This third episode of Hard Knocks did a much better job than its predecessors at tackling the biggest storyline surrounding the Oakland Raiders' preseason: Antonio Brown, and his head and feet. The episode centered mainly on Brown’s helmet protest and his back and forth with the league on finding a suitable replacement. Jon Gruden seems to be largely in denial that this is a worthy storyline, or at least can’t fathom why anyone could possibly be interested in why the most famous [and expensive] player on the team has been absent for much of training camp.
“We’ve known the whole time,” Gruden privately tells a Raiders staffer, while taking aggressive bites of a granola bar. “He had frostbite, he took four or five days to get it checked out, and we knew about the grievance since the first day of OTAs, which we did. I don’t know what the story is, the fucking story is around here.”
Gruden’s vow to cuss less is not going well, it seems. He gestures forcefully with his granola bar hand as he continues talking at the Oakland staffer. “We’ve tried everything really, I give the guy credit for standing up for what he believes in. Everybody else does in this country.”
For much of this episode, Gruden appears to be convincing himself to agree with Brown’s point of view. “You gotta love guys who have a lot of energy,” he says, as he stares blankly at Brown warming up in Arizona before the preseason game (he didn’t play).
When Brown makes his dramatic return to Raiders camp, he steps out of his sports car with agent Drew Rosenhaus by his side. “Well we knew it was going to happen, I don’t know why it’s such a big story,” Gruden grumbles when he finds out Brown has returned to Napa.
Brown then greets dozens of Raiders teammates, who all react as if they haven’t seen him in years. He gives out hugs, daps, handshakes, fist bumps. Maybe this is the real reason why he wasn’t in camp, to get an over-the-top welcome reception upon his return as the prodigal son.
Hard Knocks redeemed itself in this episode by showing some of the behind-the-scenes conversations that make the series so unique. Rosenhaus approaches Gruden after practice to discuss Brown’s helmet progress, at this point still thinking they would be able to take advantage of a loophole that would allow Brown to wear a helmet similar to one he wore in the past, as long it was manufactured less than 10 years ago.
“It’s hard,” says Rosenhaus. “Nine years and you kick ass, and you don’t have any injuries. You just—I’m not saying that we handled it the right way, but he’ll kick ass for you and help you win a lot of football games.”
Gruden squints back at Rosenhaus and nods unconvincingly. He fiddles with the cap on his Gatorade bottle. Everything about his body language suggests he’s not buying what the agent is selling.
Back in Napa, Brown gets a long soliloquy, where he looks into the camera and says what every Raiders fan has been thinking. “There’s too much noise right now. More work, less noise.”
But later in the episode, he seems to forget his own advice. While wearing a new helmet to warm up for the preseason game in Arizona, Brown complains to teammates, “This lid ugly as f---.”
Brown remains in Napa long enough to have a tender moment with his hard-shelled coach as they walk off the field. “Thanks for supporting me coach,” he says. “My f---ing head, my feet, people were after me, you’ve been a constant support and I want to thank you for that.”
Gruden responds in the most Football Guy way: “I know you’ve got a lot of people in your ear, because you’re like a corporation that’s kind of gone global,” he says. “At the end of the day, let’s keep this s— simple. Football comes first. Everybody else is f—ing way behind. You know what I’m saying? You’ve handled all that seamlessly, beautifully.”
Shortly after that feel-good moment ends, Brown is gone again the next day, Sunday, after he gets word that the NFL has determined the newer version of his preferred helmet model does not meet safety standards. The episode ends with general manager Mike Mayock’s disgruntled statement on Brown, where he said the receiver needs to be all in or all out. It would have been nice to see some of the behind the scenes on Mayock’s decision to talk to the media that day, because non-scheduled statements like that are extremely uncommon in the NFL, and the strategy behind that would have been fascinating to hear. Gruden is publicly supporting Brown, while Mayock is publicly challenging him. The difficulty for this season of Hard Knocks is keeping up with the whirlwind 24/7 news cycle that is Antonio Brown. It’s impossible for a weekly show to remain up to date, because, as we know now, Brown is back with the Raiders—for now—and he’s filed a helmet grievance against the league.
FINALLY AN UNDERDOG TO ROOT FOR
We also finally got a good underdog to root for in this episode (sorry Nathan Peterman, I’m just not that interested in your quest to become Oakland’s backup). Hard Knocks introduced us to tight end Darren Waller, who the Raiders believe is an underrated player. Oakland picked Waller off Baltimore’s practice squad last season, where he’d spent the first three and half years of his NFL career. "When I was in Baltimore, I was like a vegetable,” he says. “I was getting high literally every day. Whatever I could get my hands on."
Waller has since been clean for two years. He was suspended without pay for the entire 2017 season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, and took that chance to go to rehab and commit himself to staying clean. A feel-good story and definitely a guy who will be over-drafted in fantasy leagues.
• Derek Carr with the most Derek Carr response to finding out Brown was back in Napa: “Oh really? Awesome!”
• Gruden: “Knock on wood if you’re with me, okay?” (at least three times this episode, Raiders players must have some sore knuckles by now. Is Gruden just very superstitious?)
• Gruden with a great diagnosis of why backup quarterback Mike Glennon has struggled in the NFL: “You’re eight feet tall, so they can read your eyes. So that’s all they are doing is reading your eyes.”
• “You’re never going to go broke making a profit, I learned that a long time ago.”
• Antonio Brown: “I feel really good. It’s just when it’s really hot, I’ve gotta take my shoes off.” Gruden: “Why don’t you go to a cryo chamber?”
• Mike Mayock, on Gruden’s rendition of the Happy Birthday song. “Sounded like a bunch of Clemson guys.” [A dig at rookie receiver and Clemson product Hunter Renfrow’s pathetic singing from episode one.]