It seems the Cleveland Browns organization—like no other organization in the NFL—consistently knows how to set their fanbase on fire and confuse analysts across the league at the same time year in and year out. Even though the 2015 regular season has not started yet, general manager Ray Farmer has managed to do it again—shipping off running back Terrance West to the Tennessee Titans for a conditional seventh-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft in the process.
For those of you who may not recall, allow me to provide a refresher for you. Farmer and the front office essentially anointed West the “back of the future” a little over a year ago in the 2014 NFL Draft, trading fourth and sixth-round selections to move back into the third round of the draft to take the young back out of Towson. Even after signing Ben Tate away from the Houston Texans in free agency, Farmer and company did not feel they had enough for the future of their backfield—which is why they made the move to secure West.
Touted as one of the best “one cut and go” runners in the 2014 draft, West was said to be a perfect fit for the Browns new zone rushing scheme under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. And after the first game of the 2014 season against the Pittsburgh Steelers it seemed that way, as the rookie rushed for 100 yards on 16 attempts in his first ever game. In fact, he followed that up with 19 rushes for 68 yards and a touchdown in Week 2 against the Saints. Yes, after two games it seemed the Browns had quite the future back for their offense.
However, quietly behind the scenes it seemed there was something else going on. Combined with the emergence of undrafted rookie free agent, Isaiah Crowell, West was falling out of favor with the coaching staff and front office. After recording 35 carries in his first two games, West would carry the ball just 31 times in the team’s next five games (he only played in four of them due to being inactive for one).
For a player the team just traded back into the third round to get, this was obviously a major red flag. Despite this, the team cut Tate—leaving West and Crowell as the primary backs in a run-heavy offensive scheme. To put it simply, the duo touted as the “baby backs” was being handed the keys to the Browns rushing castle in their first year in the league.
Or so we thought.
The coaching staff would continue to confuse many, giving West 41 carries in Games 8 and 9, but then returning him promptly to irrelevance with five carries against Houston the next week. West would finish the season on a high note with 18 carries for 94 yards and a touchdown against the Ravens, accumulating 673 yards and four touchdowns on 171 carries overall in the 2014 season. Not bad for one of the most indecisive coaching staffs in terms of who was getting the carries we have seen in recent history.
So if West’s first season in the league wasn’t that bad, why are we now dissecting a trade that shipped him off to the Titans with the Browns currently having just one healthy running back on the roster? That is the million dollar question, and one that does not have a simple answer—especially considering the return for West was pennies on the dollar.
For the reactionary group of Browns fans, the trade signals yet another draft failure for an organization that has been plagued by them since their return to the league in 1999. Farmer is currently being crucified by half of the fanbase on social media, while being vehemently defended by the other. And both sides have valid arguments.
The trade of West adds to yet another questionable selection in Farmer’s first two years at the helm. Using first-round selections on Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel last year and a fourth-round selection this year on wide receiver Vince Mayle, who was just cut, are the three other moves currently in that group of picks being questioned by both the fans and talking heads alike.
Unfortunately for those bashing Farmer, the issue goes much deeper than just the general manager in this instance. The scouting department and those being employed to look deeper and have the best understanding possible in regard to these prospects need to be held accountable as well—even if it is difficult to truly know what is going to happen to a player once they are given more money and attention from outside sources than ever before.
So this brings up the question seemingly nobody is willing to answer in these instances—who is more to blame, the player or the front office?
At some point, fans and analysts alike need to decide when the blame needs to be placed squarely on the shoulders of the player to grow up and be a professional. With West, there were plenty of character concerns during his rookie season that did not seem to be there prior to the draft. If you do not believe me, just take a look at the telling quote below from one of the most respected members of the NFL Draft community. To put it simply, this situation is on both West and Farmer.
Looking through my pre-draft notes on RB Terrance West, he definitely said all the right things: “Character is more important than football”
— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) September 6, 2015
West did not do enough personality and character wise once getting to the league to “grow up” and become an NFL professional. The front office and coaching staff can only do so much in this instance aside from becoming glorified babysitters of an adult athlete, ala what the Dallas Cowboys did with Dez Bryant. However in this instance, there were not any public problems with West—there were with Bryant.
Though there is blame to be placed on West, the front office cannot be held blameless—because they are the ones who traded multiple selections in the 2014 NFL Draft for West. And to be frank, if they would not have hit on the undrafted Crowell, this would be an even bigger dumpster fire today. At some point last season or earlier in the offseason, the Browns needed to realize they were going to move on from West and attempt to move him for a bigger return—not the day after 53-man cuts when rumors were swirling the organization could potentially cut him. It is simple business 101, do not ruin the market for something/someone you are trying to get the greatest return on.
When it was all said and done—unless the team got a third-round pick back or a player who could contribute—there were portions of the fanbase and media that were never going to be happy with the deal, it is just how they are. But when you really sit back and look at how the entire situation played out, blame has to be spread to all parties—not just the one (Farmer) you want to continue to throw under the proverbial bus.
At the end of the day, the trade of West is less about the trade of a former third-round pick and more about the organizational culture that is being forged. While holding players accountable for their character in the building is obviously important to a football team, that accountability cannot be subjective based on the player/position the player plays. And in this offseason, we have witnessed Farmer and the front office move on from West and Mayle because of character concerns and poor performance, yet at the same time the organization did not move on from Manziel due to his antics on and off the field last year and Gilbert because of his atrocious play and “behind the scenes” issues.
To me, that subjective accountability is a bigger concern than anything else—and the biggest question that needs to be answered by the front office before they can regain the trust of an already jaded fanbase, and possibly even the players on their roster.