To say that NFL coaching is a grind few can appreciate is merely paying lip service. It's not until you watch Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson sitting at his desk, quietly weeping with his hands covering his face, that you truly can understand how treacherous navigating the intersection of Life and Football can be.
Jackson's brother died right before the start of training camp. His mother died a little more than a week later, with the Browns a few days into their camp groundwork. Jackson's emotions were on full tilt. An hour later he's out shouting at practice, worried about his troubled team's development.
This is NFL coaching. And this is the "Hard Knocks" episode we've been waiting for forever.
Recent seasons have been underwhelming. Last year with the Buccaneers ... name me a memorable moment from it. Did we watch the Rams' 2016 season for anything but painfully comical Jeff Fisher scenes? And outside of a few funny shots — e.g. Vince Wilfork in overalls, cowboy boots and nothing else — the Houston Texans season was roundly forgettable.
But the Browns' version in 2018, which debuted Tuesday night on HBO? It has the makings of one of the best seasons since Rex Ryan and the Jets, what, eight years ago. All the cinematic bases appear to be covered here in Cleveland 2018.
It's been some time since we've seen as raw a theme as Jackson in the throes of misery, all while trying to steer a ship he might soon get planked off of. The man is 1-31. There's little patience among Browns fans once their sympathy for his losses wears off. Football might very well eat this man alive at some point if it has not already.
“It’s on you and me now girl,” Jackson says softly to his sister on his cell phone in his office. They're the last two left of their generation in the family. And it’s the most human and real version of Jackson some of us ever have seen.
But like anything, coaches will tell their players to move on from a bad play (or a good one) and get ready for the next challenge. In the most perfect snapshot of this, Jackson is sitting in his office a little while later with his assistant coaches when GM John Dorsey comes in to offer condolences and support for his hurting coach. The assistants appear none the wiser; this is the first they know of her death.
Jackson explains that his brother and mother are gone, and they exchange a few quiet words. Then the head coach veers back to the tape they had been watching when Dorsey came in, not missing a beat, as if they were in a two-minute drill.
“OK, so this is inside zone here …” he continues. No more than a second or two act as buffer between the two conversations. The beat goes on. Life and death are put to the side for later.
The Jackson we are more used to is the one who says weird, often empty statements to the media. Things that have made us think he might not be cut out for this job. Well, that and 1-31, of course.
But it's hard to take the man at face value most of the time. His plastic style has given him a used-car salesman vibe in the past. Even when Jackson explains to three of his offensive coaches why Josh Gordon will not be attending the first part of camp, he reverts back into Podium Hue mode.
This is shaping up as the seeds of a great one-act play within a larger sphere, like something August Wilson or Sam Shepard might have written so well. As human and vulnerable as Jackson later would be after hearing about his mom's death, he's here talking to his assistants like they're radio-show hosts receiving info on a need-to-know basis.
Jackson: "I just wanted to make sure you guys knew it, that you guys get the heads up before it gets out [to the media]. Josh will not be here the first part of training camp. OK? He will be back. There’s no question. I think we’ll get him back, hopefully — I’m not going to tell you for sure what day because I don’t know that. But we will get him back. I mean, that’s the most important part of it."
(An aside: The Browns have zero clue when Gordon will be back. Let that sink in a moment. Later on Gordon texts Jackson from a new number and wishes him well after his mother's passing and ends with "I'll see you soon," which Jackson reads aloud for Dorsey, ostensilby as a sign of hope for a camp return.)
Browns WR coach Adam Henry: “What’s [Gordon] got?”
Hue: "He’s just working through some things."
QB coach Ken Zampese: "He gonna be in normal condition when he comes back?"
Hue: "We’re going to see if we can get him in the best condition we can get him in."
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley sits in quiet catatonia. EXEUNT.
Of course, Haley wasn't going to be silent for long. Early on, after Corey Coleman can't haul in a long pass in practice that appeared to be there for the taking, Haley lashes out on the sideline, likely out of Coleman's earshot: “Have some f--- desire!” Coleman will be traded at some point during Episode 2, we now know. That should be fun.
And don't forget the Browns' other coordinator, Gregg Williams. Yeah, welcome to Crazytown. The new DC doesn't make his screen debut until 21 minutes into the ep, which is just far too long for our taste. Right away he makes his presence felt.
"I turned down seven jobs so I can be here," Williams says in a fiery speech to his players, and right away you're thinking of which seven jobs he possibly could have passed on. His players seem to be doing just the same.
We knew we could expect something interesting out of Haley and Williams, and there's a very tense, awkward exchange between Jackson and Haley over the issue of key players sitting out practice sessions for "precautionary measures," Jackson says. One player mentioned is running back Duke Johnson, whose history of hamstring ailments is well known to Jackson but new to Haley, who is in his first season after leaving the Steelers.
Jackson's belief is that there's little to be gained from playing Johnson and other players who are injury risks. Haley thinks the Browns have too many players sitting out for preventative reasons and that “we've got guys who haven’t done sh-- not doing sh--.”
Jackson reverts back into city council mode.
"I appreciate you saying that," he begins, followed by a fairly confusing ramble during which it's not clear if Jackson remembered that Haley was a former head coach. Which is extra funny when you consider that Haley's 2011 Chiefs blanked Jackson's Raiders, 28-0, in Oakland, in Jackson's seventh game as head coach that year.
Haley appears to back down a bit and offers faint praise about his offense (“I’ve seen enough to where I am encouraged”), but it's clear that Haley did appear to step on Jackson's turf a little bit. That dynamic will be fascinating to watch through the remaining "Hard Knocks" episodes and this season, with Jackson's job on the line and some believing Haley is a possible replacement in-waiting.
Still, the most combustible moment comes not from either coordinator. It's from Jarvis Landry. The brand-new wide receiver has decided it's time to deliver a missive to his fellow receivers, and it's not going to be about puppy dogs and/or ice cream.
I could have transcribed it for you, but it might not contain actual words that can be printed in this space. Not just F-bombs, but bombs of all shapes and sizes. The matter at hand, similar to what Haley was ranting about, was on players sitting out practices with what Landry perceives as "soft" injuries.
Do yourself a favor and track down a clip of it, if you do not subscribe to HBO. It's fascinating. Landry's flamethrowing has stirred quite the debate on Twitter — was he right to call those guys out? Is this what this losing franchise needs to hear? I tend to think yes; others believed it was less leadership and more putting his teammates on blast. You should decide for yourself.
Again, it's fascinating theater. As was — more theater of the absurd — Carl Nassib. The second-year defensive end (who knew?) might have vaulted to an early lead for surprise fan favorite. We see him lecturing his defensive teammates on the importance of money.
“Who here knows what compound interest is?” he begins, and you think Nassib might really be onto something here.
Then it's followed by a zillion inadmissible words. It’s great. But it's also clear that Nassib's fuzzy math should be taken as much as farce as it should sound fiduciary wisdom.
“This is real sh--! Financial advisors are everywhere, ok? They’ll take your money and they’ll take one percent of your money. Oh, it’s one percent … of course, that doesn’t f--- matter.”
“Because if you learn this shit, you can make a billion f--- dollars."
Sounds cool. But Nassib's equations — you can make 10 percent annually, he claims, doubling money in seven years by merely plopping your nest egg in a vault somewhere — are not adding up to the viewers. Are the players writing this stuff down?
“Bro, it’s crazy!”
We also see a picture of Nassib meeting (and perhaps quietly stalking) Taylor Swift. Yeah, this dude will be worth following the next month or so.
So will Landry, Baker Mayfield and perhaps Christian Kirksey, an eye-openingly good drummer (!) who also implores his teammates to "find your why" for motivation. They don't quite know how to respond, but at least he's trying.
This is a team, it's obvious, that's still searching for a leader. Is it Tyrod Taylor, the hardest-working guy on the team who arrives at the facility when it's pitch black?
Is it Mayfield, the player who will replace him at some point? At one point, Jackson is slapping high-fives with his first-round quarterback. At another Jackson is asking him why he doesn't arrive as early as Taylor. There's no good answer provided.
What about Kirksey? He lays down a few great rolls and fills during a blowing-off-steam session on the kit. Like, really, this dude can beat the skins. He's also a good player. And he's trying to step up into that leadership void.
It might not come from Jackson, which is not shocking. His stunt to make Browns players "earn their stripes" by removing all the striped decals from the Browns' players helmets feels like a cheap parlor trick that an accomplished coach might be able to pull off, but one whose winning percentage there is .031? This is a man who needs to beat the Steelers, Saints and Jets out of the chute just to get back to .100 in Cleveland, for crying out loud.
Will his players respond to his tragedy as a rallying force? Not likely in and of itself. But it at least can become a thing. That might sound phony, and it probably is. But it's something with a pulse. And the Browns need it badly.
So too did HBO. This series, to be frank, had been on life support. Every year we filter out the list of teams through the league's matrix of which ones can be compelled to participate in "Hard Knocks," and it almost always leaves us wanting more.
But this season? It appears to all be there: the emotional, the absurd, the fascinating. The fact that Mayfield's RV parked in the players' lot was the sixth-most interesting storyline is promising.
Following No. 4 QB Brogan Roback as he plays the role of flight attendant, in charge of restocking the RV fridge with drinks and taking the brunt of Drew Stanton's hazing, is going to be fun. Keeping tabs on Nassib's speeches will be a story arc we're looking forward to for sure. And Williams' epic Episode 2 teaser about lozenges only left us wanting more.
It's all here for what could be the real comeback szn. Not just for the Browns, but for "Hard Knocks" itself.