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‘Hard Knocks’ keeping its distance as Rams-Chargers HBO show debuts Tuesday

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“Hard Knocks: Los Angeles” trailer.

Rams general manager Les Snead jokingly calls the NFL Films “Hard Knocks” crew “the Navy SEALs of what they do.”

The team of videographers, audio engineers and others who work on the Emmy-winning documentary series are so efficient, Snead said, that he doesn’t notice them during training camp activities.

Ken Rodgers, vice president of NFL Films and senior coordinating producer for the show, takes that as a compliment. And because of the COVID-19 pandemic, crew members will have to prove themselves worthy of it.

Even before the pandemic’s effects seeped into the NFL calendar, Rodgers knew this season would be an experiment.

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“Hard Knocks” is attempting something new, chronicling two teams — the Rams and the Chargers — for the first time in the show’s 15 seasons. The show was supposed to detail how two franchises attempting to rebound from disappointing seasons approached a year of excitement as they moved into a sparkling new multibillion-dollar stadium.

Now, because of the coronavirus, Rodgers said his group must stretch and tell a broader story.

The five-episode season premieres Tuesday on HBO.

The Rams’ decision to bring back Michael Brockers is turning out to be fortuitous move with A’Shawn Robinson placed on the non-football injury list.

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“It’s not about a particular team or particular teams anymore,” Rodgers told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s about the NFL as a whole and what the NFL is trying to accomplish. It really represents what all of America is trying to do, which is walk that line between trying to be as safe as possible while trying to find some normalcy.

“It’s really about a workplace trying to get back on its feet and keep its people safe as it gets back on the job.”

The Rams and the Chargers, Rodgers said, expressed “strong interest” in being the subject of this season’s show. Instead of choosing one, he said it made sense to document both.

It is the Chargers’ first time on the show. The Rams were featured in 2016 after they relocated from St. Louis to Los Angeles. Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said he felt a degree of trust, having watched previous NFL Films projects.

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“A lot of that inside access is from trust,” Telesco said in April. “With every request we’ve gotten from NFL Films leading up to ‘Hard Knocks,’ the answer has always been ‘yes’ because of the trust we have in NFL Films and the great work that they do.”

The Rams and Chargers are going through changes.

Two seasons ago, the Chargers won 12 games — tied for most in the AFC — and advanced to the playoffs. The Rams won 13 games and represented the NFC in the Super Bowl.

Both failed to make the playoffs last season after harboring Super Bowl aspirations. So, both have made major adjustments to their rosters.

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Rodgers says the teams are intriguing because they share the same city and new SoFi Stadium. Both also rebranded with new uniforms.

Kevin Demoff, Rams chief operating officer, said he wanted “Hard Knocks” to document the season of transition, but unforeseen events — such as the pandemic and a nationally renewed fight for racial justice after the death of George Floyd — created other opportunities.

“‘Hard Knocks’ gives us an opportunity to document how our players and entire organization are supporting our community, addressing socioeconomic inequalities and injustices, and helping build up Los Angeles during these challenging times,” Demoff said in a statement.

Tyrod Taylor says he knew the Chargers would draft a quarterback, and he isn’t worrying about losing his starting job to rookie Justin Herbert.

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Rodgers, in his 13th season leading the show, kept an eye on coronavirus news in March and April, thinking the pandemic would be tamed as July and August approached.

That did not happen.

As the NFL and NFL Players Assn. discussed protocols for how to operate training camp, Rodgers said his team talked with league and union representatives.

“It was never an ask of ‘Here’s what we’d like to do,’ ” Rodgers said. “It was us asking the medical experts and the NFL and NFLPA to tell us what’s the maximum we can do to keep the players and coaches safe while being able to do our job.”

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More than 150 people at NFL Films are working on “Hard Knocks,” Rodgers said. Thirty are embedded at the Rams facilities in Thousand Oaks, and 30 are with the Chargers in Costa Mesa, capturing images, audio and coordinating logistics. An extra staff member will rotate between both camps and ensure the crews are following safety protocols.

All NFL Films staff members wear personal protective equipment, such as masks and contact-tracing bracelets. The crew, Rodgers said, will shoot content from a safe distance using camera lenses with greater zoom capabilities.

The "Hard Knocks" camera crew films a Rams practice in 2016.
The “Hard Knocks” camera crew films a Rams practice in 2016. The Rams say they have grown accustomed to the crew’s presence.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

For the first time, Rodgers said the crew would stay for the duration of camp. Usually, crews are replaced midway through to bring in fresh staff, but that could present problems with exposure to the virus.

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Don’t expect scenes of players and their families eating dinner inside their homes, he said. There might be opportunities, though, to capture similar moments in outside settings, such as backyards. There will be plenty of screen recordings from videoconference meetings too.

The biggest change, Rodgers said, will be an episode’s climax. Preseason games traditionally have served as a natural build-up point for an episode. The league’s cancellation of preseason games means “Hard Knocks” must think differently about how it structures the story.

“It’s a welcome challenge to us,” Rodgers said, “because, in many ways, it may have become a crutch.

“You know what’s coming every episode because it happened on a weekly basis. This year, we get to stretch our legs and be creative. We necessarily don’t have the answers yet, but that’s our job to figure it out. It’s what we get paid to do.”

Rodgers said “Hard Knocks” would feature coronavirus protocols, to an extent. The show won’t reveal medical information, such as a test result or a preexisting condition, unless it becomes public knowledge and affects camp or if the subject gives permission.

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“Hard Knocks” will show how the virus affects the daily process. An NFL Films video released on Twitter showed Rams coach Sean McVay leading a staff meeting while wearing a face shield. During a videoconference with reporters, McVay joked that he might get in trouble with anything he said because the robotic cameras that followed him allowed for “zero privacy.”

Rodgers said he expected to whittle more than 400 hours of footage each week into an hourlong episode. Both teams will be represented equally, “but we won’t count minutes and seconds,” he said. SoFi Stadium serves as the glue between the two teams, and “Hard Knocks” will show it during team scrimmages and player tours.

Rams quarterback Jared Goff said he could feel the “Hard Knocks” crew’s presence during his first training camp in 2016.

Now, not so much.

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“For whatever reason, it felt like they were always around” in 2016, Goff said. “This year, it feels like they’re in the background a little bit. It’s probably a testament to our team, the way we’re focused on the right things and being really dialed in on football.”

Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa is going through the “Hard Knocks” experience for the first time.

The two-time Pro Bowler, who signed a $135-million contract extension at the start of training camp, says if he sees cameras following him, it might cause him to act differently.

“I may need to watch my language a little bit out there,” he said with a chuckle.


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