HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks’ is back, which, if you’re an NFL fan, is really exciting. It means that football is close. Fall is coming, training camp is starting and 32 teams will clash over the course of the next five months until only one is left holding the most coveted trophy in the game.
This year, things are looking a little bit different. The three other major sports in the United States had their seasons interrupted or delayed by the pandemic. The NFL finished its season about a month before everything began to close and we stopped gathering, so the league had some time to prepare if the virus was still around come August and September. Well, here we are in the middle of August, less than two weeks away from the opening month of the football season, and the pandemic is still changing the sports world.
This year’s version of ‘Hard Knocks’ is taking advantage of a huge opportunity. In 2015, the NFL had zero teams in Los Angeles. Now, the Rams and the Chargers both call it home. The Rams beat the Chargers there, but they’ll be sharing the brand new SoFi Stadium in Inglewood beginning this upcoming season. If they can share a stadium, why not share a documentary series? Double the teams, double the drama.
Just two episodes in, it’s obvious that this season is different from every other season of ‘Hard Knocks,’ and I don’t just say that because of the pandemic. If you’re a fan of the NFL, there’s so much star power to lay your eyes on this season, and the first episode doesn’t miss a chance to capitalize on that. We’re getting the inside scoop on guys like Aaron Donald, Jared Goff, Jalen Ramsey, Derwin James, Keenan Allen and Joey Bosa, who inked his five-year, $135 million deal right in front of us.
I think we tend to take the contract stuff for granted when it comes to these athletes. I know signing a nine-figure deal is life-altering, but it happens so often with these huge stars that we don’t think twice about it. If we do think twice, we’re either eyeballing the amount, criticizing it for being too high, or raising our eyebrows at the amount knowing the team is walking away with a star player for less than he or she is worth.
Before watching ‘Hard Knocks,’ I saw that Bosa signed the extension, but I didn’t think about the way it changed his life. That’s what I love about this show. These guys are freak athletes, built to withstand one of the most extreme sports for our entertainment, but they’re also humans. Bosa signing that deal is the climax in a long life of hard work and sacrifice, and he’s going to be able to provide for his family for generations if he’s wise with it.
I also love things like the juxtaposition between Sean McVay’s home life and Anthony Lynn’s home life. Lynn, the head coach of the Chargers, barbecues in his backyard and uses a napkin attached to a fork by a rubber band to brush sauce onto his chicken legs. McVay, the head coach of the Rams, cracks open a bottle of rosé with his fiancé at his outdoor glass fireplace overlooking the world.
We get to see Jalen Ramsey, who’s going into his first full season as a Ram, go house hunting. So far we’ve learned a lot about Ramsey as a competitor and a person, both on and off the field. He has been front and center for a couple of my favorite moments so far. First, in a Zoom meeting with reporters, he fields a question about a contract extension, which he doesn’t have yet. While we see many players around the league holding out of football activities for financial security, Ramsey insists that he’s in LA to play football, and his agent and the front office will handle the financials.
The reporters continue to pry, which sets Ramsey off, and he walks out of the interview. He does end up returning, but I get why he’s upset. I also get why the reporters are asking the question, so it’s a two-way street. While we’ve seen players say they have no plans to hold out then proceed to hold out, I still admire Ramsey for that position. It can’t be easy to negotiate million dollar deals and play football under normal conditions let alone the conditions we’re looking at right now.
Then, of course, we see how these two teams are handling the pandemic. Immediately upon arriving for preseason meetings, all of these players get their temperatures taken. They’re asked questions that probably aren’t too different from everyone visiting an office or an on-site job every day. Do you have a fever? Do you have a sore throat? Are you coughing? Have you been in contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19?
Right in the back of my mind, I remember last season of ‘Hard Knocks’ when the Raiders had hundreds of guys in their meeting rooms. Jon Gruden, the head coach of the Raiders, would tell his team, “Knock on wood if you’re with me,” and the thunderous knocking of over 100 football players hitting their desks poured through the speakers.
These two teams can’t do that in 2020. We see team’s socially distancing and maintaining that six feet of separation everywhere they go. Team employees even use tape measures to make sure that locker hubs are six feet apart, and the teams don’t allow anyone to sit in the first four rows in meeting rooms. Everyone is masked up, including the coaches, and it seems like they’re truly doing their best to avoid the spread of the virus.
Also, as a huge baseball fan, I love that they use the Marlins as an example of how important the safety precautions are. One guy with the virus could cause an outbreak throughout the entire team and put the season on hold. It doesn’t just affect the person with the virus. It affects everyone they’ve already come in contact with and everyone they might come in contact with. One person can derail the entire season, and it’s fascinating to see such a fragile situation in the hands of men whom we normally think of as the strongest and toughest on the planet.
All of the players are also receiving tests on a regular basis. I don’t know what it was, but something about seeing Keenan Allen and Casey Hayward both act so nervous before their tests made me feel a little bit better about my outlook on the tests. To be completely honest, the fear of having the Q-tip shoved into my brain is making me more strict about my pandemic behavior. It feels good to see professional football players who are just as uneasy about the test as I am.
In the second episode, everyone in camp received a wristband, and while they don’t go too deep into how they work, I imagine they keep track of social distance. If they can figure out whose wristband has been fewer than six feet away from someone who tests positive, they might be able to shut it down quickly by quarantining those players.
They also get the option to wear face shields, which could be a very practical solution to the mask debate. In the first episode, Sean McVay makes a big deal about preferring the plastic face shield over the fabric mask, and it looks like the players will wear something really similar inside their helmets. It sounds like a simple solution to a huge problem. Teams can’t send their players onto the field in hazmat suits, but if they can avoid spitting and breathing on each other, I think that’s a huge step in the right direction.
As per usual, we get to watch all of these positional camp battles that we’d never get to be inside the locker room for without ‘Hard Knocks.’ I love that the second episode touches on Austin Ekeler, who is a star because of the preseason. He’s one of the guys who made the most of his opportunities, and now he’s a starter on a team that’s expected to compete. A lot of guys won’t have those preseason games to make an impression this year. They’ll get fewer reps in practice to show off their skillsets. While it’s not impossible to make an impression, it sure is more difficult.
I enjoyed seeing Justin Herbert work on his game. I remember when Kyler Murray first came into the league and had to learn to take snaps as a professional quarterback. He took a lot of heat for things like clapping to call for the snap, but it looks like he’s going to be just fine. I really hope Herbert can overcome that kind of criticism, which he’ll inevitably get. He has the arm talent, but we’ll get to see if he can overcome the transition.
I also loved seeing Anthony Lynn talk to his players about protests during a Zoom meeting, which launched into an entire conversation between coaches and players. Specifically, Lynn said that his main focus is football, but they can’t focus on football when injustices are taking place off the field, so Chargers players are encouraged to protest however they see fit.
The conversation continued in smaller Zoom groups. In one of those groups, Chargers long snapper Cole Mazza mentioned that he had family in the military who are very much against kneeling during the anthem. Chargers coaches and other players explained that the kneeling had nothing to do with the military and everything to do with racial injustice. I think that’s really important to see in a show like ‘Hard Knocks,’ which draws plenty of football fans on both sides of the issue. Those are the conversations that need to be had, and all players and coaches were extremely respectful of each stance.
To be completely transparent, I caught a Chargers game in Carson last season as a fan of an away team. Fans of the team I went to see probably outnumbered Chargers fans ten-to-one, and I’ve respected the Chargers since then. Their fans had good attitudes about the whole situation, and I felt bad for the players on the Chargers who didn’t play a game in front of a home crowd the entire year.
I’m pulling for them to have a better season and build a bigger fan base in their new market, so I’ll be tuning in every week for more ‘Hard Knocks.’ I’d probably be tuning in no matter which team was on the show, as we’ve been deprived of football for seven months, but I’m extra curious this year.
For anyone just as curious as I am, you can see a new episode of ‘Hard Knocks’ Tuesday on HBO at 10 p.m. EST, or you can stream the show on HBO Max. You can also catch the companion podcast on any podcast streaming platform or on YouTube and HBO Max.