Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 14 years or don’t care about football, you know that the highlight of every NFL season actually happens before any games are played. That’s right, folks—I’m talking about Hard Knocks, the reality show that follows one struggling team as it attempts to pull itself up by its bootstraps, grab the ball by the seams, and convince America that this is the year it gets to the playoffs.
Narrator: It doesn’t.
The teams that participate don’t usually end the year with a winning record: The Rams went 4–12 in 2016, the Bucs went 5–11 in 2017, the Browns went 7-8-1 (which was, admittedly, an improvement on the past 11 years) in 2018. But Hard Knocks can be highly effective at changing the conversation around a team. The stories that come out of each episode permeate sports media like spilled press box coffee onto a napkin—with great urgency—so they allow the franchise to set the tone and tee up storylines for the rest of the year.
Take the Browns: last season they wormed their way into the country’s collective heart thanks to former offensive line coach Bob Wylie, GM John Dorsey’s incredible crewneck sweatshirt and khaki shorts combination, wide receiver Jarvis Landry’s impassioned speeches and quarterback Baker Mayfield’s general coolness. Even the Rams disastrous season three years ago gave us Jeff Fisher and the fact that defensive end William Hayes thought mermaids were real.
The series humanizes a team, pulling back the curtain on players and coaches during training camps and preseason games in a way that only reporters get to see firsthand. It can also show a huge range of dysfunction, however carefully the image is managed. So when it comes to choosing a team to mic up and film, you can either hope for an underdog story of resilience or an internally disastrous train wreck from which we can’t look away.
In order to be eligible, a team must have missed the playoffs the last two seasons, can’t have a first-year head coach and can’t have been on the show in the last ten years. This year that leaves us with the New York Giants, the Raiders, the Lions, the 49ers and Washington. So which should it be? Here are the cases for and against each team’s appearance on the show, from least compelling to most.
NEW YORK GIANTS
There aren’t many compelling reasons the to put the Giants on TV this year. Sure, they still have the ever-entertaining Odell Beckham Jr., and yes, it might be amusing to watch Eli Manning’s face in meetings. Not to mention the inevitable cameos from his father and Manning Mastermind Archie. But I want the Giants to wait until Manning finally rides off into the sunset and there’s a new quarterback in town—if a team only appears once every ten years, let’s make sure we make the most of it.
Final verdict: There would be something very dark about watching the end of Manning’s time with the team as opposed to waiting until the franchise has new hope.
Washington is a garbage fire in a deeply sad and troubling way. From the team’s racist name, to owner Dan Snyder’s … Dan Snyder-ness, to QB Alex Smith’s gruesome leg injury last year, I fear this franchise would be better suited for a horror film. There just isn’t much funny or hopeful about the team at this point. Coach Jay Gruden would mumble through some speeches, which could be somewhat entertaining, but he’s nowhere near as compelling on camera as his brother Jon who coaches the Raiders (we’ll get there in a moment).
Look, when it’s the year 2019 and one of your quarterbacks is Mark Sanchez, several things have gone horribly wrong. And I’m not sure this is something anyone wants to see. You could argue that perhaps an inside, humanizing look at the team could bring back the fans who’ve drifted away (of which there are many!), but there’s always the chance that it backfires and serves to sever even more ties with people still showing up to FedEx Field for games.
Final verdict: No one wants this. And, knowing Washington, if they got it anyway, they’d find a way to screw it up.
The Lions certainly check all the boxes: Head coach Matt Patricia is entering his second year with the team, they definitely didn’t make the playoffs last year and they’ve never been on the show before. But setting up a bunch of cameras in Detroit wouldn’t make for great television. Yes, there’s plenty of dysfunction, but in order for that to be dysFUNction, there has to be a level of playfulness involved, especially coming from the top.
Patricia is ... not playful. He snapped at media repeatedly last year: he corrected a reporter’s posture and reportedly showed up late to press conferences. The best seasons of Hard Knocks are those when the coach goes along with it to a certain extent—it’s hard to get compelling (or at least funny) clips when someone stonewalls you. And Patricia has made it very clear that he wants no part in this, saying to ESPN: "I think Jon Gruden is an excellent choice for that show. I think the Oakland Raiders and everything they've got going on right now would be fantastic viewing for everybody to watch."
Final verdict: You know how the first rule of improv is, “yes, and?” That applies to Hard Knocks, too. Patricia won’t go softly into that good show. And since leadership trickles down, you’re less likely to see players opening up for the cameras when they know their coach hates everything about the situation.
Which brings us to...
Head coach Jon Gruden would be a true delight on camera. He’s done his time in the booth for ESPN calling Monday Night Football games and eating sandwiches with Guy Fieri, so we know he can ham it up. The team currently doesn’t have a stadium to play in for 2019, though they’re reportedly in talks again with the Coliseum to remain there for one more year until moving to their new permanent home in Las Vegas.
It would seem that this is the Raiders’ time to shine. This is the kind of dysfunction I crave: One led by a Gruden named Jon, not Jay, and with the right amount of hilarious uncertainty. Moving a franchise is hard, and next year is the beginning of the end. Or beginning, depending on how you look at it.
However: Featuring the Raiders this year would be a mistake is if we aren’t at the apex of the team’s confusion. I want the Raiders at their messiest, and I fear that could be coming once they actually get to Vegas. It would also be interesting to watch coaches and players deal with being not just in a new city but in Vegas — there’s huge potential for drama there. Especially since the team won’t make the playoffs next year.
Final verdict: No harm in waiting.
Last year, much of the offseason buzz surrounded the promising quarterback who left New England in a blaze of drama, but it died down quickly when Jimmy G tore his ACL and was out for the season. Now that Garoppolo’s getting ready to return to the field, the 49ers make an incredibly compelling case to be featured on Hard Knocks this preseason. From the gossip surrounding Garoppolo’s dating life and Richard Sherman’s constant entertainment to coach Kyle Shanahan at the helm, creating a relevant jumping-off point for a conversation about the league’s young head coaches, there are several degrees of hope, humor and intrigue in San Francisco.
Final verdict: Everyone’s been saying this year is the Raiders’ year, but I beg to differ. Set up shop in San Francisco, Hard Knocks, because this team has a narrative and a timeline best suited for some really great reality television. This is the year. 49ers or bust.
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