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Why Hard Knocks wanted to spotlight the Browns: 'People love rooting for underdogs'

For years, Hard Knocks had trained a lens on the Browns, hoping to tell the story of a proud franchise trying to lift itself up and out of hard times. 

That came to fruition when it was announced Cleveland will star on the award-winning HBO series later this summer.

“The Browns were intriguing for us really because of the overall storyline that's a part of the American culture,” said Ken Rodgers, NFL Films’ VP Senior Coordinating Producer, “which is we tell our kids that it’s not about how hard you get knocked down; it’s about how you get back up.”

It’s a fitting metaphor for the Browns’ present situation following the team’s first winless season. But at a news conference last week, head coach Hue Jackson, general manager John Dorsey and the show’s executives — Rodgers and Peter Nelson, Executive Vice President of HBO Sports — believe the all-access documentary will showcase a young team on the rise. It’s also why all parties involved believe it's the right time to cast a spotlight on what could be a pivotal time in organization history.

“This is a unique situation, having such turnover on the roster, of starting new with some old pieces, with some valuable new pieces that will speak to fans,” Rodgers said. “What we generally think of when we select a team is who would the national audience be interested in finding out what is going on with a team. Nationally, right now, the Browns are a big story, and rightfully so. Our goal is to create fans across the country — not just here in Cleveland — for this franchise.

Hard Knocks, which enters is 13th season, will detail Cleveland’s preparations for the 2018 season. The five-episode series is set to debut in August.

After a 1-31 mark over the past two years, the Browns stand to improve this fall thanks to a head-spinning offseason in which they reconfigured their roster. Cleveland added a bevy of players since the start of the new league year, including veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor and three-time Pro Bowl receiver in Jarvis Landry. Looking further into the future, the Browns tabbed their quarterback-of-the-future in Baker Mayfield and former Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward.

Cleveland, Rodgers said, was the network’s first choice regardless of what the team did in free agency or in April’s NFL Draft. They took into account the franchise’s long and rich history and status as something of a “blue-blood NFL franchise."

“When you talk about Paul Brown being the first coach and the last coach before the Browns left being Bill Belichick, you realize the scope of history that the Browns have covered,” Rodgers said.

Moreover, he and Nelson say the Browns, in many ways, embody several dynamics larger than football.  “I think there’s something that’s always been attractive to the blue-collar work ethic of Cleveland matching its football team,” Rodgers said. “That’s not everywhere, some teams are more glamorous, some teams want to overpower you and be tough, there always seems to be this outside perception that this is about hard work here in Cleveland both on and off of the field.”

Hard Knocks hopes to capture that essence in the coming months.

"This in many ways is an American franchise and is an American team, and it's also a headline story right now and it's an underdog story," Nelson said. "People love rooting for underdogs. I think there's a strong human element to that which is going to get fleshed out on the show.”

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