The idea was broached over dinner in March. Steve Sabol, head of
NFL Films, sat across from an old friend, Baltimore Ravens coach
Brian Billick, and threw out what he figured was a crazy idea:
What if we taped your training camp and made it into an hourlong
weekly TV show? To Sabol's surprise, Billick liked the idea. "I
warned him that we'd need total access," Sabol says. "I said,
'Brian, we'll have cameras right up your ass. We'll mike players;
we'll have robot cameras in your office. We'll be everywhere.'"
Five months later HBO's Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the
Baltimore Ravens, which debuted on Aug. 1, has become a
unique--if not consistently engrossing--experiment in sports
television. Viewers of the four Wednesday-night installments
that had aired through last week (there were two more to come)
saw players getting cut from the team, playing pranks and being
evaluated, often negatively, during closed-door coaches'
meetings. "What these guys are seeing from the coaches' meetings
is stuff they wouldn't usually be privy to," says Rick
Bernstein, executive producer of HBO Sports. "For some players,
it may be too honest."
NFL Films' 23-member crew has been blessed with unexpected drama
during the shooting, including a season-ending injury (torn left
ACL) to star running back Jamal Lewis, and the on-field
discussions and fan backlash surrounding the cancellation of last
week's Ravens-Philadelphia Eagles exhibition game. Even so, and
not discounting the comedy stylings of defensive tackle Tony
Siragusa and tight end Shannon Sharpe, Hard Knocks remains more a
curiosity for sports fans than compelling TV. Though the
production is impressively done and the behind-the-scenes access
must be nirvana for Baltimore faithful, the show lacks the
tension and character development needed to hold the attention of
general viewers. It also lacks an edge. Then again, how probing
can HBO be when the show is produced by a league entity (NFL
Films) and is censored by the Ravens' coach, who gets to watch
each episode before it airs and make cuts? (Billick has asked
that one snip, of a three-second throat-cutting gesture, be
So, while Hard Knocks is worth taking a peek at now, this sort of
training camp diary would get old the second season around. In
other words, here's hoping next fall doesn't bring us Soft Pass
Rush: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals.
sports fans than compelling TV.