"Underdog" Browns were "No. 1 pick" for 'Hard Knocks'

HBO, NFL Films explain why they pursued this series for over 5 years

Daryl Ruiter
May 23, 2018 - 7:32 pm
NFL Films VP/senior coordinating producer Ken Rodgers (L) and HBO Sports EVP Peter Nelson (R) discuss the Browns' appearance on Hard Knocks

Daryl Ruiter-92.3 The Fan

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Berea, OH (92.3 The Fan) – HBO and NFL Films finally got their wish.

The Cleveland Browns are going to be on ‘Hard Knocks.’

“This is in many ways an American franchise, and it’s an American team,” Peter Nelson, executive vice president of HBO sports, said. “It’s also a headline story right now, and it’s an underdog story. And people love rooting for underdogs.”

For over 5 years, executives and producers pursued the Browns for the series, which is produced by NFL Films for HBO, but the timing just wasn’t right.

Until now.

“We have such respect for the franchise,” Ken Rodgers, NFL Films’ VP senior coordinator producer, said. “Of course, if you grow up under Steve Sabol as a filmmaker, you know about the Cleveland Browns and you’re told how important that franchise is.”

Sabol, the late founder of NFL Films, famously documented in detail how the Browns were once an NFL powerhouse under their founding head coach, Paul Brown. But that was nearly half a century ago.

The original team now plays in Baltimore where they’ve won 2 Super Bowls as the Ravens while the replacement Browns have had just 2 winning seasons and 1 playoff berth in 19 years.

“When you talk about Paul Brown being the first coach and the last coach before the Browns left being Bill Belichick, you realize the scope of history that the Browns have covered,” Rodgers said.

None of that will be part of the show.

Even Hue Jackson’s Lake Erie plunge on June 1 following their 0-16 season to fulfill a promise made, which would make for a compelling opening scene for the series that debuts August 7 at 10 p.m. on HBO, won’t make the cut.

“Back story really takes a backseat,” Rodgers said. “We pride ourselves on being really up to date on this show.”

General manager John Dorsey has acknowledged his initial reluctance to opening their doors for the show but has since come around. Dorsey will be spotlighted because he’s the one who will be seen telling players their dream of playing for the Browns are over when he makes roster cuts, which is always the most difficult part of his job.

“You have to treat them with dignity,” Dorsey said. “You have to treat those young men [with dignity] and thank them for all that they have done. I am going to treat this with dignity, I always have with releasing players.”

The reality series will feature an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at how the Browns prepare for the upcoming season during training camp. Position battles, team dynamics and personalities and roster decisions provide the story.  

“Without their trust, allowing us both onto the field and into the locker room, not to mention the offices and sometimes into their homes, the power of the show would not be possible to be conveyed,” Nelson said. “Often when we talk about reality programming, I think we talk about something escapism. Hard Knocks has an enduring appeal because of the caliber of storytelling involved.”

The plot this August doesn’t get any juicier than the worst franchise in the NFL coming off the worst 3-year stretch of football in league history with No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield and a completely overhauled roster.

Head coach Hue Jackson isn’t worried that the show will blow their quarterback situation out of proportion.

“I don’t think so. It’s a competition anyway,” Jackson said. “Tyrod’s our starting quarterback. Baker’s our No. 1 pick. He’s our quarterback of the future. I’ve said that since this happened. I don’t think that will change. I want those guys to be exposed for what they do, because I think our fans want to know them and what makes them tick. But at the same time, I don’t think it should put any more pressure on what we need to do as a football team about who’s playing quarterback for us.”

For years, Cleveland’s football team has been dramatic gold and now the country is about to get an up close and personal look at it unfolding during camp.

“The Browns were intriguing for us really because of the overall story line I think that’s part of the American culture,” Rodgers said. “We tell our kids that it’s not about how do you get knocked down, it’s about how you get back up and this is a unique situation, having such turnover on the roster, of starting anew, with some old pieces, with some valuable new pieces, that we just felt will speak to a lot of fans.”  

The production crew will shoot 400 hours of film weekly for each episode, which will be sent directly back to their production studios for editing, only to see it all cut down to 1 hour.

“What the team does on a daily basis determines the product naturally because we do not determine who rooms with who, who makes the team, who is brought on – nothing is determined by us,” Rodgers said. “We are true documentarians that stand back and show you what is actually happening.”

The Browns’ editorial control of the show will be limited to footage that affects competitive balance such as audibles being heard in practice or plays, depth charts and other sensitive information that might be on meeting room whiteboards – and that’s it.

“Our goal is to tell the truth as to what is happening here at camp,” Rodgers said. “The veto power to be honest has never come up.”

Producers will provide team officials with an opportunity to screen that evening’s show every Tuesday morning to ensure nothing airs that could compromise their competitive edge or the integrity of the franchise.  

"I think it is going to give [fans] truly an opportunity to see how hard this team works and how much they care," Jackson said. "I think that is really important for us to give back to them so that they can see our players, our coaches and our organization in a whole different light."

Come July, it'll be showtime.

“We’ve got the team we wanted, our No. 1 pick, the Browns to be on our show,” Rodgers said. “We think this is going to be one of the best series of “Hard Knocks” in its history. We think it’s the right time with the right team and all of us our excited as we’ve ever been in the 17-year history of NFL Films producing this show with this team.”