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  • Last year, the Bucs tried to get viewers to fall in love with Jameis Winston. Two years ago, the Rams tried to sell a Los Angeles-cool Jeff Fisher. And this season for the Browns, expect to be sold on the message that the team is, in fact, a functioning franchise powered by grit and football-heads.
By Conor Orr
May 17, 2018

For almost every General Patton cosplayer coaching in the NFL, the thought of opening the team’s facility doors to a small village worth of camerapeople there to get an inordinate amount of access for HBO’s Hard Knocks sends shivers down their spine.

Most coaches would rather sign up for a prime time West Coast game followed by a trip to London on short rest than have their players and coaches filmed (read: distracted) for the better part of training camp. Text an NFL general manager about the chances that their team would lobby to be on the show, and you’ll receive the laughing to tears emoji face in return (true story).

For fans, the show is a beautiful, microscopic look at the slog of NFL training camp. The goofiness, the ruthlessness and the emotion have earned Hard Knocks a sack full of Emmys and a captive audience. But with Thursday’s news that the Cleveland Browns will be featured for the first time in franchise history, one has to look past the obvious faux salivation from the Twitter football universe expecting there to be some kind of Baker Mayfield-related melodrama and ask a pretty obvious question: What are they really trying to sell us?

From an NFL standpoint, Hard Knocks (and its Amazon sister series All Or Nothing) is what happens when an NFL team’s marketing department strolls into football operations and wins an arm wrestling match. Save for the self-obsessed Rex Ryan, Jerry Jones’s Cowboys and maybe Brian Billick’s Ravens, every season has been at least somewhat thought of as a marketing ploy from the team’s perspective.

The Rams wanted to sell you on cool L.A. Jeff Fisher and establish their star players before marching into a new market. The Bengals wanted to let you know that everything was under control despite outward appearances (twice!) The Dolphins wanted you to buy Ryan Tannehill and the Buccaneers wanted you to fall in love with Jameis Winston.

The Browns have been sitting in a 1-31 foxhole waiting for the smoke to clear before truly advertising their next identity. For two years while Sashi Brown was spearheading the only honest rebuild in franchise history, there was largely radio silence because the rest of the league had a problem with a troika of Ivy Leaguers taking a different approach to the game and the team was routinely pummeled every Sunday. Now that they’ve reinstalled the Football Guy atop their power structure and have received the standard post-draft round of applause from the league’s opportunistic fluffers, they’re finally ready.

COMING IN THE SUMMER OF 2018….CLEVELAND BROWNS 9.0: THIS TIME, IT’S COMPETENT!

Be prepared for this season of Hard Knocks to take every opportunity it can to shove down your throats the notion that the Cleveland Browns are a normal, functioning NFL team powered by grit and competition and old-fashioned football knowhow. Mayfield will be positioned as the anti-Manziel to clear up any lingering confusion. One of the new acquisitions, like Carlos Hyde or Tyrod Taylor or Jarvis Landry will be hoisted as proof that this regime acquires real football talent.

“The storylines in Cleveland are compelling, which make the Browns an ideal partner on Hard Knocks,” NFL Films senior executive Ross Ketover said in a release sent out by HBO. “We’re looking forward to showing NFL fans around the world what the Haslams, John Dorsey, Hue Jackson and the coaching staff are doing to rebuild the team and reboot one of the most iconic franchises in sports.”

Make no mistake: The Haslams, and Dorsey and Jackson are also ready to show you, too. The best football coaches, owners and executives are, at their core, just as skilled in the art of sales as your local used car dealer. So while you’re enjoying this season’s various narratives, be wary of the concept of product placement. Behind it all, there is a message someone is counting on you to receive.

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