'Hard Knocks' to bring Browns' Hope Season into focus

The rumors became official Thursday when it was announced the Cleveland Browns will be the focus of the 13th season of HBO's groundbreaking NFL documentary series, "Hard Knocks."

How should we feel about this? For most of the millennium -- well, save for the year Johnny Manziel got drafted and within weeks was floating on a large rubber water bird -- a Browns "Hard Knocks" season would be met with a Liz Lemon-level eye roll from football fans who'd rather roll the dice with a shady hitchhiker than watch a five-part deep dive on the least successful franchise in North American sports. But this appears to be the start of a new era for the Browns, who spent a ton of money in free agency and imported some elite college talent following their historic-in-a-sad-way 0-16 season.

Yes, it's Hope Season once more in Cleveland, and a lot of people -- this writer included -- believe this could be the first time in forever that hope doesn't take the first train out of town come September. Then there's this take from my pal and "Around The NFL Podcast" cohort, Marc Sessler, a lifelong Browns fan who sees this team as unique in the show's two-decade history: "The Browns, more than any team ever on 'Hard Knocks,' bring a wild psychic energy of past and recent failure -- half the story is trying to shake that off."

Can the Browns do it? Or is this just the latest setup for another long winter on the clock at the Factory of Sadness? It all makes for some compelling premium cable programming and it starts on Aug. 7. Here are some subplots we're looking forward to this season:

Baker Mayfield is in the house

It's easy to admire Cleveland's moxie. The "safe" move was to take USC wonderboy Sam Darnold with the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Darnold was the consensus top QB of the class -- a hyper-talented prospect with a cool, reserved demeanor and zero serious red flags to speak of. Darnold is essentially the "Young Franchise Quarterback" churned out of central casting in Hollywood. You'd think the Browns, stung so horribly by their failed Manziel experiment, would gravitate toward a prospect like Darnold and run -- no, sprint -- away from any college passer tagged with non-flattering comparisons to Johnny Football. But the Browns didn't get scared off; they identified Mayfield as their guy and made their move. It will be fun to get to know Mayfield, who will undoubtedly be a subject of primary focus.

Hue Jackson's 'Hard Knocks' encore

This will not be Hue Jackson's first "Hard Knocks" rodeo. The embattled Browns coach (it's now a sportswriting rule that "embattled" comes before "Browns coach") was the offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals when that team had its second HBO star turn in the summer of 2013. Jackson came off as smart, capable and well-liked back then -- I remember thinking about how much Jackson made sense as a future head coach while watching him. Well, Hue's 1-31 in two years in Cleveland. Honestly, it's a minor miracle that Hue even survived 0-16, and 2018 sets up as his last shot to establish himself as an NFL head coach. In my office, colleagues are already making friendly wagers on whether or not the season premiere opens with Hue jumping into Lake Erie. (Jackson made the promise before last season that he'd take the plunge if Browns didn't improve on their 1-15 record from 2016. Oof.) If I had to guess the opening scene, I'd go with the "Obligatory Head Coach Hype Speech In First Team Meeting," but I could certainly be wrong.

A compelling wide receivers room

The craziest thing about the Browns right now: All the optimistic takes about their 2018 prospects are rooted in actual sound logic! That logic being that Cleveland suddenly has a roster with some real talent on both sides of the ball. That includes a wide receiver corps featuring the newly acquired Jarvis Landry and returning veteran Josh Gordon, in line to start his first season in years without the "s" word (suspension) hanging over it. We'll also get a look at Corey Coleman, a former first-round pick who has underwhelmed in his first two seasons, and rookie fourth-round pick Antonio Callaway, another tantalizing talent who could not stay out of trouble in college. It's a talented, potentially combustible group. If Kenny Britt was still on the team, the wide receivers room would actually catch on fire.

John Dorsey puts on a brave face

Browns general manager John Dorsey made no secret of his desire to keep the Browns off HBO this summer.

"I don't believe we're on 'Hard Knocks,' " Dorsey told ESPN Cleveland 850 earlier this month. "I don't think there's anything good that comes out of 'Hard Knocks,' but we'll see."

We certainly shall. For the record, the Browns checked all the boxes for mandatory "Knocks" inclusion. They a) do not have a new head coach; b) have not qualified for the playoffs in the past two seasons; and c) have not appeared on "Hard Knocks" in the past 10 years. Which isn't to assume that the Browns were indeed forcefully compelled to star on the show -- powerful people above the GM might see the program as an ideal vehicle for promotion and brand-building.

After the "Hard Knocks" engagement became official, Dorsey walked back his previous comments, explaining that he "feel[s] a lot better and understand[s] why the time is right." I'm not sure we should actually buy that, and it will be interesting to see how much the general manager, as well as team owner Jimmy Haslam, show up during the five-episode arc. In some "Hard Knocks" seasons, you can't get front office officials off the screen; in others years, the suits are almost entirely invisible. My prediction: We'll end up seeing plenty of Dorsey, despite his initial protestations. He seems like a dude who doesn't mind the spotlight.

It's the Todd & Gregg Show!

Gregg Williams is like the "Hard Knocks" version of Jason from "Friday the 13th." Just when you think he's gone, he comes roaring back to life. Two summers ago, Williams glowered all over your flatscreen as the defensive coordinator of a very bad and sad Los Angeles Rams team. Williams came off more or less exactly as we imagined the one-time Bountygate conspirator to be. (Think Bud Kilmer from "Varsity Blues," but with a neatly maintained goatee.) Every good story needs a villain, and while I think it's unfair to paint Williams with that brush, we can at least say "Hard Knocks" has a Mean Uncle to weave into the narrative.

As for Todd Haley, here's to hoping he fires off a couple of potshots on Ben Roethlisberger when he thinks cameras aren't rolling.

The fans

No NFL fanbase has dealt with more misery than Browns supporters, who lost their team entirely in the '90s, got it back after three years of darkness, and were rewarded for their patience and loyalty with two decades of punishing abject failure. "Hard Knocks" producers would be wise to give us a taste of Browns fandom this summer. What's kept the faithful faithful during an unmatched run of organizational ineptitude? There are loyal sports fans and then there are Browns fans. Take us inside the Dawg Pound.

Dan Hanzus will write recaps of each "Hard Knocks" episode beginning with the Aug. 7 premiere on HBO. You can find Dan's complete "Hard Knocks" archive right here. Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

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