HBO Visits the Cleveland Browns Training Camp, Where the Alphabet Has No W

It’s a little sad, but over the years I’ve become nervous whenever a major media outlet discovers one of my sports teams.

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In the case of HBO spotlighting the Cleveland Browns, I have not a single shiver of trepidation. Zero nerves. Bring it on.

Very often, the implication of a feature story or production on a sports team, spoken or unspoken, is that this team has elevated itself and will be rolling to victory.

The team hasn’t actually won yet. The message is just to keep an eye on it because we expect it will.

Like Sports Illustrated last year throwing out wild superlatives about the Dodgers a few weeks before they lost the World Series to the Houston Astros.

Or like various outlets two years ago that chronicled the apparent invincibility of Connecticut women’s basketball in the weeks before Mississippi State showed they were entirely vincible.

These articles feel like premature celebration, which is always, repeat always, a bad idea.

With the Browns, that’s not a problem.

Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET, HBO and NFL Films starts airing Hard Knocks: Training Camp With the Cleveland Browns, a five-episode series that’s billed as a sports reality show.

Based on how HBO has done similar productions in the past, it probably shouldn’t be called a reality show. It will be better than that. HBO does these things well, and in this case it has a perfect subject.

That might seem counterintuitive, since the Browns went 0–16 last season and 1–15 the season before. Nor is there any indication they’re headed for a breakout this year because, well, because they’re the Browns.

At one time, you young folks might want to remember, the Browns really were a showcase franchise. For their first decade, starting right after World War II, they won multiple championships and would eventually feature one of the three or four best running backs in pro football history, Jim Brown.

As a fan, I’ve always traced the decline of the Browns to the frigid afternoon of Dec. 14, 1958, when the Browns faced the Giants for the right to play in the NFL championship game. This was before the league got pretentious and had a Super Bowl with Roman numerals. It was just a championship game.

In any case, Jim Brown started the game with a 65-yard touchdown run. Right up the middle. Things looked promising. Then the game slowly turned as dark as the weather, and at the end, the Giants’s Pat Summerall kicked what looked like an 85-yard field goal through a blinding blizzard. The Giants won, 13–10.

To underscore sports karma, the Giants found that situation reversed two weeks later when they played the Baltimore Colts for the championship.

But from the Browns’s side, even though they did win one more title by beating the Colts in 1964, the best years were over.

They haven’t won a championship since. Haven’t played in a championship game. In 1996, the original Browns snuck out of town in the middle of the night to Baltimore — where, naturally, they soon started winning again.

Today’s Browns are an expansion team. Since they entered the league in 1999, you’d think they would have shed that description some years ago. You’d be wrong.

At first they followed a familiar expansion team pattern, starting slowly and getting better through high draft picks and the NFL’s parity policies. By their fourth season, 2002, they were 9–7 and made the playoffs.

It was a snare and a delusion. In the 15 seasons since then, they have had exactly two winning records. In only two seasons have they had fewer than double-digit losses. In their four-team division, they have finished fourth 13 times. Playoffs? Ha. That’s a good one.

Ohio, where Cleveland is located, is football country. It’s sports country in general, but they really love football. I remember walking through a Cleveland mall in 1997 and seeing a shrine to Browns football, anchored by a countdown clock that said the Browns would return in something like 838 days.

You gotta think the fans who set their watches by that clock have had a rough time of it. A “Be careful what you wish for” kind of deal.

But for some of us, even though we want the team to win, it’s been an oddly liberating experience.

We don’t spend our autumn weeks hoping that some wide receiver’s hamstring will heal enough so he can give us the deep threat that might enable us to beat the Vikings Sunday and push us ahead in the wild-card race.

No, we go into every game thinking that any kind of win, against anybody, would be a gift, an early Christmas present.

If we lose, well, we’re the Browns. If we win, hey, cool, how’d we do that?

Even in 2007, when the Browns finished 10–6, it wasn’t like we looked at the roster and concluded that yes, they’ve finally gotten it together. It was more like hey, once in a while you win a hundred bucks in the scratch-off lottery. That doesn’t mean it will happen again.

As for why the Browns have been so bad for so long, the answer is above my pay grade. If I knew it, the Browns probably wouldn’t hire me, because from all outward indications, their cattle call of executives, coaches and managers has been almost as unproductive as their legendary lineup of unsuccessful quarterbacks.

It’s not that all those execs, coaches and quarterbacks were incompetent. At one time Bill Belichick coached the Browns, and he’s shown decent skills with the team where he later landed.

Still, while the Browns definitely did something to anger the gods, they’ve also had great aim when it comes to shooting at their feet. Only the Browns thought Johnny Manziel, who was almost as screwed up as Todd Marinovich, was a good bet for a franchise quarterback. And poof, there went another season.

I suspect there’s a degree to which playing on a losing team makes you a slightly worse player, the same way playing on a winning team can make an average player a little better. Trent Richardson was a great college running back. With the Browns he was not great, and you have to think that may have reflected, to some extent, the absence of a solid line in front of him. Then there’s Kenny Britt, who was a decent receiver until he got to the Browns last year and forgot the idea with a pass is to catch it.

On the other hand, it’s easy to look at the Browns’s record and dismiss all the players as lousy.

That isn’t true. The Browns have had genuine All-Pros, like Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, and while it’s great fun to say things like “me and a bunch of my barroom buddies could beat those guys,” we need to remember the professional sports bell curve.

Thousands and thousands of kids grow up playing sports. A tiny handful, no more than a few hundred, make it to the pros. An “average” defensive lineman, like a .240 hitter in baseball, has to have remarkable skills to have gotten to that level against the best athletes in the world.

To play pro ball is an amazing achievement. You gotta be really skilled, and that brings us back to Hard Knocks.

HBO will follow 90 players aiming for 53 roster spots, and the fact it’s the Browns roster doesn’t mean these guys aren’t skilled.

Collectively not as skilled as the players on the Eagles, maybe, but skilled — and more to the point for Hard Knocks, the drama of the competition is exactly the same.

Fans, of course, will be watching to see if Baker Mayfield seems to finally be the answer at quarterback, as new GM John Dorsey thinks.

We won’t get that answer in training camp, or even preseason games, because he’ll be alternating with presumptive starter Tyrod Taylor — and also, perhaps more to the point, it’ll be a while before we know whether an offensive line without Joe Thomas can give either QB the time to do what QBs do.

Hard Knocks also can’t tell us how well the defense will do once the real season starts, because preseason is different. Last year, it might be remembered, the Browns won all their games in the preseason. Not, as they say in the stock market, a good predictor of future performance.

What’s safer to predict is that as Browns fans, we won’t have to sit down with the schedule and figure which games we must win to clinch good playoff position.

Fans of better teams get one win and immediately start thinking how they now need more. We can savor the one we got, because who knows how long it will be until it happens again?

HBO and the Browns presumably won’t frame Hard Knocks that way. Out here, 60 years after Pat Summerall’s field goal, we know.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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