Tonight, we throw up the "X" in solidarity.
Dez Bryant arrived at Cleveland Browns headquarters last week looking to make a strong impression. He's been unconnected to an NFL team since the Cowboys cut him in April, and the Browns might be his last chance to find a gig before the season begins. Bryant arrives for his job interview in a backward cap and sleeveless T-shirt, the words "SPIRITUAL GANGSTER" centered across his chest. In the ordinary world, this type of look might get you flagged at the security desk. But this is the NFL, and Dez is dressed for comfort, not the board room.
Even in super-casual garb, Bryant stands out amongst his peers. Yes, the production on the field has dissipated in recent years, but Bryant remains every bit the star as he eagerly introduces himself to what seems like every soul in the Browns' complex. You can tell by Bryant's demeanor that this is no publicity stunt meant to drive attention to the brand. OK, the presence of "Hard Knocks" cameras surely didn't take away from his interest in Cleveland, but Bryant looks and talks like a man who wants to wear orange and brown -- very badly.
"Coach, it's new to me," Bryant says to Hue Jackson in a private sit-down. "I'm just being honest. All this is new. Just being honest, the way you're expressing yourself, the way you're talking to me -- we barely know each other, and I feel comfortable. That's what these players want. I want to just be honest with you. I just want that realness 'cause I'm going to give you who I am."
Bryant goes on, pitching himself while simultaneously answering to the drive-by offseason criticism from his former team. You listening, Snake Lee?
"I feel like I'm an easy person to talk to," Bryant says. "I love learning. I want to know things. If there's something I'm not doing right, I want to know those things 'cause I feel like we all deserve that. We all deserve that opportunity."
Having watched Bryant on the most recent season of "All or Nothing," one can imagine certain Cowboys coaches unleashing a tidal-wave level eye-roll at the receiver's comments. But Bryant speaks with directness and conviction to Jackson, who seems sold on the veteran. Jackson tells Bryant he "needs guys like you" to help flip the culture that led to 1-31. Did I mention Hue seems in on Dez? The man is smitten. When Bryant leaves Berea without a contract, it feels like a peek at the limitations the head coach has in matters of personnel.
"Twenty-one days, baby," Jackson tells Bryant. "Pittsburgh Steelers. Right here at home in front of the Dawg Pound. It'll be unbelievable. This will be the greatest turnaround in sports history."
Say this about Hue Jackson: The man has lost -- a lot -- but it has done nothing to diminish his indomitable belief in self. That wasn't just a puffed-up pitch to a glitzy name-brand star. Hue believes it. Do you?
So why isn't Dez on the Browns right now? It's probably the timing -- the very convenient timing -- of Josh Gordon's return to the grid. We get only a brief glimpse of Gordon during Episode 3, the increasingly familiar shot of a Browns player gathering belongings at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport's baggage claim. Prior to kickoff of the Browns' preseason game against the Bills, Jackson tells offensive coordinator Todd Haley that "the bird has landed."
Haley's deadpan reply says it all: "Has he been working out?" Two weeks away from Week 1 and Gordon remains a man of mystery -- and perhaps suspicion -- in Berea.
Extra points ...
-- I am not a country music fan, but I am aware of the existence of Brad Paisley, which is as sure a sign as any that the man is immensely successful in his chosen field. Unfortunately, Paisley's prowess with a guitar does not translate to his work as a motivational speaker in the NFL. His brief address at Browns practice -- "Win this for Cleveland (awkward pause) go out and get 'em." -- is one of the more cringeworthy moments in recent "Hard Knocks" history.
-- Speaking of Paisley, Baker Mayfield made the unilateral decision to allow pop stars on the QB-only RV. Weak! As he gives Paisley a tour, the rookie explains that "the media wanted to make [the RV] a big deal" as a full documentary crew rolls from inside the vehicle's cabin. C'mon, kid.
-- "Hard Knocks" has been an otherwise-fine showcase for Mr. Mayfield, who was painted by some during the pre-draft process as a potential Johnny Manziel-sized headache. Through three episodes, Mayfield is chill, focused, confident and seemingly liked and respected by teammates. In other words, he's been the anti-Manziel. Granted, this is the same show that, just last summer, made Jameis Winston look like one of football's great young leaders. Still, it feels like the Browns got this one right.
-- Browns offensive line coach Bob Wylie is a character. I'm still processing the fact that this dude owns this car:
I know he was likely playing it up for the cameras, but do the Browns really want a key member of their coaching staff outing himself as a Stretching Truther? This does not present your organization in the most future-facing light. And while it did come off as a tad, ahem, prepared, I do have to say Wylie has a point about the brave American soldiers who went back-to-back in WWI and WWII. Can't say I remember any Ken Burns documentary or Tom Hanks miniseries touching on hamstring strains.
-- I hope we get more of this burgeoning feud between defensive end Carl Nassib and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Nassib was clearly rankled by Haley mocking his first name in Episode 2. "Alright, Todd -- TOAD -- what kind of name is Todd?"
-- I'm a huge fan of venerable "Hard Knocks" narrator Liev Schreiber, but tonight, a minor quibble. During the Browns-Bills tilt, Schreiber offered this snackable line: "Time for Nate Orchard to go from 'cookie man' to Cookie Monster." OK, so the first part checks out -- earlier in the episode, we're introduced to Orchard's wife and the bad-ass cookies she bakes every season. But as a dad of two young boys, I can say with great certainty that the Cookie Monster would be a completely ineffective pass rusher. Yes, he is a monster -- and within the context of professional football, that label is positive, especially for defenders. But the Cookie Monster, and this is important, cares only for cookies. His sole predatory instinct is to locate these popular treats and devour them in exaggerated fashion. Now, if Nate Orchard is the iconic furry blue monster and the quarterback is a cookie, well, then we're onto something. But Schreiber makes no such distinction. And this, unfortunately, is where the narration cookie crumbles.
-- Several additions to the "Hard Knocks" playlist tonight! I especially enjoyed "The Man" -- a super-fun late-period jam from The Killers -- serving as the soundtrack for Dez's arrival at team headquarters. I see you, NFL Films.