Relax Los Angeles Rams fans, your team is back home. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they will not be headed to Houston in 2017 for the Super Bowl — if the Hard Knocks jinx remains in place. Since 2001, HBO has selected an NFL team and followed it through the rigors of training camp, presenting the trials and tribulations of preseason action in all its gory details. From serious injuries to seriously profane coaches, it’s all captured by HBO (and NFL Films) to the delight of gridiron fans eager to see a bit of insider football.
With the dulcet tones of Liev Schreiber as narrator, it’s one of sports’ most eagerly anticipated TV shows. While fans witness the bumps and bruises of NFL training camps, the teams involved may realize their season is somewhat doomed. Not a single ball club featured on Hard Knocks has ever made it to the Super Bowl; only the 2009 and 2013 Cincinnati Bengals finished first in their division while the vast majority of featured teams failed to make the playoffs.
The marriage between HBO, the NFL, and the 32 teams in the league has been rocky. Because no team wanted to participate in the show in 2011, the series focused on a retrospective of previous seasons. With it becoming increasingly difficult to find a team willing to air its dirty laundry, the NFL imposed a rule that a team could not opt out of being the focus of the show unless they had a first-year coach; they had been on the show in the previous 10 years; or they had made the playoffs in either of the previous two seasons.
The Los Angeles Rams make for a great subject for the 2016 version of Hard Knocks. The team had the top pick in the most recent draft, and Cal quarterback Jared Goff is under the microscope as he battles for the starting role behind center. Other storylines include playing in the venerable (read, rundown) Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the always edgy head coach Jeff Fisher. While there may be no official record for coach-spewed F-bombs, Fisher will likely go for the gold this season. While waiting for the Rams’ season to unfold, some previous Hard Knocks campaigns stand out as classics.
Cincinnati Bengals (2009)
The drama behind a team with a legitimate chance of making the Super Bowl plus a cast of oddball characters added up to an Emmy award-winning season of Hard Knocks. Coach Marvin Lewis recalls the year he accepted the nod to be the focus of the show:
I think our football team is beyond that point. I think we’ve got a mature group of guys that are fighting for jobs. They won’t notice the cameras. We know there’ll be special things that guys will be a part of; I think that way we’re mature enough. Steve [Sabol, the late head of NFL Films] has approached me before and we didn’t come to the same conclusion. This time I did because I think we’re in a different step in the team’s maturity and where we are. I think it’s great for our fans. I felt like we could handle this.
During that series, fans got to see Mike Zimmer, then assistant coach with the Bengals, now head coach of the Vikings, display his mastery of team defense. Another memorable storyline was the battle between safeties Tom Nelson and Corey Lynch for a spot on the roster. Lynch stood out because he helped save a driver injured in a car crash while Nelson’s aw-shucks manner tugged at fans’ heartstrings as he and his fiancé toured the city while hoping to make the team.
Houston Texans (2015)
What made the most recent full season of Hard Knocks memorable was how it showed the complexity of head coach Bill O’Brien. Keep in mind, it was O’Brien who took over the role as head coach of Penn State after the school was shattered by scandal and serious NCAA penalties. O’Brien’s class and determination was evident then, and omnipresent in the 2015 version of Hard Knocks. The love and care the coach showed for his handicapped son was enough to bring tears to any fan’s eyes.
On the field, the battle between seriously underperforming quarterbacks Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer was notable especially when Mallett was cut from the team for his off-field antics. Then there’s J.J. Watt, worthy of a series of his own. Showing the defensive standout napping in a hidden bed tucked away in the locker room was priceless.
New York Jets (2010)
What made this season memorable was its sheer absurdity, captured in full for everyone to witness. First and foremost, the contract dispute between cornerback Darrelle Revis and the team was a study in comic tragedy as communications between the team and player were done in cloak-and-dagger fashion with neither side effectively dealing with the other. It was painful to witness. Then there’s coach Rex Ryan, a larger-than-life figure who loves being on camera. Ryan was skilled at displaying equal measures of tough love and offbeat quotes; “Let’s eat a god-dammed snack.”
Also memorable was the hardboiled relationship between second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez and offensive coach Brian Schottenheimer, which ended with the coach’s termination over the quarterback’s lack of improvement. The 2016 version has already had its moments. After Fisher clearly stated that one his big rules was that no visitors (he means female companions) were allowed in players’ rooms, wideout Deon Long was released for violating Fisher’s warning. Long was picked up by the Philadelphia Eagles on August 5, but then released nine days later.