By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor
For years, NFL Films cameras and microphones have been taking us behind the scenes at training camps around the league.
Through the “Hard Knocks” series, we’ve witnessed the raw emotion of the moment a player is told he has been cut or has learned that he has suffered a season-ending injury. We’ve listened in on contract negotiations. We’ve seen coaches and general managers have candid exchanges about members of the roster. We’ve watched players play practical jokes on each other.
Now reality TV, NFL style, takes an unprecedented look at a team in the middle of the regular season.
In early October, the Travel Channel, in conjunction with NFL Films and RIVR Media, began production on a five-part series capturing all facets of the Cleveland Browns’ operation as it navigates through the meat of the schedule.
“NFL Road Tested: The Cleveland Browns,” which premieres on Dec. 4 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on the Travel Channel, gives viewers an all-access perspective to everything that happens before, during, after, and between games. Each 30-minute episode will provide never-before-seen footage of the considerable effort and coordination required for the team to journey to away games and stage games at home, while detailing the many moving parts and tireless work of the support staff that oversees the feeding, clothing, and housing of the squad and its coaches.
“Football is not just three to four hours on Sunday,” said Ross Babbit, senior vice president of programming and production for the Travel Channel. “Football is a full-time, 24-seven job that has an attention to detail for it to be a winning organization. And for Travel Channel, we’re always looking to reimagine what travel means, and it’s not just about where you should go for a family vacation. It’s about seeing the world through the eyes of a professional football team – living on the road, living out of your suitcase, being transported across the country, all under the auspices of, ‘Boy, I’d better win that game this week.’”
The series will be presented through the eyes of players, coaches, management, a wide variety of club employees, and others with strong ties to the franchise.
Steve Trout, who is directing the Browns’ project for NFL Films, has directed multiple “Hard Knocks” series. As fascinating as it is to get a behind-the-scenes perspective of a team going through training camp, it isn’t quite the same as pulling back the curtain on a club during the regular season.
“Not to say that training camp is not as intense, because it certainly is,” Trout said. “But once you get to that first weekend in September and you’re talking about the games that count, it really is a totally different beast. And what TV viewers see for three hours on Sunday is such a small tip of the iceberg. The rest of that beast is what we’re trying to uncover. And what we’re doing is going layer by layer by layer, and hitting the entire organization, from top to bottom, from left to right, to show you what it takes to keep a franchise going.”
The episodes will concentrate on the Browns’ preparation for games they’ve played against the New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens, and Dallas Cowboys, and upcoming contests against the Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos, and Pittsburgh Steelers. The final installment is scheduled to air on New Year’s Day, after the Browns’ Dec. 30 regular-season finale at Pittsburgh.
Babbit is a Cleveland native and graduate of Shaker Heights High School, so the project has the bonus of being “a personal joy.” Before joining Travel Channel six months ago, he spent eight years working in Knoxville, Tenn., the hometown of Browns owner Jimmy Haslam.
“In Knoxville, everybody knows Jimmy and (his wife) Dee Haslam,” Babbit said. “They’re very active in the community. And when I saw that they had bought the Cleveland Browns, which happens to be my hometown football team, I called them up and said, ‘Would you mind if we followed you around with cameras this season?’ And everything kind of took off from there.
“And, as we’ve gotten into the project, for me, personally, to be able to kind of see the Browns I grew up with through a different lens has been fascinating, for sure.”
More than 40 people from NFL Films, some embedded at the team’s Berea facility since last month and others at NFL Films’ headquarters in Mt. Laurel, N.J., are involved in the production. Cameras and microphones follow football and non-football staff through their day-to-day activity at the facility and at Cleveland Browns Stadium, at their homes, the airport, on chartered buses and planes, road stadiums, and practically every other place they go about the business of the season.
“We’re talking about uncharted territory,” Trout said. “You’ll be amazed at what it takes and how many people are involved within the Cleveland Browns organization to put this franchise where it is, to put any franchise where it is … whether it’s driving in with Pat Shurmur at 4:30 in the morning – that’s when he goes in (to work), in the pitch dark; or whether it’s walking with Jimmy Haslam around the stadium, with Jim Brown by his side, after the Browns beat the Bengals; to the 66-year-old equipment ‘volunteer’ who’s there washing and scrubbing the cleats and scrubbing the footballs for Phil Dawson to kick or Brandon Weeden to throw.”
How does the production crew avoid becoming a distraction?
“I think the biggest thing there is trust,” Trout said. “Being NFL Films, there’s a huge amount of trust that teams have with us that we’re not going to release any competitive-edge material. We’re not here to show you how they’re going to game plan against Joe Flacco and the Ravens. We’re here to show you the entire beast, every layer of the organization.
“And that’s what we talked about with the Browns. They see us, but it’s not like we’re outsiders. We’re NFL Films. We know how to tell the story, and we’re going to do it in a way that doesn’t affect any sort of on-field preparations during the week, doesn’t affect any sort of performance on game day. It’s our job to make sure we blend into the background and tell the story all at the same time.”
>>Carucci’s Corner is presented by Panera Bread.
>>Be sure to tune in Monday through Friday, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. ET, for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford” on ESPN 850 WKNR or catch the live stream right here on ClevelandBrowns.com.
>>Have a question for “Cleveland Browns Daily, Driven by Liberty Ford”? Ask me at Twitter.com/browns_daily, Twitter.com/viccarucci, e-mail: Daily@ClevelandBrowns.com, or by calling 855-363-2459.
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