In the third installment of “Hard Knocks” with the Cleveland Browns, we were introduced to quite the array of characters:
• Country singer Brad Paisley awkwardly trying to slide into Baker Mayfield’s RV.
• Offensive line coach Bob Wylie, who is hailed as an amateur magician, accomplished musician and a licensed pilot … and who has one of the funnier filibusters on stretching you’ve ever heard.
• Nate Orchard’s wife, who makes “football cookies” — a dessert strong enough to earn a $1,000 offer for the recipe from a Browns teammate.
• An office dog named Moose, who could melt even the most downtrodden Browns employee’s heart. Dez Bryant, bro-hugging his way through Berea — and then leaving.
• Josh Gordon. We don’t actually hear the missing man speak, either, which adds to his mystery quotient, but we also don't get much in the way of answers with him either.
Plenty of fun moments. Some really interesting ones, too. But it felt like a smattering of random storylines cobbled together after two pretty notable episodes to kick off the series. It’s not that the third installment was bad. It’s just that it was a step backward after so much drama had unfolded up to this point.
Even the opening montage of Jarvis Landry getting in a fight with teammate Terrance Mitchell, set up with cinematic drama and multiple camera angles, didn’t deliver quite the payoff we expected. Interesting? Sure. Important? Oh, likely not.
We finally got a little more of the Browns’ tortured fan base as a story arc, one that felt like it might be a backbone of the series when it was first announced. But they’ve largely taken a backseat to the wild transactions that have dominated the early part of training camp.
Nor was it “the Brad Paisley episode,” mercifully. He’s visiting camp, a died-in-the-wool fan of the team just wanting to be around and apparently famous enough to receive that carte blanche treatment. (It's worth noting, we think, that he seems to be something of a jock sniffer, often watching Dodgers batting practice, hanging out at NASCAR races and signing the national anthem at NHL playoff games.)
Paisley is even brought in to pump up the Browns after another chippy practice for a little speech.
He tells them, “I am a Brian Sipe fan,” as a way of proving his fandom, and not one player knew who that was. “Win one for Cleveland. Win for me.” It was the worst football hype speech you’ve ever heard. No brick walls were run through following the utterance of his words.
Then Paisley crashes his way into the Mayfield RV and admits he’s a creepy enough fan to consider buying it after the season. They chat for a few minutes, and Mayfield apparently is something of a fan. Funny if you like cringeworthy celebrity interactions in tight spaces with unmade matrresses.
This felt like more of your typical “Hard Knocks” episode of recent years, with all the storyboard pieces laid out. There’s the young player with zero chance of making the roster — in this case little-known QB Brogan Roback — who goes on some random personal days. Bro and his girlfriend (whom he Paisleyed on Instagram) are at a zoo or something. Later on, she’s sensing his chances of making the roster are pretty lean when he can’t even get into the fourth quarter of a meaningless preseason game.
Then we got Tyrod Taylor (TUH-rod to you) and the great pronunciation debate of last week. It feels a bit played out by the time we watch this silly drama unfold. The boilerplate angle with him is that he’s watching film of the Bills, prepared to face the team he knows pretty well. This is another familiar “Hard Knocks” trope: to find out if preseason revenge with players facing their old squad is really a thing.
Our first throwback to the true esprit de corps we’ve come to know in the first two episodes is when defensive end Carl Nassib (distant relative of E.F. Hutton, you might recall) does something to irritate offensive coordinator Todd Haley during practice involving a quarterback getting contacted during a play.
“I stopped, bro!” Nassib said, about to go 10 percent compound interest on his tail.
“Don’t bro me, please,” Haley snaps back.
“All right, Todd … Toad,” Nassib said, and my 3-year old would be howling like a hyena if he was awake to watch it. “What kind of name is Todd?”
It’s a fair question, bro. After all, this is a week after Haley made fun of Nassib’s parents by rhetorically asking how a couple could hold up their infant son and say, “Awwww, baby Carl!” Now that was funny.
Nassib continues with the name thing, and after that he takes out his goofy frustration by pancaking a few cats in practice. Maybe Haley is a secret genius and we just all haven’t figured it out yet. Either way, I expect them to be trading haymakers by the next episode.
Speaking of fights, we circle back to the first one they teed up in the opening. Landry and Mitchell just plain do not like each other. Imagine covering the same dude for three weeks. Picture running routes against a guy who knows all your moves, over and over and over again. Well, they do, Landry and Mitchell, and they look quite tired of each other.
On one crossing route, Mitchell kind of half-tackles, half-trips Landry, and the receiver just loses it. Landry throws the ball in Mitchell’s face, and our first big camp brawl in Berea ensues. Damarious Randall (who has trouble saying the word “testosterone” on three cracks at it) gets in the thick of it, too. A dozen guys run in and get involved.
But that was about it. Was the fight anything more than this story’s MacGuffin? We might never know.
One interesting moment came when personnel director Alonzo Highsmith is heard going where few others have braved to: comparing these Browns to the late 1980s Dallas Cowboys, whose own personal hell was Jimmy Johnson cleaning up a big mess during a 1-15 debut season. All he did was win two Super Bowls in the next four years and help set up a third title with his team and Barry Switzer taking home the ring.
“I see a lot of similarities,” Highsmith said.
That’s interesting. Maybe two years from now we are talking about the start of a real dynasty here, and boy, wouldn’t that be fun. Highsmith's spiel felt a little more authentic and believable than what head coach Hue Jackson pitches Bryant, that he could be joining what he thinks "will be the greatest turnaround in sports history." But for now the Browns as contenders is just a carrot dangled out in front of us, and it feels a bit teasing given how strained this camp has been to date.
Really, the most lovable and memorable characters we met in this episode were Moose and Wylie. They feel like kindred spirits in a way, even though they are different species.
Moose was brought in, one can assume, to lift the spirits of the office work space, maybe in the same way dogs are brought through hospitals. Even if the joy is fleeting, how can you not smile when a doe-eyed chocolate Labrador is traipsing around the facility looking for a few back scratches, maybe a bone or snack, or maybe just some warm feet to lay upon.
I’ll go so far as to say that the scene of Moose seeking out equal parts food and love — perfectly set to Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train” — is among the more fun non-football scenes the show has delivered in a few years. And yeah, what a great deal this dog has going on.
Then we meet Wylie. He’s been something of a legend in underground football circles for years now, and it’s too bad that many folks were just getting introduced to him on Tuesday night. This is a man whose stomach raises about six inches each time he mimics a QB’s cadence. It’s magical.
But Wylie has plenty of other tricks up his sleeve. Sure, we don’t see much evidence of this amateur wizardry he supposedly possesses, but Wylie gives us the speech Paisley never could. Wylie — a bear of a man who clearly has seen some things in his day — just starts talking about how BS stretching is out of thin air.
Here are a few snippets:
"Stretch. This is my favorite time. I get to sit down for a minute," Wylie said. "World War I, World War II … all those guys who fought in those wars? They did push ups, jumping jacks and pull-ups, none of this fancy (stretching)," says Wylie. "They won two wars."
There was plenty more.
“You think they were worried when they’re running across Normandy about f---ing stretching? Are you kidding me?
“Give me my rubber band so I can stretch before running across that f---ing beach.”
A Renaissance man if there ever was one on this team, and that’s saying something.
Speaking of interesting cats, Gregg Williams soon drops in with a reminder that he hasn’t changed much in a few weeks. “Look right here,” he tells the defensive players he seems fed up with. “I will not tolerate f---in lackadaisical bullsh-- f---in joggin around. I won’t put up with it.”
Wylie suddenly feels far more interesting. He’s showing his offensive linemen highlight reels of gorillas knucklewalking, as a sign of good form, which seems to resonate just as much. And later we learn that Wylie, a journeyman coach the past four decades, drives a white Maserati. “No Ferris Bueller [stuff],” he tells the valet.
Get this man his own spinoff!
Bryant’s inclusion figured to play a big role in the episode, and it’s the main plot point for sure. He autographs a Browns helmet at the airport, embraces just about everyone at the team’s facility, crashes the team’s sanctioned radio show mid-broadcast (suggesting that he will look good in the team’s colors, orange and brown) and even seems to bond with Coach Hue when they sit down.
But Dez leaves town without a deal — and we since have learned that an offer might not be coming anytime soon. Is that because Gordon is on his way back? Was there something else that happened off camera?
Gordon is seen at the same airport Dez flew in and out of, and no one even seems to know it’s him. No helmet signings or fan interactions. No words spoken, in fact. We apparently will see Gordon extensively in the next episode, which lends credence to my plot-device theory of this episode.
Again, it’s mostly texture for a fascinating team. I loved when a feisty Landry first spars with Bills defensive back Jordan Poyer during the second preseason game, gets even by delivering a massive blow on a crackback block to Poyer’s teammate (Taron Johnson) and then gives us a great one-liner to help sum up his motivations.
“I like being the most wanted,” Landry said. That’s terrific.
But other than Orchard missing three sacks and penalty flags flying like April rain, there’s little else for us to sink our teeth into there. Perhaps the bar was just unfairly raised in the first two episodes to breathless heights. Maybe the show needed a little comic relief in the form of Wylie and the dog. After all, you can’t go on stage and play five ragers back to back; it’s OK to slip in a ballad or two as interludes.
If that’s all this third episode was, then it’s fine. And there was nothing subpar about what we saw play out Tuesday night. For all we know, things might be settling into a semblance of normalcy after a few trips through the looking glass. Gordon’s return stands as a major watch point next week.
The Browns didn’t suddenly become uninteresting. As long as we don’t take a turn for the worse, with “Hard Knocks” going back to all its standard tricks, there’s still plenty to look forward to in the final two episodes. We’re just more on watch now after a little side trip.