The second episode of "Hard Knocks" ends on a note of unabashed optimism.
The Browns have defeated the Giants in their preseason opener at MetLife Stadium. We watch a slow-motion montage of Browns players and coaches going about their postgame business: chatting with the opponent, interacting with fans, meeting with the media, walking to the team bus. It's a victory march set to the song "Change Coming" by the group Layup. (Sample lyric: "Right here, I'm feeling a change, I'm feeling a change, around me/ No doubt, I'm feeling a change, I'm feeling a change running 'round me.")
Sure, it's just a preseason affair -- a meaningless exhibition -- but the Cleveland Browns have won an organized football game for the first time in nearly a year. Summer victory is no crystal ball for future success (the Browns, who went undefeated last preseason, know this better than anyone). But as far as starts go, it's undeniably positive. When you're the Browns, you sign up for all the positive you can get.
In last week's premiere, we were introduced to a team attempting to distance itself from the ugliness of 0-16, while viewers were left to ponder if that was even possible with Hue Jackson leading the charge. You could argue Jackson came off soft -- a death-sentence adjective in this business -- so consider it notable when Tuesday's episode begins with decisive action from the coach.
Former first-round pick Corey Coleman has been demoted to second team, and the disappointing third-year player decides to bypass offensive coordinator Todd Haley and go straight to Jackson to voice his displeasure. "If you don't want me to play, why won't y'all just trade me?" Coleman asks.
Cut to the opening credits. When we return to Browns camp, Coleman is gone, traded to the Bills for a 2020 seventh-round pick. Giving up on a 24-year-old premium draft choice, the first of the Hue Jackson era in Cleveland, is highly unusual. On the surface, it feels like the type of Browns move that inevitably goes sideways. And perhaps it might ... but Jackson and the organization decided it was more important to make a statement.
Meanwhile, in the Browns' wide receivers room, the news brings no internal tumult. There is no fiery Jarvis Landry rant condemning the move, no one questioning the sanity of giving up on a talented young player for pennies on the dollar. Instead, a coach offers some throwaway comments about the importance of the right "culture" ... and that's pretty much that. The Corey Coleman era is history. One more piece of 1-31 excised from the host.
This episode puts a lot of its focus on the wide receivers. After the Coleman trade, we see general manager John Dorsey and Andrew Healy, the team's senior player personnel strategist, discussing potential additions to a group still waiting on Josh Gordon. Dorsey looks over Healy's list of potential outside targets and doesn't even find Dez Bryant's name until his gaze reaches the bottom of the page.
When Healy describes Bryant as "basically" 30, Dorsey corrects, "He's 29." Healy responds in the most senior strategist way possible: "29.7." On initial viewing, I thought Healy actually said Bryant was "29 going on 70." Considering Dez's back-alley real estate on the document, you wonder if that might not be too far off from Cleveland's actual assessment.
Antonio Callaway is the guy who took Coleman's first-team gig, but he's not without his own drama. The rookie made the foolish decision not to tell the Browns about his weekend traffic stop and subsequent citation for possession of marijuana. It's fascinating to watch it unfold at the next day's practice, Callaway's sagging demeanor setting off alarm bells for both Jackson and Haley. (Says Haley: "You look like a little puppy dog.") "Hard Knocks" narrator Liev Schreiber sums things up perfectly: "Sometimes there's nothing heavier than a secret. Being alone with your thoughts can be a burden."
When Callaway's secret becomes public, the Browns are understandably angry. Jackson puts the rookie on notice: "I believe you, but if I'm wrong on this one, I'm going to have your ass."
Jackson decides to punish Callaway by playing him for the entire night against the Giants. The exhausted rookie responds with a long catch-and-run touchdown. On the sideline, Haley -- who's been around long enough to know a potential star when he sees one -- approaches Landry, the team's highest-paid player.
"Hey, you need to take that kid on," Haley begins. "I don't care if he's f-----' livin' at your house. We can't have him f--- up. Can you do that? You got all this passion -- just take the kid under your wing. Larry Fitzgerald would."
What Would Larry Do? It's a motto we should all live by.
Extra points ...
-- Man, Callaway living with that secret really brought back childhood memories ... not particularly fond ones, either. When Dorsey tells Callaway, "Take your backpack off, stay awhile," he was channeling every vice principal at every school ever. Busted. Callaway's apology in a subsequent team meeting also felt ripped from a seventh-period class assembly.
-- Second-year tight end David Njoku had an encouraging preseason debut, pulling in two touchdown passes. It was a big step up from a rough practice earlier in the week, where some drops led to a coach-appointed post-practice date with the JUGS machine. Njoku's stone hands also prompted this wonderful interplay between the tight end and defensive linemen Nate Orchard and Chad Thomas:
-- Haley surged into contention for Hard Knocks XIII MVP with his effort in this one. Here he is deciding whether the fourth-string quarterback will play in the preseason opener:
And here are his thoughts on defensive end/amateur financial planner Carl Nassib: "You imagine seeing a little baby and [you're] like, 'Let's name him Carl. Look at this baby! Let's name him Carl. Goochie goochie goo, Carl.' It seems you'd only get that name later in life." The crazy thing: I was thinking the same exact thing during last week's premiere.
-- Speaking of Nassib, a relatively quiet episode for Tony Robbins' No. 1 fan. He did offer this, however: "I'm getting dumber. Like, I've had to start reading s--- because I noticed I was getting stupider."
-- When a 51-year-old white professional football coach is pondering which walk-out song to use for his unit and he begins a sentence with, "I know it's old school ...," 100 times out of 100 that song will be "Born To Run" by Bruce Springsteen. Well, make it 99, because Haley actually chose "No Love" by Eminem and Lil Wayne. Legitimately stunning moment.
-- Defensive end (and aspiring poet) Myles Garrett: "I was a boy who liked to write long before I was a man who liked to hit people."
-- Finally, when we are introduced to tight end Devon Cajuste, we see an overwhelmed camp body who looks like the most obviously doomed long shot in "Hard Knocks" history. But then we get the backstory, one of the most affecting I can remember in the show's long run. We learn about Cajuste's extremely close relationship with his father, Gregory, a man plagued by such serious health issues that he once told his 13-year-old son that he had just five years to live.
Devon is 25 now, and Dad is still around, despite three heart attacks, a stroke and a tracheotomy. Gregory hid the most recent heart attack from his son so he could focus on his NFL dream -- we actually see the moment Devon learns of his father's latest brush with mortality. It's a sad but beautiful reveal that offers a glimpse into just how important these two people are to one another.
If only all reality television could aspire to be this great.