NFL antiheroes the Oakland Raiders seize the spotlight in ‘Hard Knocks’
On a recent Friday morning, before the veterans of the Oakland Raiders were expected to arrive for their first day of training camp, the sun rose over scenic Napa, Calif. The crew of “Hard Knocks” was up, filming it. They filmed the team breakfast. They filmed weight training and the early-morning coaches’ meetings. They filmed as the practice field was mowed and the morning dew removed. They filmed as star wide receiver Antonio Brown arrived at camp (or at least near it) in a hot-air balloon, one-upping his arrival at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ camp in a helicopter last year.
Two days earlier, they filmed as head coach Jon Gruden addressed his players: “You’ve got to end somebody’s dream. You gotta take their job. You gotta take their heart. You guys clear about this NFL ... now?”
From Raiders training camp, where 32 “Hard Knocks” crew members are embedded with 20 cameras (six manned, 14 robotically controlled), an average of 50 hours’ worth of footage per day — up to 65 on heavy practice days — will be transmitted nearly 3,000 miles to NFL Films headquarters in Mount Laurel, N.J. There, a team of 25 editors combs through it — roughly 350 hours in all — to construct a single episode of HBO’s docuseries, which begins its 14th season Tuesday.
Each edition of “Hard Knocks” follows one NFL team over five episodes as they train for the upcoming season and whittle their roster from 90 potential players down to a core of 53. The New York Jets’ turn in 2010 — with riotous coach Rex Ryan — and last year’s stay with the Cleveland Browns — after a winless season — have been fan favorites. But the decision to feature the Raiders, the closest thing the NFL has to an institutional antihero, has made this season perhaps the most anticipated yet.
[C]oaches don’t really love playing road games. They don’t love going to London to play a game. They don’t love playing on ‘Thursday Night Football.’ They don’t love restrictions on practices. There’s a lot of things coaches don’t like. That’s sort of the nature of being a coach.
— Ken Rodgers, senior coordinating producer of “Hard Knocks”
Gruden’s frank and colorful personality should be familiar to viewers from his nine years as an analyst on “Monday Night Football” and his previous stints as a head coach, including his first run with the Raiders from 1998 until early 2002. Still, there are other draws for this particular season.
Half of the Raiders’ current roster is players new to the team, among them the misfit toys the organization is known for, including notoriously brutal linebacker Vontaze Burfict and possibly incompetent backup quarterback Nathan Peterman. Ronald Ollie, a defensive lineman who was previously featured on Netflix’s “Last Chance U,” has already been cut. Late last week, the Raiders picked up Jordan Lasley, a wide receiver who’d been dropped by the Baltimore Ravens the day after fighting with teammates and throwing a football into a pond during a touchdown celebration.
“There’s dramatic tension at this training camp, because they’re still in the middle of something,” said Ken Rodgers, who’s been the senior coordinating producer of “Hard Knocks” since 2007. “This isn’t about repeating last year’s success. If you were a team that did well last year, if you’re the Los Angeles Rams, a lot of your camp is fine-tuning. It’s, ‘Let’s not get any major injuries.’ There’s not as much competition at other camps. There’s a lot of competition at Raiders camp. There’s a lot at stake, and that creates interesting television for the fans of any team.”
To add to the intrigue, this is the Raiders’ last season before relocating to Las Vegas, ending their tumultuous will-they/won’t-they relationships with Oakland and Los Angeles. But don’t expect these off-field developments to play a central part in the season. “This is essentially a story about the football players, and we stay very present-tense,” said Rodgers. “If we spend time on the history of the Raiders, it will be a minute long, not 20. If we spend time on the future of the Raiders and Las Vegas, it’ll be a minute, not 20.”
According to Rodgers, production usually waits until coaching staff realignments, free-agent reshuffling and the NFL draft are over before settling on which team they want to feature on “Hard Knocks,” but this year fans were clamoring for “Hard Knocks” to cover the Raiders even before those annual checkpoints. The Raiders weren’t as enthusiastic about the idea.
At the start of training camp, first-time general manager Mike Mayock told the press, “Bottom line for me: Jon [Gruden] and I are kind of old school. And the reason you go away to training camp is to get away from all the distractions, get together, bond, learn your assignments. No distractions, no intrusions. ‘Hard Knocks’ is an intrusion. But it was handed to us, so it’s up to us to deal with it, and I think we’re dealing with it in a professional way.”
NFL Films and HBO won’t disclose how teams are chosen for “Hard Knocks,” but they downplay any issues between them and the Raiders. Several days after Mayock’s comments, the show’s director, Tim Rumpf, said, “Obviously the Raiders have their concerns and every team has their concerns when we begin the process, and a lot of that I think comes from not knowing what it really means to be on ‘Hard Knocks.’ They think we’re going to be all over the place filming 24/7, and that’s just not the case. This is our 14th season, it’s targeted shooting. We know what we need to get to make the show great and it’s mostly about communication with them, letting them know what we’re doing on a daily basis, letting them know what we’re hoping to capture. The comfort level will come in time.”
Rodgers noted that NFL Films works with all the teams in the league, editing their highlight films and often wiring their players with microphones during games. Gruden himself wore a mic when he coached the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory in 2003.
Legit or not, to fail in the NFL is to fail at manhood. That’s almost a medieval concept, sure.
Rodgers believes any resistance a coach might have to “Hard Knocks” being at camp is attributable to their generally controlling demeanor. “[C]oaches don’t really love playing road games. They don’t love going to London to play a game. They don’t love playing on ‘Thursday Night Football.’ They don’t love restrictions on practices. There’s a lot of things coaches don’t like. That’s sort of the nature of being a coach. It’s wanting to do it your way.”
The Raiders didn’t respond to requests to participate in this story, but JW Johnson, the Cleveland Browns’ executive vice president, wrote in an email about his team’s experience last year, “It was a good show; we would do it again — probably not in the immediate future, but we would also recommend it to other teams. With the Raiders doing it this year, we would definitely be advocates of ‘Hard Knocks’ for what it can do for your fan base and for the team nationally.”
The idea for “Hard Knocks” came to HBO from Marty Callner, who directed the network’s first stand-up comedy special with Robert Klein back in 1975 and a number of hair-metal music videos in the late 1980s. The first season, featuring the Ravens, aired in 2001 and included Liev Schreiber’s now-trademark narration. After the 2002 season, the show went off the air for four years.
“When the show came back [in 2007], there were a lot of veterans who had no interest in appearing on an HBO show about training camp,” Rodgers said, explaining what he calls a “sea change” in players’ attitudes toward “Hard Knocks.” “But the new draft picks that are coming into the Raiders at 22 years old were 10 years old when that show came [back] on the air. They were 13 years old when they saw Rex Ryan and the Jets appear on the show. They grew up watching the show. This has been part of the football world long enough now ... that it’s not a big deal to them.”
Each season of “Hard Knocks” devotes special attention to the “bubble players” — those uncertain to make the final roster for the start of the regular season. One standout from the Browns’ year was Devon Cajuste, a tight end who practices healing with crystals and whose father told him on camera that he’d recently suffered a third heart attack. He quickly became a fan favorite but did not make the team. “I definitely thought [‘Hard Knocks’] nailed my quirkiness,” Cajuste said from Los Angeles, where he’s now a personal trainer at Equinox and an aspiring motivational speaker. “I know I’m peculiar, but they made it a little extra. But it was funny.”
Cajuste said he didn’t watch most of the season’s episodes until months after they aired, but he did respond to thousands of messages to his Instagram account from people who were interested in his energy work or inspired by his relationship with his dad.
He said he barely noticed he was constantly being documented, since he was so intent on landing a spot on the team. Even during the show’s growing interest in him, the cameras mostly followed him when he wasn’t practicing or playing preseason games. “All that personal film work, it really only took up three hours total. It wasn’t really distracting, because you just do you,” he said. “What you’re focused on when you’re mic-ed up is letting your teammates know, “Hey, I’m mic-ed right now. Don’t say some dumb ... for TV.”
HBO and NFL Films position “Hard Knocks” as an optimistic human-interest show, one about young men persevering to earn a job that rewards their dedication. While pro football remains by far the most popular sport in the United States, it’s also become an arena for hot-button issues, including athlete protests over police brutality and the game’s debilitating long-term effects on some players, including the neurodegenerative disease CTE.
HBO’s newsmagazine program “Real Sports” has been unafraid to confront these issues, but so far “Hard Knocks” hasn’t engaged. Asked if it ever would, Peter Nelson, executive vice president of HBO Sports, replied, “I don’t think NFL Films are afraid to go in any direction that best serves the viewers and the stories contained within the program.” Theoretically, that may be true. But unless the Raiders’ season goes in a surprising direction, expect the series to continue ignoring football’s hardest knocks yet.
‘Hard Knocks: Training Camp With the Oakland Raiders’
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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