Like the rest of the sports world, the fourth episode of Hard Knocks was upended by last week's police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. The episode was bookended by frank, direct and often emotionally raw team discussions about larger issues of systemic racism and police brutality, and how the Rams and Chargers can utilize their platforms to bring about positive change.
In between, the teams continued their preparations for the 2020 campaign. Some roster cuts were made, while Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert experienced some more growing pains. Meanwhile, other rookies stood out among a large field of youngsters vying for playing time, and the Chargers finally made their way to brand-new SoFi Stadium.
Jacob Blake Shooting Alters Gameplan
Given how the Jacob Blake shooting rocked the NBA, MLB, and every other sports league currently in season, it should come as no surprise that the topic was on top of mind for Rams and Chargers players. For the Rams, the team's leadership group held a meeting before practice to discuss their views and feelings about what happened, with several Rams veterans weighing in. For the Chargers, their team meeting occurred during what was supposed to be their first scrimmage inside SoFi Stadium.
Before the scrimmage began, quarterback Tyrod Taylor called every player on the field back to the locker room, where head coach Anthony Lynn opened the floor for players, coaches and staff to say what was on their minds. A handful of people were shown speaking before the room, including special teams coordinator and assistant head coach George Stewart, who's coached in the league for 32 years and experienced racism firsthand growing up in Arkansas. Among the topics he discussed was Colin Kaepernick, using him as an example of taking action and standing up for one's beliefs, despite the consequences:
Several other members stood up and spoke, with voices often breaking in emotion, showing frustration and pain. In the end, Lynn made the decision to cancel the team's scrimmage, urging the group to use their time and platforms to make practical change within the community.
“I think Coach made the right decision," Taylor said afterward. "It was an uncomfortable conversation but it was definitely necessary...We don’t have the answers today, and I can’t promise you we’ll have the answers tomorrow, but I will say this locker room will continue to keep taking the right approach, and it starts within our community.”
After the scrimmage was called off, players and coaches spoke with the media on hand about the decision. Above, SoFi Stadium's new Oculus video board displayed a couple messages: "“I’m not sad, I don’t want your pity. I want change," which is what Blake's sister, Letetra Widman, said after his shooting. And a simple statement on behalf of the team: "Enough!!"
Justin Herbert's Ups and Downs
Herbert's been a frequent focal point this season, and what the cameras have shown have encapsulated the typical roller coaster ride for an upstart rookie quarterback: undeniable physical gifts beaming with potential, often to be undone by inexperience and mental errors.
Tuesday's episode featured plenty of both, but first the latter. Herbert was shown fumbling his words while calling a play in the huddle—something he wasn't asked to do much of while playing in Oregon's no-huddle offense in college. He was also sacked several times in a lowlights mash-up, prompting the following frank assessment of his speed by quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton:
“There’s a good chance, in a very respectful way, that everybody on the defense, except for the nose guard, is at least as fast as you," Hamilton said.
Herbert might not win many footraces, but he won't have to in order to enjoy success at the professional level. Later on in the episode, Herbert bounced back, slinging darts all over the field and drawing praise from teammates and coaches. His ability to elude the rush even earned praise from his head coach when Lynn exclaimed, "We've got a mobile quarterback!"
Lesson learned for Herbert: In this league, your circumstances can changes that quickly.
Herbert gets the most attention as a top-10 pick, but plenty of others have stood out in camp thus far. For the Rams, wideout Van Jefferson has drawn early praise.
The second-round pick never had a standout season in college, but instead was consistently productive. In four years (two apiece at Ole Miss and Florida), Jefferson amassed 2,159 yards and 16 touchdowns, notching at least 35 catches and 450 yards each season. His size, crisp routes and NFL pedigree (his father played in the league for 13 years) in particular have his coaches excited for what's to come.
For the Chargers, undrafted defensive tackle Breiden Fehoko out of LSU has already made a name for himself. He constantly asks questions of his veteran teammates to try and improve, and his energy and physicality have emerged as positive traits. After one practice, Fehoko demonstrated the Haka dance for the team, something he routinely did during his college career. If he maintains his current production, he'll get the opportunity to do it again on an NFL field.
- Lynn led the Chargers running backs in a hurdling drill in which he stacked bags on top of each other to see who could clear the most. Austin Ekeler defended his title from last year's camp by clearing five bags yet again, which Lynn described as "LT territory" in reference to Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson.
- After a particularly rough stretch for Herbert, he recalled Chargers defensive players heckling him with jeers like, "This isn't Washington State!" Herbert went 1-2 in his career against Washington State, though only one loss came as a starter, and he didn't throw a single interception against the Cougars. Perhaps a better school choice would have been Arizona State, who beat Oregon each of the past two seasons and picked Herbert off four times.
- During the end credits of each Hard Knocks episode, the show typically features innocuous, humorous moments that were caught on camera. Instead, this week's end credits features a list of charities supported by the Chargers, Rams and NFL. They were: Brotherhood Crusade (Chargers), Liberty Hill Foundation (Chargers), LA Promise Fund (Rams), A Place Called Home (Rams), Anti-Recidivism Coalition (NFL), Community Justice Exchange (NFL) and Rise (NFL).