Dan Treadway
Wednesday August 6th, 2014

You can count me among the many who were somewhat underwhelmed when it was announced that the Atlanta Falcons would be headlining the 2014 edition of HBO's Hard Knocks. After boasting the best regular season record in the NFC in 2012, the Falcons were putrid last season, falling to 4-12 and out of relevance. With much of the same cast returning this season, it was difficult to be overly optimistic after the team's viability as a playoff contender.

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But if the opening sequence of Season 8 was any indication, Atlanta is entering this season like a bunch of guys on a mission (to rip their teammates' heads off). We opened with boisterous rookie linebacker Jacques Smith talking an exceeding amount of trash to opposing offensive players, which eventually results in him drawing their attention and, more notably, fists. On the whole, beyond the fighting, there seems to be an intriguing cast of characters present for this season of Hard Knocks. With a personality as generic as his name, Falcons coach Mike Smith might challenge Joe Philbin for least charismatic head coach in Knocks history, but fortunately he is balanced out by a bevy of interesting personalities including (but not limited to) Roddy White, Steven Jackson, Real House husband Kroy Biermann and Mike Tice among others.

The show generally spices up once the first pre-season games take place, but here are my main takeaways from episode 1:

Bear Pascoe is a legit cowboy

And for some reason that makes his name like 100 times cooler. I'm not sure why we're wasting our time watching Hard Knocks when there's clearly a more compelling show to be created about Bear Pascoe doing all sorts of wacky cowboy things. Expect Grin and Bear It to premiere on TLC within the next five hours is there's any justice in this world.

Steven Jackson might be your new favorite football player

It's easy to overlook because he's played on terrible teams throughout his career, but Steven Jackson currently has the most career rushing yards of any active player in the NFL and is ranked 20th on the all-time list (with the possibility of moving up to 15th if he rushes for a little more than 1000 yards this season). If the only thing that Hard Knocks accomplishes this year is acquainting NFL fans with Jackson, then I'd still consider season 8 a success.
In addition to being one of the best running backs of the modern era, it turns out Jackson is also an artist, world traveler and motivational speaker. On Hard Knocks, we're frequently exposed to the lives of veteran players, but its rare to come across one that so clearly comes across as a leader in the brief snippets of airtime they're allotted. I'm already sold on him and Devonta Freeman ditching football now to form a zany buddy cop duo, which leads me to my next point...

The William Moore/Devonta Freeman living situation juxtaposition was one of the best sequences in Hard Knocks history

Oftentimes the main goal of a young NFL player is to just make it to their second contract, and the producers for Hard Knocks chose a pretty clever way to highlight why this is the case. The alternating sequence featuring the living situations of rookie running back Devonte Freeman -- who you may remember as the fleeting red blur that flashed across your screen every Saturday last fall for Florida State -- and Falcons veteran safety William Moore -- who's in the middle of a 5-year, $32 million contract -- was fantastic.

Moore boasts a beautiful home, which drew his interest because of the gigantic palm tree located IN THE LIVING ROOM:

By contrast, Freeman, looking for a new apartment, was seemingly blown away by this somewhat normal looking bathtub:

Moore has his walls painted gold:

Freeman lets his imagination run wild with all of the activities he can do inside this completely normal closet:

While it was clear what the producers were trying to convey with the varying degrees of wealth among NFL players, it was all overshadowed by this moment: Devonta Freeman is riding shotgun in a golf cart, discussing how lucky he feels to be an NFL player... he goes silent for a moment ... and then, out of nowhere, he just starts demolishing a Capri Sun:

I mean, that's just good TV.

Jake Matthews is really good at football

It's difficult to gather much about a player's prowess from the limited footage shown, but the main actual football takeaway from the first episode of Hard Knocks is probably that Falcons first round pick Jake Matthews looks really comfortable. This sentiment is apparently in-line with reception Matthews has gotten from coaches and the media throughout camp:

We probably shouldn't have expected anything less from the son of NFL hall of famer Bruce Matthews, but it's certainly a welcome development for Falcons fans.

Also, he may be a rookie, but he doesn't take s***:

Speaking of rookies not taking s***

I briefly mentioned it before, but rookie linebacker Jacques Smith was not only holding his own in drills, he was calling out veteran players on the offensive line. This of course led to our first pseudo "I'm not here to make friends" moment of the season, when Smith began taking punches from second-year tackle Ryan Schraeder:

Schraeder uncorks a nifty combo to Smith's helmet, but the rookie simply keeps his hands at his down and says "Really?" Smith might be an undrafted free agent, but it's clear he's not going to act like he doesn't belong. He's a guy I'd want on my football team (but I don't have a football team so that point is pretty moot).

Peria Jerry is done with football

The most uncomfortable and insightful moment of this episode occurred when Falcons defensive tackle Peria Jerry shocked the team by announcing his retirement. Jerry, a former first round pick who struggled to live up to expectations in part due to injury, sits down with head coach Mike Smith to discuss his retirement and it becomes clear that he want to do anything but play football. Smith clearly tries to get Jerry to re-think the decision, but it's a futile cause. After a few seconds of conversation, the two part ways with Jerry appearing very ready to get the hell out of dodge.

While it may seem like a bizarre decision on Jerry's part, given that he signed a new contract with the team in March, if the passion to play isn't there, it seems a player has little choice but to retire. Hard Knocks provides a unique insight into just how violent and brutal football is when played at this level by world class athletes. Most players aren't given the opportunity to decide independently when their career ends -- a torn knee or slower step often makes the decision for them -- so despite the fact that he has no backup plan, it's difficult to fault Jerry for walking away from the game with his health.

The conversation that Smith has with Falcons owner Arthur Blank when explaining the retirement highlighted why the NFL embodies the mantra of "next man up" more so than any other professional sports league:

Smith: He said his body was not reacting like he wanted it to.

Blank: Yeah 

Smith: And if your hearts not in it and your mind's not in it... you gotta be all in. We'll move on.

And that was that. 


Other notes of note:

  • I was somewhat taken aback by rookie linebacker Tyler Starr's outfit when he was first introduced on the show while hanging out with his family:

He appeared to be a mash-up of Spicoli and Bill Murray's character from Caddyshack, but hey, it's the guy's day off, he should be able to wear whatever he wants. But when Starr arrived at training camp, I was absolutely delighted that he was wearing that same goofy ass hat:

Personally, I wouldn't be inclined to meet my new boss for the first time while looking like I just attended Burning Man, but I have to give it to Taylor for having moxie. I'll be tracking his style choices closely as the pre-season progresses.
  • Matt Ryan is fairly adorkable and seems like a guy I'd enjoy playing Settlers of Catan with.
  • Mike Tice has the potential to be the breakout star of this season if he can get a little more camera time. He may not have thrived as a head coach, but it's clear he knows how to manage the big uglies on the offensive line.
  • Harry Douglas wears women's deodorant and I guess that's perfectly okay. Is this a thing? Do other guys do this?
  • "Hit me in the face again and see what the f*** happens!"-Kroy Bierrman, quoting my favorite line I hear every time I'm outside of a bar in a college town at 2 am. 
  • Cupcake is a tough nickname to shake. 
  • Roddy White and Osi Umenyiora "compliment off" was seemingly out of nowhere and wholly refreshing. Roddy's on his way to getting his number retired by the Falcons, Osi's a two-time Super Bowl-winner. They're both having great lives. Good job, everybody!
  • We're probably going to see a lot more of Bierrman's family, but I hope the Real Housewives of Atlanta(which his wife appears on)/Hard Knocks crossover is limited. 
  • It seems that coaches often like to lighten the mood in meetings after hours of instructing their players to murder each other. Mike Smith cooled guys down with a few before and after photos taken after the end of last season and at the beginning of training camp. Suffice to say, kicker Matt Bryant won the day: 

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