Sometimes you do everything right and it's still not enough.
Nate Orchard spent the past three seasons as a role player for the Browns, but the defensive end knew he needed a big effort in last Thursday's preseason finale to convince his coaches he should be part of Cleveland's future. When he made a beautifully timed leaping interception and 64-yard return for a touchdown against the Lions, it was exactly the type of play that can move a guy from the bubble to the 53-man roster.
It wasn't enough for Orchard, who was released less than 24 hours later.
"This is the part of the business that's tough. It's part of life," Orchard says while cleaning out his locker during the season finale of "Hard Knocks." "You just got to bounce back when you get knocked down like this."
Orchard was far from alone, as teams across the league trimmed down their rosters ahead of the start of another season. There are myriad reasons why "Hard Knocks" remains one of the best shows on television; it's ability to show us the human side of cutdown weekend is near the top. You feel for everyone involved with the process: the coaches who have to make the decisions, the front office officials -- in Cleveland, it's assistant general manager Eliot Wolf -- tasked with making the phone call, the players who have their dreams dashed and the families who ride the emotional roller coaster with them.
Tight end Devon Cajuste was the underdog star of this season of "Hard Knocks," but being a premium-cable darling won't guarantee you a roster spot. His final preseason performance included a 41-yard catch-and-run, but coach Hue Jackson also remarked during the game that Cajuste had committed multiple holding penalties. It was an ominous comment -- and sure enough, Cajuste was released on the same day as Orchard.
Cajuste breaks the news gently to his father, Gregory, who's back home in Long Island and staring down the possibility of another heart surgery. The father-son bond is one of the more affecting storylines in the show's history, and it's a great moment to see Devon keep Gregory's spirits up despite the setback.
"So I got released -- however, this is how it works, before your face drops into pieces," Devon explains during a Facetime call. "Hey, don't worry about it. Other teams can pick me up or claim me."
Both Orchard or Cajuste remain free agents; their professional careers existing in a state of limbo. The goal now is to end up like Carl Nassib, another Browns bubble player who was released but quickly scooped up by another team. (Carl's new Bucs teammates will benefit from his incredible financial acumen.) This is not the glamorous side of professional football, but it's the world the large majority of players inhabit. "Hard Knocks" takes us on that journey.
Extra points ...
-- Hue Jackson had an eventful "Hard Knocks" season, didn't he? I'm curious if Browns fans feel better or worse about their head coach after these five episodes. Here's what you can't deny: Hue is a true believer -- in the Browns and in himself. Honestly, he acts as if 0-16 and 1-31 never happened. Maybe that's the only way to move forward. "Cleveland Browns win football games," Hue tells his team, not giving a damn how easily that statement can be debunked. "Everybody understand that? That's why you're in here. For no other f-----' reason other than that. That's why you're here. That's what it is."
-- Myles Garrett sure seems like the real deal, both as a player and a teammate. The scene in which Garrett works with Orchard to improve his technique showcases the type of leadership the Browns desperately need following the retirement of stalwart left tackle Joe Thomas. Both Garrett and Baker Mayfield appear to be the right guys to lead this franchise in a new direction.
-- I think I have no choice but to give Hard Knocks XIII MVP to offensive line coach Bob Wylie. He's America's Incorrigible Uncle. "You guys don't want real jobs," Wylie helpfully explains. "Having a real job is not good. You want these jobs, where you put the name on the back of your shirt."
A reminder that this man drives a white Maserati. Your trophy is in the mail, Bob. congrats.
-- I loved the following exchange between offensive coordinator Todd Haley and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams:TH: (deadpan) "I'm beginning to find out you have no life outside of this. None."
GW: (after a couple beats) "I got a little bit. ... I go see my granddaughter every once in awhile."
-- Speaking of salty ol' Gregg Williams, this was his second "Hard Knocks" star turn in three years. When you add in the "All or Nothing" coverage of the 2016 Rams, that's three major NFL Films productions in three years. That's a lot of Gregg Williams -- or, as I know him, Real-Life Bud Kilmer. At this point, I just assume Williams will find a way to appear on every "Hard Knocks" from now until the end of time. Fittingly, Williams delivered the final words of the season. They were, ahem, on brand.
"He's expecting you to have your nuts right there! Put your testicles in the C-gap!"
That man sees his granddaughter every once in awhile!
-- And with that, we reach the conclusion of another year of "Hard Knocks" coverage on NFL.com. It was a good season, guys! Check out my most recent mailbag column to see where I slotted the Browns in my all-time "Hard Knocks" seasons power rankings. If you're interested in a stroll down "Hard Knocks" memory lane, you can access my complete recap archive here. Finally, below you'll find the complete Hard Knocks XIII soundtrack. 'Til next year!