The second episode of HBO's 'Hard Knocks' with the Cleveland Browns might not have been quite as raw and riveting as the premiere, but it was still damn good theater.
The episode opens with the spotlight on Corey Coleman, the 2016 first-round receiver (yes, Sashi Brown's first-ever draft pick, after trading the No. 2 overall pick to Philadelphia for Carson Wentz) and his shoe obsession. Of course, the viewers learned shortly before the first episode aired that Coleman had been traded to Buffalo for a pittance; this is HBO's clever way of showing the human side of Coleman for the first (and last?) time prior to his imminent departure from the set.
Coleman collects sneakers ... lots of them. He also donates them to underprivileged families. It's a noble act and pretty much the first thing we learn about Coleman, save for his poor practice habits and the club's subsequently increasing frustration with the first wideout selected in 2016, whose rare, albeit bright, flashes in his first two seasons have been mostly obscured by injury and inconsistency.
The show shifts from Coleman's sneaker scene to one in which he continues to struggle on the field, drawing the ire of Todd Haley, who laments Coleman's lack of mental focus. Coleman then heads to Hue Jackson's office to question why he's been demoted, and just as Jackson directs Coleman to Haley, the disgruntled wideout asks, "If you don't want to play me, why won't ya'll just trade me?"
The episode then takes us from the turbulence surrounding one wide receiver in Coleman to the next, controversial rookie Antonio Callaway. Again, the viewers already know Callaway, a first-round talent who plummeted to Round 4 because of myriad off-field issues that got him kicked off the Florida team, was issued a citation for marijuana possession and driving on a suspended license two weekends ago. But we get to see the dashcam footage of the stop and, even more fascinating, a clearly conflicted Callaway in practice presumably the next day, when he still hasn't shared his secret with the organization.
There, Haley, one of episode two's brightest stars, along with Jackson, sense that Coleman is distracted at practice and gently prod (coddle?) their rookie to no avail.
"Need a hug or anything?" Haley asks. "You look like a little puppy dog. ... We need you. This is very important. Everything will work out the way it's supposed to."
Haley also asks Callaway if he remembers the talks they had months ago, presumably in the pre-draft process as Cleveland was vetting Callaway and getting comfortable with the idea of taking on a high-ceiling, high-maintenance project.
HBO reminds the viewers that with Coleman traded and presumed No. 1 Josh Gordon remaining away from the team, the Browns are light at the WR position. Quickly it becomes apparent just how much the Browns are depending on Callaway ... and the extra lengths they'll go to protect their tantalizing rookie.
Shortly after Jackson and GM John Dorsey learn of Callaway's arrest, the three come together in a candid, come-clean session. Dorsey asks for all of the details from Callaway's episode, and he and Jackson give him the benefit of the doubt.
"I believe you, but if I'm wrong on this one, I'm going to have your a*s," Jackson tells Callaway, who apologizes to his teammates in a meeting before the coach takes his turn on the issue.
"Everybody gets one mulligan and it better be a mulligan where you're telling the [expletive] truth," Jackson tells his team. "Then I've got your back. If you're not, I'm done with you because it's too hard trying to do what we're trying to do and have all the other [expletive] going on, too."
Fast-forward for a moment to the preseason opener against the Giants, where HBO does a great job capturing the promising Browns debuts of new QBs Tyrod Taylor and Baker Mayfield and Cleveland's new bizzaro world with not one but two competent passers. We also hear all about Callaway's team punishment — playing a ton of snaps, 54 on offense to be exact — and see his struggles while managing the workload prior to his electric fourth quarter, including an awesome sideline grab on Mayfield's best throw of the night and 54-yard catch-and-run touchdown off a quick slant.
Callaway is celebrated by his teammates, even if the coaches remind him his day still isn't done. Then we see Haley pleading with self-proclaimed new team leader Jarvis Landry to take Callaway under his wing. "Larry Fitzgerald would do it," Haley, who coached the future Hall of Famer in Arizona, tells Landry.
There was a lot more than volatile WR drama in this episode. For instance, the heart-warming story of reserve TE Devon Cajuste and his dad, who has overcome a host of heart issues that were supposed to greatly shorten his life. Cajuste and his dad are best friends, and with the roster-bubble son scratching and clawing for his NFL livelihood, his dad is there at Devon's first call for solidarity. The two clearly share a bond, so strong that they communicate via bird whistles.
And Cajuste is told on camera by his dad of a third heart attack he recently suffered. It's an emotional scene involving two underdog stories who are easy to root for. But the story develops coincidingly with the Browns' TE1, David Njoku, slowly putting his immense talents all together to create another interesting pass-catcher juxtaposition this week.
We also continue to see the perhaps surprisingly big personality of Haley, who in one scene is in Jackson's office suspended in the air upside down in some mysterious contraption while mulling whether fourth-string QB Brogan Roback will get a series in the preseason game. Normal behavior, we're led to believe. And then there's Haley chiding Cajuste for running like a rooster and Carl Nassib, a surprise star in episode 1, about his parents naming him Carl. We can't wait for the "Baby Carl" Twitter parody account, where ridiculous financial advice is offered up haphazardly.
We get to see more of unhinged and R-rated Greg Williams threatening jobs at halftime of the preseason game, telling players that, after he cuts their a*ses, look first at their effort as the reason. The foul-mouthed Williams also reprises his hilarious lozenge scene from the opener by thanking his players in the closing credits for their role in him receiving free lozenges from an unnamed company in L.A. "If it's free, it's me," Williams said.
We learn a bit more about two-thirds of Cleveland's 2017 first-round trio, too: Myles Garrett's unabashed love for poetry and Njoku's meditation ritual that he credits in helping him overcome practice drops to catch two touchdowns in a dominant preseason opener.
But the change in the air of the WR room is the dominant theme in episode two, and we can't wait to see whether the Browns' essentially blind faith in Callaway will pay off or blow up in their face. And speaking of blow ups, Dez Bryant is coming.
In one scene shortly after the Browns' lack of WR depth is highlighted, Dorsey meets with personnel man Andrew Healey to go over available alternatives. Bryant's name is at the bottom of Healy's list, to which he explains, "he's 30 and basically ..."
Dorsey cuts him off: "He's 29."
"29.7, said Healy."
Dorsey, remember, called out Bryant last week for not returning his phone calls. Bryant, on Twitter, said he hadn't started taking visits but would begin this week in "the Land."
And we thought the Browns' WR situation was volatile now...