On Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, just three days after Indianapolis placed running back Vick Ballard on injured reserve with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, then-Browns CEO Joe Banner picked up the phone and called Colts general manager Ryan Grigson to discuss a trade, hoping that he'd have an eager buyer.
Banner, with whom I spoke earlier this month, prides himself on not playing the high-low game during negotiations, where one side starts with an offer so ridiculous that the counter is better than the first side's original goal. Like a real estate agent, he prefers comparable prices and circumstances and hopes his partner will respond in kind.
On that afternoon, the topic was Trent Richardson.
Banner, not finding any comparable running back deals, brought up Dallas' acquisition of wide receiver Joey Galloway (the No. 8 overall pick in the 1995 NFL Draft) in 2000 for two first-round picks. He also added that receiver Roy Williams (No. 7 overall pick in the 2004 draft) was traded to the Cowboys in 2008 for a first-round pick and a third-rounder (as well as two lower selections). According to Banner, Grigson countered with his own comp: The Colts dealing Marshall Faulk to the Rams in 1999 for a second-round pick and a fifth-rounder.
So began a relatively quick series of exchanges before a breakthrough: Grigson, according to Banner, said that he would relinquish his first-round pick the following year but nothing else. Banner, who had been interested in several players on the Colts' roster as sweeteners, agreed. The result, in some ways, was a blockbuster deal that nobody won -- at least not publicly, as the Browns were roundly destroyed in the immediate aftermath by the press and former team executives for giving up on the season and a potentially great player. As time went on, though, and as Richardson failed to produce, the Colts were lambasted for sacrificing a first-round pick.
"The problem when you do something that is so highly visible is that it ends up taking an unfair proportion of the perception about you," Banner, who has helped swing some of the best deals in recent NFL history, told me. "Although I didn't necessarily get the benefit of the doubt on the positive side, but I think [Grigson] certainly got the negative side, and that's what happens. The Packers traded for Brett Favre, and had he been a bust, they'd be in a different way."
We revisit the trade not only because Sunday is the three-year anniversary, but also due to the fact that we've entered yet another year where an early-season blockbuster could help define the course of competition.
Some have called the Vikings' trade for former Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford desperate and foolish, giving up a first-round pick and conditional mid-round selection for a passer who has never been able to live up to lofty expectations. Some have called it the move that could keep a championship-caliber defense on track to reach the playoffs.
It all probably sounds familiar to Banner. Back in 2013, he watched as former Browns president Mike Holmgren ripped him to shreds the day after the Richardson deal. Holmgren, who traded up to draft Richardson before he was let go by Banner, said if he was coach of the Browns at that time he would have quit.
The Colts were declared a winner by many in the national media, including columnists from Sports Illustrated, Newsday and both beat writers for the Indianapolis Star at the time. Banner was left in Cleveland with reports that suggested everyone was on the trading block. His building was divided.
"It didn't hurt me personally, though it's nothing you ever want," he recalled. "But it did cause doubt within the building. As you're taking over a team in the first year of being together, part of what you're trying to do is build relationships, build confidence and trust in one another. It didn't serve that agenda well. Frankly, there were people for it and against it within our own building -- it certainly wasn't unanimous that we should do this."
A more detailed look at the trade suggests it was not as much of a disaster for the Colts as many have thought in recent years. They only paid about $6 million of Richardson's $20.5 million rookie contract. At the time, Richardson was coming off a rookie season that had been more productive than those of LeSean McCoy, DeMarco Murray, Steven Jackson and Ryan Mathews before him. The first-round pick, which ended up being No. 26 overall in 2014, came in the middle of a bungled part of the top 100 where there were some hits (like Jason Verrett, Kelvin Benjamin, Teddy Bridgewater and Joel Bitonio), as well as some misses (Dee Ford, Marcus Smith and Dominique Easley). And the Browns, by then having replaced Banner with a new regime headed by GM Ray Farmer, actually ended up trading the pick away to Philadelphia as part of their move up the board to select Johnny Manziel at No. 22. The Eagles, meanwhile, took the aforementioned Smith at 26.
Grigson has worn this mistake, though there is little doubt from those around him that he would do the deal again. A team offers you a chance to get the No. 3 pick from the previous year's draft, a player universally beloved by analysts, college coaches and teammates. Oh, and he's also at a position of desperate need. It's not difficult to see the allure.
"I worked with Ryan. He's a great guy, he's a very capable guy. I do think it's kind of unfairly blemished him," Banner said. "And listen, I was trading Trent and I knew him well and I was very surprised he wasn't successful. Now, I didn't think I was trading away Adrian Peterson, but I did think I was trading away a very good player and, with what the Colts did, I thought it would work well."
Banner was also part of an Eagles organization that traded Kevin Kolb to the Cardinals for a second-round pick and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie back in 2011. And he was instrumental in dealing Donovan McNabb within the division to the Redskins for a second-round pick and a conditional mid-rounder. He also helped land eight-time Pro Bowl tackle Jason Peters from Buffalo for first-, fourth- and sixth-round picks.
In our mind, those moves have to land Banner as one of the greatest wheelers and dealers of the last 20 years. And while the Richardson deal is not a cloud unfairly hanging over his head, it was a moment of turbulence that made us all momentarily forget the reputation he'd built.
What will we end up saying about Howie Roseman and Rick Spielman?
Thanks to the wonderful folks at NFL research, we can see roughly how many trades there have been per season over the last 10-plus years -- and the results are pretty fascinating:
» 2006: 52 trades
» 2007: 38
» 2008: 32
» 2009: 44
» 2010: 66
» 2011: 22
» 2012: 30
» 2013: 38
» 2014: 25
» 2015: 50
» 2016: 24 (so far)
It is interesting to note how numbers doubled from 2014 to '15 -- and then cut back in half again this year (assuming we won't see a rash of deals at the trade deadline to bring it much closer to 50). One potential reason for this? Since the signing of the new collective bargaining agreement back in 2011, rookie deals have made it much easier for teams to reason themselves into keeping a player. The "four-year scholarship" theory could parallel the developmental crisis that the NFL is facing as teams try to transform more college prospects coming from non-traditional offensive and defensive systems into pro-style players. This takes longer and requires a heavier time investment from coaching staffs across the league.