The Cleveland Browns introduced a new slogan this summer. The phrase is plastered on signs and banners everywhere: at team headquarters, in and around FirstEnergy Stadium and at carefully selected hubs throughout Northeast Ohio.
Football from the Hardland of America.
Predictably, the rallying cry was met with the raised eyebrows and smirks now regularly reserved for all things Browns. It's just one of the prices you pay when you've been the NFL's least successful franchise for two decades and counting. When you drop 1-15 and 0-16 on your fanbase in consecutive years, you find yourself fighting wars on multiple fronts.
But that doesn't mean "Hardland" doesn't work. Because nobody knows "hard" like the Cleveland Browns. Winning games is hard. Being a fan is hard. Drafting the right players is hard. Trusting a GM is hard. Keeping a head coach is hard. Reversing a chronic culture of losing is -- well, you get it.
Which takes us to the season premiere of -- appropriately enough -- "Hard Knocks," the acclaimed NFL Films documentary series that returned Tuesday night on HBO. In the show's one-hour premiere, we witnessed a team in the early stages of training camp attempting to find an identity. After all, it's one thing to slap a catch phrase all over buildings and T-shirts; it's another thing to actually practice what you preach.
Jarvis Landry believes he knows how to live it. No wide receiver in NFL history has caught more balls in his first four seasons than Landry, and the offseason trade acquisition doesn't like what he sees in his first training camp in Berea. Some teammates are taking practices off -- it's unclear if players are sitting due to injury or because of an organizational philosophy that permits intermittent rest to avoid physical setbacks. Whatever it is, it does not pass the smell test for Cleveland's expensive star import.
"If you're not hurt, like, if your hamstring ain't falling off the f-----' bone, your leg ain't broke, you should be f-----' practicing. Straight up," Landry barks at teammates in a positional meeting after a sloppy practice. "That s--- is weakness and that s--- is contagious as f---. ... That s--- been here in the past and that's why the past has been like it is! That s--- is over with here. If you can f-----' practice, f-----' practice!"
Landry isn't the only one who seems to have an issue with the number of Browns players sitting out. In a coaches-only meeting, running backs coach Freddie Kitchens broaches the same topic, albeit in a less profane manner. Head coach Hue Jackson responds by explaining that he is holding players out of practice for a reason, the goal being to keep everyone healthy over the long haul.
"We need to get so much done, and I know I said that to you and joke about it, but if we live in our fears ...," Haley begins. "Our team has to get mentally tougher and be able to fight through the s--- we need to fight through. We got to change this drastically, and if we got guys who haven't done s--- sitting around doing nothing, I just don't know how we're going to do it."
Haley, who has the look of a guy who doesn't shy away from a fight (we know this), is directly challenging his new boss -- and he knows the cameras are on! Jackson doesn't back down, reminding all of his lieutenants -- Haley especially -- who runs the show in Cleveland.
"At the end of the day, I get to drive this bus and I'm gonna get it the way I want it," Jackson says, a trace of bravado to his tone. "That's period. That's just how it works."
All this is set against the backdrop of tragedy for Jackson, who has lost his brother and mother over a two-week period. There might be frustration toward Jackson over his practice policy, but one imagines it's easy to respect a man who can lose two of the most important people in his life and keep his focus on the job at hand.
Then again, this is life in the NFL. When Jackson first tells a small group of coaches that his mother had died earlier in the day, no one in the room seems to even know how to react. (You weren't the only one shouting "Get up and hug the guy!" at your TV screen.) It's only when Jackson returns the topic to football that the men seem to regain comfort. Football is life ... everything else stays in the deep distance.
Jackson is the star of the premiere. He's fortunate to get a third crack at the job after 1-31. He seems like an easy guy to like, but can a head coach lose at that unprecedented level and still have the respect of his peers? Will his players buy his message? Can the Browns really and truly start over with the same man at the controls?
These are hard questions. This is the Hardland. And this is "Hard Knocks."
Quick Hits ...
-- Welcome to the 13th season of "Hard Knocks" and the seventh year of weekly recaps from yours truly. As always, I'll be offering up my insights of every episode from now through the finale on Sept. 4. New episodes premiere on HBO every Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET and PT.
-- For those of you who predicted the opening scene of the season would feature Hue Jackson jumping into Lake Erie, you were right ... almost. The premiere actually opens with workers removing the iconic LeBron James banner that covered 10 stories of the Sherwin-Williams building in downtown Cleveland. Two minutes later, there's Hue on his way to the lake. For those not in the know, Jackson promised last year that he'd jump into Lake Erie if the Browns didn't improve on their 1-15 record in 2016. Whoops.
-- The Josh Gordon situation remains a mystery for all but a few, apparently. "Hard Knocks" took us behind the scenes as Jackson delivered the news to his coaches that Gordon would not be in attendance for the start of camp. When asked why, Jackson would only say Gordon is "just working through some things." Now, I'm not naive. I understand it's possible -- and probably likely -- Jackson provided more information when cameras and mics were turned off, but who really knows? To be blunt, Gordon's situation remains murky as hell. The final line of a text sent later in the week from Gordon to Jackson: "I will see you soon."
-- Yes, we got a look at the luxury RV reserved only for quarterbacks. The SUNSEEKER. Baker Mayfield footed the bill (against his will) for the beast, and Drew Stanton seems like the only guy really getting anything out of it. Poor Brogan Roback. You just know the only screen the fourth-string QB is going to get this month will come when he's being mocked and derided for not properly stocking the mini-fridge. Can you imagine a life where you have to fluff Drew Stanton's pillow every day? *chills* While we're here, loved this:
-- Speaking of Mayfield, you get the feeling he's going to be a reliable source of entertainment on this show. One interesting peek behind the curtain comes when Jackson pulls the No. 1 pick aside at practice and asks why he's not getting to the facility at 5 a.m. like Tyrod Taylor, the team's first-string quarterback. "You're starting your career how you want," Jackson says. "It's a competition in all that you do."
-- Your early leader for Hard Knocks MVP? Defensive end Carl Nassib, who's basically the Corbin Bernsen character in "Major League" with bigger muscles. We meet Carl as he doles out financial advice -- most likely unsolicited -- to his fellow defensive linemen. "This is real s---," Nassib says, explaining the benefits of compound interest. "If you learn this s--- yourself you can make a billion f-----' dollars." Nassib adds a helpful anecdote about how a chance encounter with a celebrity inadvertently illuminated his steely financial resolve. "I met Taylor Swift and before the concert I was like, 'I need to buy a Rollie (Rolex), so she knows I got it ... and I didn't because of [compound interest]."
-- During Nassib's tutorial, one of the Browns players was casually munching on steamed mussels. Who does that!?!
-- There is no escaping Gregg Williams. The cantankerous defensive coordinator is co-starring in his third major NFL Films production in the past three years. "If you loved Gregg Williams verbally undressing his players on 'Hard Knocks' Season 11, and if you couldn't get enough of Gregg inhaling the souls of his own men in 'All or Nothing' Season 2, well we've got great news for you!" And for you incoming upperclassmen already fretting about your senior quote? Gregg's got you covered there, too: "No s--- I got a lozenge, b----."
-- Hell yeah, you knew I was bringing back the "Hard Knocks" playlist. Every song you hear this season will be curated in the Spotify playlist below. (Check out my collections from seasons 10, 11 and 12.) As always, we'll begin things with David Robidoux's iconic theme song.