Published 5:19 p.m. UTC Sep 5, 2018
Instead of David Robidoux's familiar Hard Knocks theme, perhaps the Game of Thrones theme would have been a more appropriate opener for the season finale.
As what might be the best season yet of the HBO reality show came to a close, each of the bottom-half-of-the-roster characters we'd been following on this five-episode journey were released by the Cleveland Browns.
However, the episode opens with the news of linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who isn't shown but discussed by both coaches and teammates. Kendricks admitted to participating in insider trading, and quickly was released by the team.
"I don't know all the details, obviously, but is he going to jail?" offensive coordinator Todd Haley asks general manager John Dorsey.
Then, the four fringe players who have been followed closely throughout the series — rookie quarterback Brogan Roback, tight end Devon Cajuste, and defensive ends Carl Nassib and Nate Orchard — all are highlighted through the team's final preseason game against the Detroit Lions before each gets released as the Browns trim their roster to 53 players.
For Roback — who played college ball at Eastern Michigan — the game at Ford Field was a homecoming. Roback also is from Toledo, and Hard Knocks narrator Liev Schreiber sets up Roback's entry into the game, "it's not just a love story. It's a throwback to old-fashioned dreams." The rookie free agent gets significant playing time in relief of No. 1 overall draft pick Baker Mayfield, and makes the most of his opportunity. Roback has a hose, and he puts it on display on a 22-yard touchdown pass to fellow undrafted rookie Blake Jackson. Roback quickly gathers the ball, "hey, I want this!" Roback's Instagram girlfriend, Ally Goff, is very emotional.
Roback is also the first player to be shown getting cut. Browns assistant general manager Eliot Wolf, the son of Pro Football Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf, makes the call. Undrafted rookie free-agent quarterbacks rarely ever make the final roster. Roback's best hope was to make the team's practice squad, which didn't happen.
#BRObie will be missed.
Nassib and Orchard were expected to be competing for the same roster spot. Instead, each was let go; Orchard during the initial cuts and Nassib a couple days later when the Browns got active on the waiver wire. Nassib, part-time financial advisor/alien truther, was claimed off waivers by the Buccaneers on Monday. Despite a pick-six against the Lions, Orchard was let go. However, like Nassib, it appears as if Orchard might be able to find another team. He will visit with the Jets on Wednesday after meeting with the Bills on Tuesday.
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The most devastating cut was Cajuste, who has never played a down in a regular-season game. Cajuste was signed as an undrafted rookie in 2016 by the San Francisco 49ers, only to be released during the final cuts. He then was picked up by the Green Bay Packers for their practice squad for the 2016 season. In January, he was signed by the Browns and appeared to have a legitimate shot at making the Browns' final roster.
Cajuste's story on Hard Knocks pulled on the heartstrings of viewers when we were introduced to his father, Gregory, who has endured three heart attacks, a stroke and a tracheotomy. Devon learned of the third heart attack during that interview with his father in the second episode of Hard Knocks. Gregory, we learn in the season finale, isn't able to travel the Browns' preseason finale due to being "heart sick." He'd recently visited the hospital, where he was told that he needed open-heart surgery.
Devon played through a shoulder injury in the preseason opener against the New York Giants, and screamed in agony from the pain between plays. Against the Lions, he rolled both ankles on the same play. Before that, he caught two passes from Mayfield. Later, he's shown dropping a pass and being called for holding.
Moments later on Hard Knocks, we see Cajuste being informed that his lifelong dream of playing in the NFL might be over. Cajuste's personal story was as good as Hard Knocks has ever had, and his struggle gave the viewer valuable insight into what a player on the roster bubble goes through to make an NFL roster. There are NFL players who are compensated handsomely to play the game, but there are many others who endure this annual roster cutdown tradition as August gives way to September. Players' lives and their hopes and dreams play out each NFL preseason on Hard Knocks. It's that month-long human drama that makes this show so profoundly compelling.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jim Reineking on Twitter @jimreineking.
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