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Browns recall ‘Hard Knocks’ lessons as Raiders take center stage

BEREA, Ohio — As the Raiders prepare for their highly anticipated but largely unwanted star turn on HBO’s popular “Hard Knocks’’ all-access training camp reality series — which debuts its 14th season Tuesday — where better to seek a preview of what they’re in for than Cleveland, with the Browns having so memorably served as the entertaining and sometimes controversy-producing subjects of last summer’s show?

If there are indeed any “Lessons of Hard Knocks’’ to be learned by the Raiders, the Browns definitely came about them the hard way. By trial and high-profile error.

“‘Hard Knocks’ is only going to affect you if you let it affect you,’’ said new Browns coach Freddie Kitchens, a first-year Cleveland assistant in 2018. “The people at NFL Films, those folks are great to work with. But people have a hard time making sure those cameras don’t affect them. Because they see the cameras everywhere. So sometimes you don’t always get the truth. You get coaches and players playing up to the camera instead of just the truth.

“If you’re truly asking the players to be all about the team, I would say ‘Hard Knocks’ makes it very difficult to do. Because those cameras are always looking for someone to make a star out of.’’

Bringing up the topic of their “Hard Knocks” experience this summer in Browns camp elicits a series of knowing smiles and fond memories of the highlight moments. But it’s accurate to say the Browns endured rather than enjoyed their time on stage. And is it coincidence or correlation that so many of the featured stars of last year’s miniseries are no longer with Cleveland?

Chief among them, of course, are former Browns coach Hue Jackson and ex-offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who both were fired after Week 8 last season. Those moves came about two-plus months after they and Kitchens engaged in a cringe-worthy battle of wills on “Hard Knocks” regarding how much time off from practice players should receive in an attempt to avoid injury.

Not that Raiders fans have any such worry thanks to coach Jon Gruden’s 10-year contract, but Jackson’s dismissal made it two of the past three years the “Hard Knocks” coach didn’t finish out the year they were on the show, joining the Rams’ Jeff Fisher in 2016 in that dubious distinction. In fact, in the series’ well-decorated history, the only head coach who is still employed by the team they did “Hard Knocks” with is Houston’s Bill O’Brien, whose Texans were featured in 2015. Feel free to draw your own conclusions about that trend.

“The thing I don’t like is every time you see (‘Hard Knocks’), the coaches who have been on them, they wind up getting fired,’’ said Jackson, now an unemployed coach for the first time in 32 years. “It’s crazy.’’

Jackson: ‘Everyone saw a 1-31 coach’

Jackson’s 3-36-1 record in two-plus years as the Browns’ coach had everything to do with his demise in Cleveland, but the scene of him, Haley and Kitchens butting heads in that coaches meeting room revealed real tension and to many served as a microcosm of the issues that then plagued the NFL’s worst team.

“I had no idea why that scene with me and Todd would hurt,’’ said Jackson, who authorized the inclusion of the scene. “I mean, other than he wanted to push his thought process on the head coach. I would think people would have thought, ‘Wait a minute, this dude needs to shut up.’ You would think it was like insubordination.

“You’re talking about a coach who had lost, but at the end of the day I was still head coach of the football team, and nobody wanted me to act like the head coach of the football team. Because maybe he shouldn’t be because he lost so many games. Had the record been different, people would have felt different about what I felt at the time. But what everyone saw was a 1-31 coach. So the head coach was supposed to let the assistant do whatever he wants to do? Then why is he the head coach?’’

Were the Browns the subject of the 2019 “Hard Knocks” series, Kitchens said the ground rules would have been different in at least one key aspect.

“Would I do that (show) again? Yes, I would,’’ Kitchens said Friday from the team’s practice bubble. “But if I was the head coach, the cameras wouldn’t be in the staff meeting. The media took that interaction and turned that into a problem. They’re looking for anything. And let me tell you something, they’re going to look for anything with Oakland.’’

Haley stands by his actions

Out of the NFL and not working for the first time in 26 seasons, Haley said he went into last year’s “Hard Knocks” experience wary of how much the cameras might capture and believing the show couldn’t possibly aid the Browns’ efforts to turn around a team that had just logged the worst two-year stretch in league history. Unsurprisingly, he’s even more convinced of it now.

“When (Browns general manager) John (Dorsey) told me they were doing (the show), I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ ’’ said Haley, reached by phone at his family’s lake house in New York. “We’re trying to make a drastic change here and turn things around, and this is the wrong thing to happen. I told the Browns owner, ‘Jimmy (Haslam), this is a mistake. Don’t do it.’ The No. 1 thing in camp is getting the team ready to be able to compete.

“In that coaches meeting with (Jackson), what I said was authentic, because I wasn’t even thinking about the cameras. We were in a passionate and very important conversation. It was cut out, but I told him I know how the Steelers (Haley’s former team) are practicing, and that’s who we have to beat. Then they cut to Hue with his ‘Well, when you’re in this chair’’ and all that. The part he liked being able to say was, ‘Well, I’m the boss.’ It’s comical. I wake up in the middle of the night and I lay in bed and start running through it in my head again. I don’t think I’d do anything different. You just have to be you, but you have to get the guys ready to play and you try to be off camera as much as you can.’’

Haley says Jackson ‘reveled in it’

Jackson spent about an hour reviewing the finished episode every Tuesday morning with the “Hard Knocks” production crew, a courtesy “so you’re not surprised by anything they put out,’’ he said. But Haley contends it consumed lots of oxygen in Browns camp.

“He’d come up to me at practice and say, ‘Wait ’till you see ‘Hard Knocks,’ ’’ Haley said. “He was like, ‘Wait ’till you see what’s on this week.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about? You’re spending time watching that instead of figuring out how to get the team to win?’ He reveled in it.’’

Former All-Pro Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas was more than an interested observer of last year’s “Hard Knocks.” Though he now works in the media for NFL Network, Thomas remains close to almost everyone in the Browns organization and communicates regularly with many. He remains grateful, he said, that he retired after the 2017 season and missed out on being part of “Hard Knocks.”

“Generally speaking, I can’t see any way doing the show would help you from a football standpoint,’’ Thomas said. “It’s just the way it is, with the additional drama and scrutiny and work it takes. Nobody on the football side of it I’m sure likes it. Maybe sales, marketing, branding, they probably love it. Because all the attention during training camp and at the start of the football season is pretty much on your team.

“I loved watching it, because it was my first training camp away from the team, and it was fun. At least until they went into the coaches meetings. I kind of recoiled at some of those scenes, because I knew fans wouldn’t have the context or the background to understand the dynamics of those relationships. So when you see something like Todd and Kitchens with Hue, their takeaway is going to be, ‘Oh, this organization’s in chaos. The coaching staff’s in chaos. They’re challenging Hue, and he’s up there acting like Caesar Augustus.’ Even though 31 other teams are probably having a similar heated discussion about something.’’

Raiders made for ‘Hard Knocks’

If there’s one thing everyone involved in the Browns’ “Hard Knocks” experience agrees on it’s this: The Raiders are going to make for fascinating subjects and could set a new standard for entertainment factor on the series.

“Jon Gruden’s been a showman on the sidelines, so he loves the camera,’’ Haley said. “But he’s also a football coach, so he’ll be torn. But A.B. (new Raiders receiver Antonio Brown) might be one of the all-time ‘Hard Knocks’ performers, because he’s a showman even when there’s no camera. If we did a walk-through in Latrobe, (Pennsylvania, site of Steelers training camp), and if there were only three people on that hill cheering for him, he’d still put on a show. The Raiders doing the ‘Hard Knocks’ thing, that’ll get crazy.’’

Said Jackson, also a former Raiders head coach: “The Raiders have got the right guys for it. They’ll do well and hopefully their story will get told better. We were a football team that needed confidence and needed the spotlight because I thought it would force our players to be at their best at all times.

“Sometimes you can overthink that. Sometimes it might not be the best environment for your players to be their best selves. I took a chance on ‘Hard Knocks’ because I thought that’s what needed to happen because everything had been so negative about the Cleveland Browns. But with the way it went, we just all wish it had gone differently.’’

Next up? The Raiders. Will they be ready for their HBO close-up? Then again, can anyone fully be?

More Raiders: Follow at reviewjournal.com/Raiders and @NFLinVegas on Twitter.

Contact Don Banks at dbanks@reviewjournal.com. Follow @DonBanks on Twitter.

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