The same day the Cleveland Browns debuted on HBO’s hit program, “Hard Knocks,” rookie wide receiver Antonio Callaway was busted with marijuana possession. This definitely isn’t the headline the Browns wanted the day after their new-look team was revealed on a national stage.
The Browns have been, for years now, perennial basement dwellers in the NFL, but last year was rock bottom: a winless 0-16 season and nationwide infamy. As the HBO cameras started rolling, there was no doubt the team wanted to put that dismal season behind them.
The messaging coming out of Cleveland was all about hope and new beginnings. They talked about great draft picks and free agent pickups. They talked about a renewed focus and “Why not Cleveland?”
From a PR perspective — and for football fans looking on — it’s tough not to notice that The Browns are still a mess. The “Hard Knocks” episode showed several players looking slow and unfocused. A few leaders talked about passion and intensity, but the rest of the guys didn’t seem to get the memo.
Now, there’s this: Callaway in cuffs is the headline, when Cleveland wanted — no, needed — a big “pop” of a story. For die-hard Browns fans, including those seen chanting in the “Hard Knocks” episode, this headline feels like more business as usual. From betting it all on Johnny Manziel, whose off-the-field demons got him booted from the league, to Callaway, who was supposed to help raise the level of play among the Browns receiving corps.
From a PR standpoint, this was some attention The Browns definitely didn’t need. The team was building a “Cleveland can do it!” message and desperately hoping the longsuffering Browns fans would be on board for that this season. For that, the team needed all hands on deck, focused and committed. They needed a consistent message of passion and heart and commitment. That was not what was seen in the first episode of Hard Knocks, and it’s not what was inferred by the Callaway situation. Instead, it seems like the Browns are still struggling with internal issues, the kind of issues that lead to 0-16.
There’s still hope, of course. They have three more weeks of training camp to right the ship and get everyone on the same page. That’s enough time to get focused and get their fans believing again. They also have the national TV spotlight over the next few weeks to amplify whatever message they wish to send.