PHOENIX – Everyone wants to see the Cleveland Browns on "Hard Knocks" … except the Browns.
Head coach Mike Pettine said the team "declined to volunteer" for the show, which chronicles training camp, during meetings with producers this week. Yes, that's a euphemistic way of saying "Please don't do this to us." And yes, quarterback Johnny Manziel is part of the reason.
The Heisman trophy winner and 2014 first-round draft pick is reportedly scheduled to leave rehab in April and it still isn't known if he'll be present when the Browns convene next month for organized team activities. And, taking it a step further, it isn't even known how Manziel fits in the Browns' future. The team has a new offensive coordinator (John DeFilippo), a new quarterbacks coach (Kevin O'Connell), and two new passers in Josh McCown and Thad Lewis. Pettine hasn't even ruled out drafting a quarterback. The Manziel storyline was a distraction all year for Cleveland, and now Pettine is hoping to avoid a distraction on top of the distraction.
Pettine, who was on "Hard Knocks" as a staff member of the Jets in 2010, said there were "positives and negatives" to the show, and when asked for the negatives, he said: "It's hard to be yourself. Some guys play to the camera. If you have to change, then it's a distraction."
Manziel isn't the only factor here. The other first-round pick from last year, Justin Gilbert, had some rookie struggles as well. Pettine mentioned at the NFL scouting combine that the cornerback was going through something "very personal," though he backtracked on that somewhat on Tuesday.
But attempting to avoid this kind of exposure certainly relates to Manziel. Pettine said "the feedback has been positive" about the quarterback's progress off the field, and Manziel is expected back next month, but his adjustment to the NFL was hardly smooth. He had difficulty on and off the field, and he needs as much support in both realms as the Browns can give him. A year after Manziel was drafted, it doesn't feel as if his future is any more assured than it was last May.
Pettine was asked on Tuesday what he learned about Manziel in his first season. He said, "He's competitive. There was no persona about him. He was one of the guys. He went out to practice and worked hard." While complimentary, that's no evaluation of his ability to handle an NFL offense. And with Pettine underscoring his wish to support Manziel personally first and foremost (rightfully so), that may delay advancement on the field. Manziel needs to get better in his off-field life first, as it should be. But that means more uncertainty about him as a football player.
McCown adds to the uncertainty. Pettine said his addition was meant to "stabilize" the quarterback position, and it's hard to argue that moving from Brian Hoyer to Josh McCown &ndash who has 17 wins since entering the league in 2002 &ndash is stabilizing. If the Browns had their quarterback of the future in Manziel, there would be little need to turn to others for stability.
"Hard Knocks" does nothing for Manziel or the Browns. There's already plenty of exposure – too much. The biggest crowd of reporters on Tuesday was for Patriots coach Bill Belichick, but there was so much interest in Pettine that a chair had to be taken from the relatively quiet Bengals table to accommodate the reporters for the Browns coach. The team was a bit of a media circus last season, not helped by Josh Gordon's continued off-the-field issues, and already this offseason there has been a report that Browns owner Jimmy Haslam wants to trade the team for the Titans. (The team hotly denied the report.) The Browns are arguably more of a limelight team in Cleveland than the LeBron James-led Cavaliers.
The Browns' wishes to stay off HBO can be rejected. The show can override the team since Pettine is no longer a first-year coach. But the Browns have a first-year feel to them, with the new staff members, the new quarterbacks and Manziel still dealing with a transition to the NFL. They need fewer storylines, not more. And if "Hard Knocks" could make storylines out of the Bengals, you know what kind of buzz the Browns will provide.
And most importantly, Manziel deserves a chance to readjust to his still-new team. Anyone emerging from rehab is inherently vulnerable and privacy is needed. If Manziel has a bad day or a few, whether in his personal life or on the field, he shouldn't have to deal with cameras pointing at him at every turn and in every conversation.
"Football takes a back seat," Pettine said of the Manziel situation.
Reality television should take a back seat too.