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Bengals Bring Irresistible Storylines to 'Hard Knocks'

Quarterback Joe Burrow drops back to pass against the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Divisional Round.
Quarterback Joe Burrow drops back to pass against the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Divisional Round.

With Bengals founder Paul Brown the sire of three of the four teams and swashbuckling Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow owning two AFC North titles, the team arrives with an irresistible array of storylines for the first-ever "Hard Knocks," series documenting all division teams in the last month of the season.

"Hard Knocks has never focused on rivalries before. We knew immediately that was the only place we can start. It's literally the best division ever after all four teams had winning records last year," says Keith Cossrow, NFL Films vice president and head of content. "The AFC North features some of the best rivalries not only in pro football, not only in all of football, but in all of sports. All of these teams are so inner connected and have been playing against each other for so long."

The AFC North script writes itself with all the dynamics of a binge series in place.

Paul Brown founded both the Browns and Bengals. His son, Bengals president Mike Brown considers a third team in the North, the Baltimore Ravens, the original Browns because the Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996 and took a new name. As a salute to what was built in Cleveland, the NFL gave an expansion team to the city in 1999 and the new Browns, along with Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Baltimore formed the North when it was born in 2002 in the re-aligned NFL.

The Bengals, Browns, and Steelers were at the heart of the old AFC Central when the 1970 merger of the NFL and AFL gave birth to three divisions each in the AFC and NFC.

"The Bengals came from the Browns and the Ravens came from the Browns and they all hate the Steelers and the Steelers hate all of them and they all hate each other," Cossrow says. "It's just a really special division. And it resides in Ohio, the bedrock of pro football. Where it was born."

The Bengals have won six of the North titles, the last two with Burrow, their Ohio-bred point guard at the helm.

"I think every time Joe Burrow is healthy, the Bengals are a Super Bowl contender," Cossrow says. "Joe Burrow is an incredibly compelling figure in the NFL. You can't take your eyes off him when he's on the field. He's a commanding presence. He's got a cool about him that's reminiscent of Joe Montana and others. He plays the game a certain way. It's really appealing.

"And his presence I think galvanizes the Bengals' whole organization. The Bengals have a great coach in Zac Taylor, great weapons on the outside. Terrific players on the defense. But of course, it starts with the quarterback. And if that quarterback is healthy, it's hard to pick anyone to finish ahead of them in this division."

Over the last three years, that coach, Zac Taylor, has built one of the league's perennial contenders with a great feel for what his locker room needs and this challenge is no different than the pandemic, injuries, and short weeks in the NFL's toughest division.

"That's on me. That's on the leadership of the team. Everybody understanding we have a lot to play for at the end of the season and we have to remain focused on the right things," says Taylor of potential distractions.

"It's all four teams in our division. Everyone is going to have equal footing there. We'll make the most of it. What I do know is we have a real exciting team with a lot of really talented players. Really good team guys. Really exciting players that the league's excited about, so this exposure is a positive."

That equal footing is what NFL Films has been trying to land in the last three years of chronicling one team during the season. It also prevents what happens when a team has a down year. With the division format, they know at least one team is going to make the playoffs. And, with the North, they pretty much know the other three are contending at some point in December.

How do they know?

Last year the Bengals went into December without Burrow and were in contention for a playoff spot until the next-to-last week of the season. All four teams had winning records, the first time every team had a winning record in an NFL division in 88 years.

"We just thought the better model would be to do an entire division and that would make the burden a lot fairer because everybody in your division is competing for the same thing and is in the same boat," Cossrow says. "It would lessen the burden because now you don't have to do it yourself. You're sharing it with three other teams. So it's a little bit less shooting for each team. A little bit less volume of material we need to present about each of the four clubs."

Cossrow says this is a different shoot than what the Bengals faced in 2009 and 2013 during training camp in their two appearances on "Hard Knocks." The film crews were bigger with a much larger footprint and a little more freedom.

"Here, the stakes are so much higher for the stars and the coaches because they've got to win these games. Their jobs are on the line, not the undrafted rookies trying to make the team," says Cossrow, who also plans to send cameras home with a player once or twice a week. "We rely heavily on the robotic cameras, the unmanned cameras that we'll put up in the meeting rooms and miking players and coaches in practice."

And Burrow and Taylor won't have to worry about their playbook being lifted via forensic scouting. Teams have the ability to screen the episodes before they hit air.

"We never want to reveal any secrets or put anything on screen that shouldn't be on screen or anything that other teams can decode that can harm them on the field," Cossrow says. "If there are dynamics that play inside those walls that we're not aware of, even though we're there for that short period of time capturing everything, I think it's fair for the teams to have an opportunity to screen the show through that lens as well.

"I don't think you can do this if the teams didn't have an opportunity to take a look at it before it airs."

But Cossrow says teams don't have editorial control.

"They're not telling us what stories to tell or shaping the narrative. That's NFL Films, and HBO producing the show," Cossrow says. "We are editing it and we work with the teams to make sure that everything is presented the right way and accurately."

The participants already know the AFC North doesn't need any help telling its own story.

"We don't think, we know, this is the best division on the planet Earth," Taylor says.