Melissa’s Monday Musings: Hard Knocks Striking Gold with the Cleveland Browns

The preseason’s penultimate week has come and gone and there are plenty of takeaways and lingering questions which I’ll get to shortly. But first, this may be the day after the weekend when the starters (sans Bears and Rams) showed us their most robust body of work to date, yet this preseason’s clear winner remains a reality TV show…

Like John Dorsey’s omnipresent sweatshirt, this season of Hard Knocks has been fresh, clean and mostly a blank easel of intrigue. Cleveland’s sadness factory was seemingly the perfect team for Hard Knocks when they were announced months ago. Three episodes down and I truly believe this team is not only the most compelling ever but has revitalized a franchise that had somewhat lost its luster.  Other seasons have produced signature moments – Chad Ochocinco released by the Dolphins in 2012 after being arrested for a domestic dispute or Rex Ryan’s ‘goddamn snack’ obsession as coach of the Jets in 2010 are two standouts.  But none have pulled back the curtain on as rare and dramatic an organization as the Browns. According to an HBO representative, total viewership is averaging 3.4 million an episode across all platforms, putting it near last season’s version of the Bucs which saw one of the series’ highest number in years.  Far more telling about the Browns’ success is the fact that this season has retained its viewership numbers since the premiere (give or take 5,000 viewers), a rarity for Hard Knocks or any series.

HBO has struck reality TV gold with the Browns for myriad reasons. For starters, they are the quintessential lovable loser, a franchise so previously mired in dysfunction and misery that you can’t help but inherently root for some magic fairy to sprinkle dust over FirstEnergy Stadium. In many ways the Browns represent our own experiences with football in the past few seasons. So much promise. So much disappointment.  They have reset the table with a new wave of characters so intriguing there has not been a consensus star of Hard Knocks or even a singular moment of the show – there are far too many to choose from.

It all starts with the backdrop of a franchise hitting rock bottom with nowhere else to go but up.  What NFL player echoes the notion of promise better than the oft-suspended Josh Gordon, his tantalizing 2013 monster season still fresh in our heads (87 catches, 1676 yards, 9 TDs in just 14 games). Last week’s beautifully shot final scene with Gordon training on the practice field juxtaposed to his team playing in Buffalo was a masterclass in teasing, and Gordon’s potential alone is intriguing enough to carry much of the series

Add the conflicting coaching philosophies of head coach Hue “preventative days off” Jackson and OC Todd “time to change the culture” Haley, Jarvis Landry’s, um, emotional leadership, Baker Mayfield’s NFL indoctrination, Tyrod Taylor’ sliver of an opportunity, DC Gregg Williams’s obsession with the f-word, Carl Nassib’s comedic financial advice, Moose the dog and OL coach/resident zoologist Bob Wylie whose stomach is alone worthy of a spinoff and this season’s Hard Knocks is a standout like we haven’t seen in years.

Hard Knocks debuted in 2001 to wild popularity because it offered a unique glimpse into players and organizational structure not found elsewhere at the time. (This was well before players tweeted pictures of their pets and dinner selections and team websites had team reporters looking for any insider-ish angle.) Hard Knocks used to be water cooler talk. It used to linger. It used to present all tenets of an organization and make the pitch to the NFL landscape – adopt us as your second team. The 2009 Bengals were the last team that lingered for me. I wanted to see if Chris Henry could mature, if Carson Palmer could fully recover from ACL surgery, how the tight end situation would shake out because Hard Knocks made me care.

More recently the franchise has felt more like a series of one-off moments and mandates than anything to truly draw you into the chosen team.  Most notably was last year’s appearance by the Tampa Bay Bucs and the misguided decision to turn the show into an insultingly blatant Jameis Winston redemption tour.

Hard Knocks has also been tainted in recent years by the number of GMs and coaches that have publicly stated their aversion to participating. Even Dorsey expressed a strong preference not to have the Browns participate but he had little choice.  The organizations volunteering to participate dwindled to the point that in 2013 the NFL had to enact a ‘Hard Knocks Rule’ where a franchise could be forced to participate if it didn’t meet one of a several outs like having a first year head coach. Believe me, if appearing on Hard Knocks was considered desirable, Jerry Jones would raise his hand every year.

But perhaps the overwhelming success of this season will make some organizations begin to see the benefits. At the very least Hard Knocks can dangle this fun factoid: Cleveland’s 5-0 doozy of a preseason tilt against the Carson Wentz-less Philadelphia Eagles on CBS won primetime on Thursday night.  It was the network’s most watched preseason game since 2012. Sure, it featured the Super Bowl champions but there surely was some semblance of a Hard Knocks effect.

But who cares about Thursday? Is it Tuesday night yet? My second-favorite NFL team is on!

Other Preseason-ish Musings 

– The morning after Week 1 this section will be full of ramblings and takeaways about the adrenaline-filled weekend that was. But not today. As tempted as I am to wax poetic about this third weekend of practice football I’m going to try and refrain. Sure, these games help shake out some positional battles and offer coaches a chance to audition some different personnel groups but they are hardly a predictor of regular season performance. If the games were that meaningful, Mitch Trubisky and Jared Goff would have been in them.

– Bears head coach Matt Nagy took some flak from Chicago media for his decision to rest most starters on Saturday vs. the Kansas City Chiefs. Kudos to Nagy for making, and owning, this unconventional decision.  If you don’t feel the extra 30-35 snaps are going to sway your team, why risk injuries. Pretty simple. Also love that he wanted to smartly get his second and third stringers time against starter talent.

– The Eagles first regular season game is ten days away and Carson Wentz has yet to be medically cleared, as announced by Doug Pederson Sunday.  Week 1 seems unlikely and who knows if we’re looking at multiple weeks of Nick Foles. Not ideal given Foles’s major slump in the preseason and the fact the Philly opens against Atlanta, which is poised to field a Top 5 defense.

– Good tidbit from ESPN’s Kevin Seifert: Lowering the head calls dropped from 1.55 flags per game in Weeks 1 and 2 to .64 in Week 3.  Sure, there was a questionable call or two but it’s safe to say that the added provision of no flag for incidental contact is working…until it’s the regular season and your team up 2 with :30 seconds to spare stops your rival from advancing into field goal range. Oh wait. Here comes the flag. 15 yards. Easy chip. shot Rival wins. You narrowly miss the playoffs with a 9-7 record. But this scenario would NEVER happen in the NFL.

– Jimmy Garoppolo played Saturday in Indianapolis as if he had too much caffeine running through his veins. Balls too high. Too hard. This means nothing but while in an idiotic moment of doubt about the Jimmy G hype I realized why it will be much more difficult for him to stand out and why that’s good for the league. It started across the field where Andrew Luck was displaying much pocket poise (LOVE that vertical step up under pressure) but spreads throughout the NFL. The disparity between the NFL’s starting QBs when Garoppolo took over in San Francisco last year to now is like the difference between Derek Carr and Connor Cook.

In other words, the slate of starting QBs in the NFL is unlike any we’ve seen in recent history. Back are Luck, Rodgers. Watson, Wentz (at some point). Tyrod’s getting his shot, Sam Darnold looks ready, Josh Allen could be ready (please get him some protection, Buffalo). Patrick Mahomes’s arm is gracing the NFL with its presence. Add in Brady, Brees, Roethlisberger, Mariota, Wilson, Newton and more and the have the potential for a QB renaissance.

– Garoppolo vs. Luck was a reminder that the last time the 49ers were in Indy Mike Pence challenged his inner Theon from Game of Thrones, performing his duty to his modern day Ramsay Bolton with a  staged walk out after the anthem. Hopefully this season’s low point isn’t quite so rooted in the depths of hell.

– Bruce Arians was a treat in his CBS debut. He offered insight on seemingly every play, oftentimes breaking down the rationale behind a call. Also loved that he didn’t fall temptation to sounding broadcasterish.

– If you followed TFG last season you know we love locker room victory speeches as much as anyone. But don’t preseason victory speeches seem a little much?

– If you are one of the approximately 40 million people who play fantasy football, please consider checking out last week’s episode of the TFG Podcast with Yahoo! fantasy goddess Liz Loza. Or you can not, have a crappy draft, and regret it later. Your choice. (PS: If you don’t also have Pat Fitzmaurice’s complete player rankings handy while drafting, I can’t help you.

– Are there any series finales worse than NFL preseason’s?