The return of Hard Knocks in some ways felt like a small return to normalcy amid abnormal times, a key sign that the return of the NFL is not far off. But this season was always destined to be different from previous iterations, and Tuesday's premiere made that abundantly clear. The typical first-episode talks of roster decisions, offseason storylines and expectations for the coming year were mostly pushed aside for COVID-19 testing, physically distanced practices and social justice discussions.
The season debuted on the same day the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced they were canceling the fall football season, which might not directly impact the NFL, but it's a signal that nothing is a guarantee, even as the scheduled season-opening games on Sept. 10 draws nearer.
Despite all the looming uncertainty, we'll break down the key takeaways from each episode. Here's what we learned from Week 1.
Meet the Coaches
After the opening credits, the episode began in fairly typical fashion with each team's head coach: Chargers coach Anthony Lynn and Rams coach Sean McVay. Lynn and his wife, Stacey Bell, talk over barbecue, while Lynn offers his grilling philosophy.
"I don't mind using gas, but it just doesn't taste as good," Lynn (correctly) says. "Smoking takes a lot longer...I wouldn’t know how to cook a brisket on a gas grill. I need to smoke it for about 14 hours, play dominoes, have a couple pops. That's how we do it back in Dallas."
Lynn and Bell met in Cleveland while Lynn was coaching with the Bengals and Bell worked for a local television station. Lynn says before moving to Cleveland in 2007, he read that it was the worst city in America for single men, perhaps a claim he'd refute now.
McVay hosts the HBO crew at his house in Encino, where he and his fiancée, Veronika Khomyn, live. McVay, clearly antsy being stuck in the house and removed from coaching, has taken to training a new protégé: Kali, the couple's dog.
Watch out, Cooper Kupp—someone's coming for your spot.
Jalen Ramsey Does Not Want to Talk About His Contract
The Rams traded three draft picks (two firsts and a fourth) for Ramsey last season. The three-time Pro Bowler will be a free agent after this season and was unsurprisingly peppered with questions on the topic during a Zoom conference with reporters.
After dodging two questions back-to-back about his contract ("My agent and the front office will handle that"), Ramsey was asked the question a third time before abruptly leaving the room.
He eventually returned but drew a line in the sand to the reporter about the issue before taking any more questions.
Ramsey's explanation appeared to stave off follow-ups for now, but I have a hunch he hasn't heard the last query about his future with the Rams.
Chargers Create an Open Dialogue
This season of Hard Knocks might feature the least amount of coach-speak of any in the show's history. So much of coaching clichés revolve around blocking out distractions, and Lynn characterized recent social justice issues—like police brutality and systemic racism—as off-the-field issues that were impossible to ignore.
"My approach with the team every year is, I look at what could be distractions and I try to eliminate distractions so that you guys can focus on playing football," Lynn said. "There's some things going on in our country right now that we cannot ignore…I'm not gonna tell you 'Let's sweep this under the rug, we'll deal with this s*** when the season’s over.' No, we can't do that. If you are actively involved and passionate about change and being a change, then you do what you have to do. So let's just respect each other."
The cameras captured a group Zoom call in which several Chargers players talked about these issues with Ted Bunch of A Call to Men, a violence prevention organization that deals with issues of manhood and preventing issues of violence against women and girls.
On the call, Chargers longsnapper Cole Mazza expressed conflict over how to feel about kneeling for the national anthem, citing his family's military service. After Bunch clarified that kneeling before the flag was a direct protest against police brutality and not about the military, other Chargers players offered their understanding of Mazza's perspective and supported him should he remain standing while others knelt.
"I think that's the beauty of our country: someone being able to protest for someone, who's also standing for what they believe in," quarterback Tyrod Taylor said. "At the end of the day, it's about having respect for one another."
That's not to say there won't be any coach-speak this season. Lynn at one point called the coronavirus one of his team's two opponents (the other being the Chargers' schedule), and said game planning for both are "equally important." He later conceded that the virus was the tougher foe.
Andrew Vollert Makes His Case
It wouldn't be an episode of Hard Knocks without some first-episode roster cuts. Lynn cut several players over the phone before meeting with tight end Andrew Vollert in person to deliver the bad news. Vollert's response? "You’ve got to be f***ing kidding me."
After encouraging Vollert to stay ready in case the team needs him later this season, Lynn told Chargers general manager Tom Telesco to keep the tight end on the shortlist. "He was pissed off at me," Lynn said, laughing. "I like his fire."
- Dont'e Deayon has been lifting this offseason (and he's not afraid of Aaron Donald):
- Casey Hayward Jr. wasn't a huge fan of having a Q-tip stuck up his nose for his COVID-19 test, but he took it like a champ (while giving off serious Rachel-Green-taking-eyedrops vibes).
- Chargers rookie running back Darius Bradwell to rookie quarterback Justin Herbert after watching him throw: “You got a real nice ball, man. A real nice ball. I’m low-key not used to that, I’m just not used to that. It’s been a long time.” Apologies to Justin McMillan, Bradwell’s quarterback at Tulane the past two seasons.