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History is not on side of 'Hard Knocks'-bound Browns or coach Hue Jackson  1 Week ago

Source:   USA Today  

As if the Cleveland Browns didn’t face a big enough challenge as they try to rebound from last year’s 0-16 season, now they’ll face the Hard Knocks Effect, which may be on the way to replacing the Sports Illustrated Jinx in the NFL.

Hard Knocks, HBO’s Emmy-award winning documentary series that annually chronicles an NFL training camp, is heading to Cleveland this summer.

While that’s great news for fans — who doesn’t want an inside look at the start of No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield’s career? — it might not be good news for the Browns themselves. And head coach Hue Jackson should be especially wary.

Two of the last four head coaches (Mike Smith, Jeff Fisher) featured on Hard Knocks were fired by season’s end, while only five of the 12 teams that have appeared on the series made the playoffs. Neither of the last two playoff teams, the 2013 Cincinnati Bengals and 2015 Houston Texans, made it out of the wild-card round. None of the last three teams (Texans, Rams and Bucs) improved upon their previous season’s record — though that's a low bar for the winless Browns.

Still, it will be interesting to see how HBO frames the upcoming season.

Cleveland has won one game since Jackson’s arrival in 2016 with a quarterback carousel that has become comical. We can already picture how the first episode will begin — with slow-motion shots of Jackson’s impending leap into Lake Erie (scheduled for June 1) to make good on a promise that he’d dunk himself should the team fail to improve on its 1-15 showing in 2016. And go ahead and toss in some dramatic b-roll from the January parade in which approximately 3,000 Browns fans “celebrated” the 0-16 season. There will be shots of fans wearing bags over their heads and scenes from the draft party — Cleveland’s version of the Super Bowl — celebrating Mayfield's arrival.

It should be compelling to see how HBO addresses Jackson's job security and how the series will depict the quarterback situation, given Jackson announced veteran Tyrod Taylor would be the starter in 2018 well before Mayfield was drafted.

Hard Knocks has a way of turning its chosen team into a fan favorite thanks to creative storytelling and exceptional access. Who didn’t watch last season and not think Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston was poised for a breakout campaign? Unknown players fighting for jobs and often heartbroken during roster cuts often makes for gripping footage. HBO has a way of selling the team it features as a legitimate playoff threat. (Sometimes, coaches provide that fodder themselves. Here’s looking at you, Jeff “No 7-9 B.S.” Fisher, with the 2016 Rams ... who wound up 4-12.)

Browns general manager John Dorsey, who kept his decision to select Mayfield secret until the day before the draft, admitted reluctance that his team will be forced to open its facility and practices to HBO’s cameras. But the Browns couldn’t opt out. NFL rules only exempt teams that have a first-year head coach, have made the playoffs in the past two seasons or have been on Hard Knocks in the last 10 years from participating. The Browns were one of six teams (along with the Broncos, 49ers, Ravens, Chargers, Redskins) who could not say no this year.

So all the Browns can do now is embrace what should be some of the first positive exposure they’ve received in years.

There will probably be breakout stars, like 2017 No. 1 pick Myles Garrett, a defensive end who is as quirky off the field — he loves dinosaurs — as he is menacing on it. There’s wide receiver Josh Gordon, who returned last year after a drug-related suspension that lasted more than two seasons. There’s Taylor, underappreciated during his tenure in Buffalo (a team he took to the playoffs in 2017) and likely to be overshadowed in Cleveland. And then there’s Mayfield, the charismatic 2017 Heisman Trophy winner who was the most polarizing player in college football — and possibly in this draft class — because of his brash personality.

The only thing missing will be Joe Thomas, the perennial Pro Bowl left tackle, who retired earlier this year — though expect him to find a way to make at least a few cameos.

By September, when the cameras stop rolling, HBO will probably have us believing that the Browns will turn it around — that Garrett will collect double-digit sacks, that Mayfield will become the franchise quarterback Cleveland has spent two decades searching for, and maybe even that Jackson deserves an extension.

Who knows? Maybe all that will happen, and the Browns will be the rare team to buck the Hard Knocks trend. Or, maybe, this will another mistake by the lake.

Follow Lindsay H. Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones

 

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