As the summer turns into fall and football draws closer, the annual behind-the-scenes look into an NFL training camp has returned for HBO’s Hard Knocks. After appearing in 2009, this is the second appearance for the Cincinnati Bengals on Hard Knocks, the first repeat subject since the Dallas Cowboys appeared in 2002 and 2008.
Marvin Lewis is the second-longest tenured coach in the NFL, behind New England’s Bill Belichick, but this year is a year of change: a new set of players, schemes and another year in the development of his young stars. But Hard Knocks has never been a show about stars. The stars in the NFL are over-covered already. The weekly HBO show focuses on a few unheard of players to whom the audience can become attached: veterans trying to stay in the game, rookies who are wide-eyed and ready to play and no-name longshots whose only air time this season will be on HBO, not on Fox, CBS, NBC or ESPN.
Rookies Giovani Bernard and Tyler Eifert featured heavily in this first week, as well as a great, behind-the-scenes look at the tactics of Bengals running backs coach Hue Jackson. Jackson is a pest, who constantly instigates the defense and all those around him. Linebacker James Harrison, who Pittsburgh dumped to save money on his salary and the fines that he incurred, signed with the division rival Bengals and seems to have no problems with people disliking him. There was a montage of Harrison giving the middle finger to the camera, repeatedly closing the door in front of HBO cameras and literally turning his back on a radio interviewer. He wasn’t well liked by opposing fans before, and he isn’t doing much to change his image.
“We don’t touch the merchandise, ever,” Offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden told Harrison about tackling star receiver A.J. Green.
“I ain’t gon’ kill ‘em, but I ain’t gonna let him get his job done either,” Harrison replied before presumably killing Gruden.
In other, less serious moments, Jay Gruden, brother of ESPN, does a great impression of Jon Gruden’s Northern Ohio twang and enthusiasm. Gruden's son Jack plays fantasy football, had a solid draft and told Andy Dalton to his face that he drafted Tom Brady. And then there's Andy Dalton, a ginger prince who wears a rubber wedding ring and is teased mercilessly about it.
The inside look also shows the maturity of some and the immaturity of others. The Bengals coaching staff has to check each individual player’s bedroom every night like they’re on an overnight school field trip. The coaches had to hold a pow-wow with the players to prevent them from purposefully injuring rookie running back Gio Bernard. And a team with James Harrison, Taylor Mays, Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga and Adam “Not Pacman anymore” Jones needs a constantly watchful staff of disciplinarians.
One way to give these players an outlet for pent-up frustration is by having them compete in “The Oklahoma Drill.” This drill is the football way of settling scores. A one-on-one activity in which players are pitted against each other and have to block the other one, until there is a winner. Normally players who will face a player of a similar position will line up against each other: offensive lineman vs. defensive lineman, wide receiver vs. cornerback, etc. The offense has an innate rivalry with the defense, most of the competitions HBO showed seemed to be evenly split between the two sides and the tight end Jermaine Gresham vs. defensive tackle Geno Atkins battle was the 2013 NFL version of the Seinfeld false start.
One problem with this drill, while effective, is the risk of injury. The injury bug has struck the entire league this year: Dennis Pitta, Percy Harvin, Bryan Bulaga, Jeremy Maclin, Jordy Nelson and countless others have all gone down with injuries during this first week of training camp. The Bengals not only worry about winning an actual playoff game this year, they worry about keeping their players healthy. The tension felt by the entire Bengals staff when A.J. Green went down clutching his knee was, as the narrator Liev Schreiber said, palpable.
Hard Knocks also portrayed a common situation in this era’s NFL, the concussion issue. After receiver Marvin Jones – who was only getting reps in practice because of Green’s injury – hit his head on the ground, he said he was fine, the coaching staff disagreed. HBO showed the drive of a player wanting to return to practice after getting “his bell rung” and the insistence of a coach who refused to let him back on the field. This is the dichotomy of today’s NFL: the coach trying to maintain the health of his players and a lower-level player desperately trying to make the most out of the opportunity presented to him. The receiver knows that the more time he spends being injured, the less time he’ll have to prove his worth to the team. The warrior mentality of football players is the reason that they are successful, while also being the reason they have a shorter life expectancy, compared to non-football players. Players want nothing more than to just make the team, and they know the fleeting circumstances of an NFL career all too well.
HBO and NFL Films humanize an otherwise impersonal sport. The athletes that we see on the field are covered in pads and helmets; Known enough to garner support and adoration, but calculated and distant enough to remain unsympathetic.
Bengals rookie defensive lineman Larry Black will not be on anyone’s radar when the regular season starts, nor will he be mentioned by a play-by-play announcer on gameday. But Hard Knocks can introduce a player who has never been seen before in one moment, and break your heart the next moment. Black was doing well. He’s a local Cincinnati player who was undrafted and was making a good impression on his Bengals coaches. But as is common in the NFL, it only takes one moment to ruin everything. With Black’s broken leg and dislocated ankle, he is out for the season.
The family of football is tight-knit, and though they’re all competing for each other’s jobs, the tears held back when talking about Black show that the team is – just that – a team.
Hard Knocks is sometimes hard to watch, but it is always insightful, in depth and relentlessly professional. While some might have expected a lack of interesting content with the Bengals signing up for this year's edition, Hard Knocks once again proved it is a top series no matter who is featured. The journey continues for these 2013 Bengals for the next four Tuesdays on HBO.