marqise Lee), offensive tackle (like Jake Matthews) or pass rusher (like Jadeveon Clowney) — all of which are more valuable in today’s NFL than a running back — and fill in other needs later. Cleveland may again be a factory of sadness for the rest of 2013, but that’s what it was going to be anyway. This is a smart move if they want to win in the not-so-distant future. And since the Colts lost running back Vick Ballard to a torn ACL last week, it makes sense for them too. It’s a gamble — Richardson only averages 3.5 yards per carry — but it’s one they could afford to make, even at a somewhat steep price.
But forget the details of the trade and just enjoy the fact there was one! In-season trades are an integral part of Major League Baseball, where the long season and deep farm systems allow for innumerable trading block possibilities. Baseball’s trade deadline, July 31, is an event in and of itself, and the entire month of July is spent pondering blockbusters like the three-team swap that sent former Cy Young winner Jake Peavy to Boston and Rookie of the Year candidate Jose Iglesias to Detroit this year. Deals like that allow baseball team’s to improve in a flash: the Tigers needed a shortstop and the Sox needed a starting pitcher, and there’s a good chance those two teams could face off in the American League Championship Series next month in part because of that deal.
That doesn’t happen in the NFL, where most fans probably can’t name the trade deadline (it’s after Week 8). Take a look at Sports Illustrated’s list of the top blockbuster trades since 2000. The Browns-Colts trade is the only one that happened during the season, and only two others (Brett Favre in 2008 and Jay Cutler in 2011) happened anywhere near the season. Big NFL trades happen during the offseason, not while the games are going on, and the trades that do occur during the season are usually to fill roles after injuries. Sending a first-round running back away for a first-round pick just doesn’t happen.
Why is that? The two major reasons are the basic structure of the game and the NFL’s economic system. The first is simple: football is a game of a million systems, and learning a new system and executing within it isn’t easy to do on the fly during the season. It requires learning new routes, new blocking schemes, new defenses, and new plays altogether. That makes spending big on a new player mid-season in an attempt to get better quickly — as opposed to just adding depth — riskier than it is in baseball, where coaches may have slightly different philosophies but guys really just have to play the same game in a different uniform. Baseball also has a much longer season, and by the time July rolls around, teams generally know whether they have a contender. If they don’t, dealing soon-to-be free agents or hot hands to teams willing to overpay makes sense — you get something for a player who was leaving at the end of the year anyway, or you get more value out of a player than he was really worth. Football has a shorter season, though, and its trade deadline happens in Week 8, a time in the season where most teams still have at least a semblance of hope for the postseason.
The NFL’s economic structure also doesn’t promote big-time, in-season trades the way baseball’s does. The salary cap makes trades almost impossible, or at least not worth the hassle it takes to put them together. Football teams have a finite amount of money to spend, so any trades have to work money-wise for both teams. If it triggers cap problems for either, it won’t happen. That’s hard to pull off. It’s far easier to wait for free agency or the draft, when a team can find a desired player at a desired price and work around any cap issues. The draft is an increasingly appealing option because of the NFL’s rookie salary structure, which allows teams to pay less for draft picks than they have before in the free agency era. If it can’t find what it needs in free agency or isn’t in the right position in the draft, it can use the leverage of its own position to deal its picks for other picks or players it wants. That’s less of a hassle, creates fewer salary cap problems, gives a new player an entire offseason to learn the playbook and build rapport with teammates and coaches, and explains why trades don’t carry the same weight in football as they do in baseball.
That could change, but it’s not going to simply because the NFL moved the trade deadline backward in 2012. Neither the sport nor its economic system fosters an environment for blockbusters. So enjoy this one, football fans. This type of season-shaping trade doesn’t happen often, and if the NFL’s history is any guide, it probably won’t happen again any time soon.