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Hard Knocks debut foreshadows potential dysfunction

Mike Florio breaks down the first episode of Hard Knocks, featuring the Browns, and Peter King assesses Cleveland's chances for the upcoming season.

The first episode of Hard Knocks juxtaposes a locker room full of guys desperate to turn the page on two years of horrible performances against a coaching staff led by a guy whose name is on the front cover of the Book of One-and-Thirty-One. The obivous disconnect was, for the most part, implied. In one scene, it definitely wasn’t.

At a meeting led by coach Hue Jackson, V.P. of player health and development Joe Sheehan recited a list of the players who would be missing periodic practices with the goal of keeping them healthy. Then, new running backs coach Freddie Kitchens explained, diplomatically and tactfully, the importance of having as many players available for practice as possible.

Said Jackson in response: “I think, for the new coaches here, we’re not taking guys out because they’re special or anything like that. We’re taking them out for preventative measures and normally the team has understood that. . . . Duke [Johnson] has had a history of pulling [muscles] and if we end up losing him or missing him, it doesn’t help us. Guys, this is all for preventative measures.’'

Then, new offensive coordinator Todd Haley chimed in, far less diplomatically or tactfully.

“I have an opinion on it,’' Haley said. “We need to get so much done, you know? And I know I said that to you and we joke about it, but if we live in our fears, I mean our team has to get mentally tougher and be able to fight through the sh-t that we’ve gotta fight through. We’ve got to change this drastically and if we’ve got guys that haven’t done sh-t sitting around doing nothing, you know, I just don’t know how we’re going to do it.’'

That didn’t sit all that well with Jackson, who quickly reminded everyone in the room who runs it.

“I used to sit in the same chair you guys sit in and I used to feel the same way,” Jackson said. “I just wanted to kill them, OK? Until all of a sudden I sat in this chair and then they’re not there, and you don’t get them to practice, and you can’t get them through, and then you don’t have them for three weeks. And I’m not living in my fears, that’s real. And I think we all can appreciate that.’'

Jackson a few moments later revisited the reality that he’s in charge.

“Guys, listen, I’m excited about what you’re doing,” Jackson said. “I’m going to say it again. But the chair I sit in is a little different then the chair you guys sit in. I get to watch from a different lens. OK, and I think you guys can all respect that. At the end of the day, I get to drive this bus, and I’m going to get it the way I want it. That’s period. That’s just how it works. OK? Al [Saunders] taught me a long time ago. What is it, Al? Give it to me.”

“It’s your team, you can do whatever the hell you want,’' Saunders said.

“When it’s your team, you can do whatever the hell you want,” Jackson said. “OK? So this one’s mine. So that’s just the way it’s going to be, and that is of respect of everybody in this room. But this is how we do it, and we’ll always have these kind of discussions. Because I’m only trying to make it better. If there’s something we can do better, we’re going to do it better. It’s just that simple.”

It’s curious that Jackson would close by saying that he’s willing to consider better ways of doing things when his first reaction to a suggestion from his new offensive coordinator involving a potentially better way of handling practice time wasn’t to engage in a full discussion regarding the respective merits of the various approaches but to instantly go straight to the Al Haig card.

If that’s what happens when the team is 0-0, what happens if the Browns start 0-5, again?

Making the Hue-Haley exchange far more remarkable was the fact that it happened on camera, and that Kitchens, Haley, and Jackson all knew it was happening on camera. They knew it during and, more importantly, they knew it before. So it’s fair to wonder whether, for example, Kitchens and Haley planned a sort-of good cop/bad cop routine, with Kitchens gingerly putting the issue on the tee and Haley taking an oversized driver to it.

Despite his well-known flaws (including whatever it was that compelled him to think that pulling that stunt on camera in one of the first training-camp meetings would be a good idea), Haley’s record as a head coach is 19-26. Jackson’s is 9-39. And Haley has spent the last six years coordinating one of the better offenses in all of football, undoubtedly dealing while in Pittsburgh with the very issue that was under consideration during that meeting.

Then again, Haley quite possibly assumed that the entire exchange would end up on the cutting room floor. Although the Browns (supposedly) have no editorial control over the show, they have the ability to screen the show in advance, in the hopes of squashing any content of a “competitive nature.” Surely, if G.M. John Dorsey and/or coach Hue Jackson believed that the public airing of an initial batch of slightly soiled undergarments could prompt fans and media to scrutinize every aspect of the relationship between coach and offensive coordinator for signs of implosion and/or coup d'état, NFL Films would have agreed to kill it.

While it makes for a much better TV show to include the scene, it doesn’t necessarily make for a much better season for the Cleveland Browns, if one of the narratives becomes when and if the Hue Jackson/Todd Haley partnership turns openly tempestuous. Then again, that may be what it takes to persuade ownership to finally give Dorsey the ability to do what should have been done after the team finished 0-16 a year ago.