In 2016, Hard Knocks accomplished an ignominious feat that the very nature of the show should have rendered impossible: it became unwatchable. The show has been riddled with flaws bigger than Vince Wilfork’s ass for years, but the formula is pretty unassailable: get good behind-the-scenes footage and serve it to an audience of millions that’s been starved for anything football-related going on six months. Even when it’s boring, it’s entertaining. Pretty hard to fuck up.
Enter Jeff Fisher. The Rams were already a boring, milquetoast team with a boring, milquetoast rookie quarterback (Jared Goff, who may be good eventually, but isn’t very interesting), and a boring milquetoast owner (Stan Kroenke). If Fisher was dynamic at all he could have covered those flaws, but he wasn’t and he didn’t. In fact, his uninspiring style turned the season into a snooze fest and caused all remaining viewers to earnestly wonder how Fisher lasted so long in the league as a head coach.
One more season like that and Hard Knocks could have been deemed irrelevant forever. Fortunately, they hit paydirt with the Tampa Bay Bucs. Hard Knocks (and narrator Liev Schreiber, Mr. Ray Donovan himself) are officially BACK! Here are 30 things we loved about the first two episodes:
They Focused on the Stars
The go-to move of the series throughout the years has been to focus on free agent rookies battling for the last roster spots in addition to – or often in place of – established stars. It was a cute gimmick that got way overplayed, and the producers correctly decided it was time to go back to focusing on the big names. The Bucs are perfect in that respect, with a handful of well-known players who all feel comfortable in front of the camera and have each provided a handful of moments worth mentioning through the first two episodes…
Anyone watching with even a sliver of an open mind would admit that Winston jumps off the screen as an engaging, charismatic leader. He appears to draw from an almost limitless fountain of energy and carries himself like he’s been preparing to be a starting NFL QB his entire life (which he has).
With the producers rightfully focusing a lot of time on Winston, there have been plenty of great moments to choose from, even in just two episodes. Here are the best:
- Winston visiting his childhood home in Bessemer, AL (Bo Jackson also grew up there) during a family get-together to open episode one and calmly narrating the extremely humble circumstances of his upbringing, including sharing a single bedroom with six other people and going to the bathroom outside because the wait was too long for the bathroom in the house. It’s honest, engaging television that in just a few minutes of screen time gives the viewer an accurate sense of where Winston comes from.
- Watching how excited Winston got when he realized that he could get 500 Marriott Rewards points for every day he refused maid service at the hotel during training camp.
- His overall leadership skills. They’re impressive for anyone, never mind a 23-year-old. This guy’s teammates clearly respond to him. The talent show scene where the rookies all have to sing a song showcased Winston at his best: directing traffic, encouraging, admonishing, leading. Totally in his element.
- The contrast between Jared Goff last year and Jameis Winston this year. Goff could be good. Hell, he could be great. However, it’s impossible to watch both seasons and not come away with the distinct feeling that draft year matters just as much as draft position, if not more. Not all #1 overall picks are created equal.
- In episode two, during their game against the Bengals, when backup QB Ryan Griffin gets knocked out of the game with an injury, Winston goes over to two offensive linemen sharing a laugh on the bench and shames them for joking around and having fun while the guy they were supposed to protect is out of the game, being examined by doctors somewhere. Great pickup by the Hard Knocks cameras.
- In one scene, he appears to be wearing Birkenstocks. Love it…
- The discussion between Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick about where to find a hot dog to eat during a preseason game, which ends with Fitzpatrick reminding Winston of Mark Sanchez once eating one on the sideline during a game, and Winston dismissively chortling, “respect the game.” Fitz and Winston are a good combo, with more in common than most people would assume. That being said, if #3 gets hurt, they’re all screwed.
JJ Watt received fawning treatment from the Hard Knocks producers, but you also kind of got the sense that’s what he was really like. McCoy is the same way. This guy is an absolute gem: bold, intelligent, interesting, and interested. The coaches talk about him like he’s a superhero, which fits, because McCoy is obsessed with them. If any single person steals the first two episodes, it’s probably McCoy. Here are a few of his better moments:
- Rocking a custom-made kimono that he picked up on an offseason trip to Japan.
- McCoy going through a series of more and more hilarious dance moves in front of visiting referee Ed Hochuli – who was there to clarify new rules – and asking if each one would be legal as a touchdown dance under the new rules.
— NFL (@NFL) August 16, 2017
- Picking up the helmets of younger, much less well known teammates after practice. According to McCoy, if he can help a young guy just a little bit by allowing him to focus on making the team rather than finding and carrying his helmet in from practice, it’s worth it. From most guys that would sound like a stunt, but McCoy appears to be the real deal.
- Giving his kids a bath. McCoy is either a really great family man or he hired a fake family for training camp, because the scenes with him and his kids are right out of a Hallmark commercial. McCoy encouraging his (extremely strong) toddler to punch him in his chest was especially poignant.
- McCoy’s overall presence as a human being and a player is hard to ignore throughout both episodes. Whether he’s blowing up the offensive line during drills or getting mad at himself for accidentally touching Winston during a drill, or taking an extra minute to explain something to a rookie who probably won’t make the team anyway, this guy is a star player, teacher, mentor, older brother figure, team comedian, and captain all wrapped up in one at the tender age of 29. More importantly for these purposes, he makes for great TV.
The Kicking Competition
There was a genuine placekicker kick-off during the second episode. The drama was real, the type Hard Knocks producers would gladly create if they could. But they can’t, and for good reason. Everyone in the building knew that former second-round pick Roberto Aguayo was kicking for his job, and while he seemed liked by his teammates, no one was going out of their way to support him, or even pretend he was doing a good job. In fact, they openly taunted him at practice.
Roberto Aguayo has to be the least respected teammate in NFL History pic.twitter.com/bq2dANUvJW
— Barstool Sports (@barstoolsports) August 15, 2017
Everyone from head coach Dirk Koetter on down was like “if he can’t kick, we don’t want him here anyway, so let’s see what happens.” And what happened, after a few weeks of competition between Aguayo and veteran Nick Folk in practice and preseason games, was this:
GM Jason Licht later compared it to ripping off a band-aid, which is pretty rough, but accurate. Aguayo is a talented dude whom I defended as a second-round pick at the time, and he handled this as classily as humanly possible.
Speaking of the GM…
Jason Licht is a Boss
Licht seems a little goofy and maybe a little bit behind the eight ball to start episode one, but he grew on me as the episodes progressed. Talking about Winston and McCoy in his office with his staff, the way he appreciates greatness. The way he handled the kicking competition. Not taking himself too seriously, but taking the game seriously. Having staff meetings at a bar and letting alcohol get the creative juices flowing. The Bucs are loaded for bear, and the more time we spend around the architect of the roster, the more it makes sense.
Another good Licht move was hiring…
Let’s call Koetter the anti-Jeff Fisher. He may not be as smooth or polished (or corny) as Fisher, but he gives off much better vibes. Koetter isn’t a rah rah guy, but he is inspirational. Solid quote from the first episode:
“Teams are like rockets: most of the hard work has to happen beforehand. Once the rocket launches, it is incredibly difficult for the rocket to change course mid-flight.”
- Koetter was also pitch perfect in his one-on-one meeting with Winston in the first episode, with his comments on Aguayo and the kicking competition in the second episode, and with the way he subtly tweaked Gruden after Chucky visited the QB meeting room.
- Are we sure he and Rand Paul aren’t the same person?
During the first episode, Gruden comes by the facility for a press conference about his upcoming induction into the Bucs ring of honor (or whatever the hell it’s called – they’re all stealing from the Cowboys anyway) and reveals himself to be exactly the insane coach-in-waiting that we assume he is. His level of intensity and reverence is both refreshing and off-putting.
Speaking of Gruden…
The Absurd Statue of the Bucs Super Bowl Team in Their New Training Facility
A picture is worth a thousand words, but I only need three:
Corny. As. Fuck.
DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans
The odd couple: these two physical opposites have hit it off from day one, which is a really scary thought for the rest of the NFL, especially when you remember they drafted Alabama TE OJ Howard in the first round last April. While Howard gets about 20 seconds of air time, Jackson and Evans are featured quite a bit.
- While you have to take the entire show with a grain of salt due to selective editing, Jackson looks like he hasn’t lost a step. He had the coaches giddy with excitement after seeing him do his thing for the first time. He also comes across as a down-to-earth guy who teammates love to be around.
- Great TV: Evans defending LeBron during an argument over the best NBA players ever. He is also a complete beast as a player. If OJ Howard is half as good as I think he’s going to be, something has to give. You can’t double team Evans, Jackson, and Howard.
Other Things I Liked…
- The Game of Thrones discussion at the end of episode one was exactly what shows like Hard Knocks are meant to pick up. Captured this cultural moment in time PERFECTLY.
- The Bucs appear to have the largest flag ever at their team complex. It isn’t the stars and stripes, either; it’s a giant Bucs logo.
- Smooth move by CAA, telling all their clients to wear CAA football shirts while the cameras were rolling.
- I like Miko Grimes. So there…