Legit or not, to fail in the NFL is to fail at manhood. That’s almost a medieval concept, sure. But the brutal, blue-collar ethos of pro football buys into that, as do many of its followers. Football = manhood. Sports = life.
Each season, on HBO’s superb “Hard Knocks,” some 40 aspiring athletes see their dreams dashed and their NFL careers start to flame out when they are cut by their team.
You want good television? Forty beheadings tops anything “Game of Thrones” throws at us, or the phony stakes on “Survivor” or “The Bachelor.”
So in many ways, the five-week run of “Hard Knocks” offers the most vivid and compelling television of the season — scripted or otherwise. Does the show have issues? Of course. But nothing it can’t seem to transcend.
In fact, the annual character study of a team’s training camp is often better than many NFL games themselves — more spontaneous, more engaging. With great fanfare, this fly-on-the-wall treatment used to be dubbed cinéma vérité. Now it’s just called reality TV.
But what fun it all is when it’s done this well.
Favorite season? Many fans cite Rex Ryan’s star turn as Jets coach in 2010.
Hail “Hard Knocks,” now in its 12th season. Hail the F-bombs, the pathos, the broken spirits. But also admire the visual storytelling and the participants’ perseverance in the face of such public failure.
“Hard Knocks” hits its seasonal midpoint Tuesday night, as HBO airs the third chapter of the five-week show. Each one-hour episode draws from 350 to 400 hours of footage, using 20 cameras (six manned,14 robotic).
Sure, there are tropes: the hissing practice-field sprinklers; the high-strung coaches; the Cinderella story, featuring some longshot player and his pickup truck, his dog, his girl (There should really be a “Hard Knocks” line of jeans).
There is the rookie talent show, inevitably the funniest moment of the season (this season’s highlight: the singing of the Canadian national anthem). There are locker-room pranks and loneliness and doubts, often conveyed in phone calls home. It’s hard to get away from the stars — like this season’s Jameis Winston, or J.J. Watt in a previous year — but it’s the guys on the bubble who form the heart of the show.
To witness the career immolation of Tampa Bay kicker Roberto Aguayo last week was to watch something every American worker dreads.
“I’ve been fired, Jason’s been fired, it’s not the end,” coach Dirk Koetter assures the kid in a meeting with team general manager Jason Licht.
Sure looked like it, coach. Watching Aguayo having to suck it up was a lesson for us all. (And there was a happy coda at the end of the episode: he had been signed as a kicker for another team).
The folks at NFL Films, the show’s documentarians, may think they invented the daily-diary training camp genre, when really it was George Plimpton’s bestselling book “Paper Lion,” or even Jerry Kramer’s underappreciated “Instant Replay.”
But credit the filmmakers with polishing the pearl. Over the years, the show has won 15 sports Emmys while becoming more cinematic and grand.
Also credit NFL Films with bringing elite production values to such a fast-moving situation, as rosters are shredded, mothers cry and some of the toughest athletes in sports have come-to-Jesus moments.
Favorite season? Many fans cite Rex Ryan’s star turn as Jets’ coach in 2010.
“The best place to be is someplace where expectations are high,” he told his team that year. “And that starts with training camp.”
Later, after players smuggled cheeseburgers into practice, he pounced: “There’s a fine line between having fun and being a jackass,” he bellowed.
If they don’t screen that clip in leadership classes at Harvard Business School, some professor has fallen asleep again.
Other notable moments: Dolphins Coach Joe Philbin releasing Chad Ochocinco after the wide receiver’s arrest; Texan Coach Bill O’Brien caring for his special-needs son; J.J. Watt’s intense extra-credit workout; Marvin Lewis’ post-game meltdown; Bernie Pollard’s dirty dancing; any scene with Tony Siragusa.
This season, Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston is dominating the show, beginning with the tour of his childhood home in rural Alabama where seven siblings slept in the same room. Is it all posturing? Giving Winston’s spotty past, you might wonder. But he’s winning me over with every scene, whether he’s pumping up teammates or lashing out over their screw-ups.
Leadership can be such a dodgy, sporadic thing, yet Winston is dripping with it.
“[Former NFL Films president] Steve Sabol used to say ‘Hard Knocks’ is like building an airplane in flight,” said NFL Films executive Ross Ketover.
“We follow the stories,” he said, as opposed of having some sort of pre-camp plan that drives coverage.
Ketover said he and fellow producers meet with teams in the off-season to test their willingness to do the show. Access is a key consideration in picking the next season’s team. By policy, first-year head coaches are exempt from participating, as is any team that goes deep into the playoffs. (Which is partly why marquee teams such as the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers never appear).
Ketover insists that the NFL has not prohibited mention of concussions, the issue that currently dogs the sport. He notes that past seasons have always dealt openly with injuries and risks.
Still, that’s an unsettling omission, as the show works to maintain journalistic cred despite its ties to the league (the NFL owns NFL Films). Early reports of star players being paid small stipends for their participation also tarnish those efforts.
But as entertainment? “Hard Knocks” still leads the league, continuing to produce story lines that amuse and enlighten fans, avid or otherwise. At their best, sports can teach us real life lessons — and “Hard Knocks” is a great example of that.
To play at that level, over 12 seasons, is the sign of a winner.
Best to worst
Here’s our completely unscientific, indisputable ranking of the best seasons of “Hard Knocks”:
- New York Jets (2010): Rex Ryan at his audacious best
- Baltimore Ravens (2001): Shannon Sharpe, Tony Siraguso, Ray Lewis
- Houston Texans (2015): Bill O’Brien keeps it real
- Kansas City Chiefs (2007): Bobby Sippio’s Cinderella story
- Miami Dolphins (2012): Joe Philbin, the likeable nitpicker
- Cincinnati Bengals (2009): America meets Chad Ochocinco
- Dallas Cowboys (2008): Ware, Witten and Romo
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2017): Does “Joe Dirt” make the squad?
- Los Angeles Rams (2016): William Hayes denies dinosaurs
- Dallas Cowboys (2002): Coach Dave Campo goes to SeaWorld
- Cincinnati Bengals (2013): Giovani Bernard embraces the minivan
- Atlanta Falcons (2014): Dull despite all the team brawls
Note: Show debuted in 2001, disappeared after the 2002 season, then returned in 2007; in 2011, a lockout led to cancellation of that season’s show.
‘Hard Knocks: Training Camp With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)