We’re just hours away from the season premiere of HBO’s Hard Knocks – the show that takes the startling violence, shocking profanity and sporadic nudity of Game of Thrones to NFL training camp – and I couldn’t be more excited.
This year, we head down south to Atlanta, where the playas (and the Falcons) play. The Dirty Birds have an ensemble cast that rivals any P.T. Anderson picture, headlined by superstars Roddy White, Steven Jackson, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, and bolstered by the likes of Sons of Anarchy extra Tyler Starr, stoic head coach Mike Smith and mustachioed owner Arthur Blank. Someone in this group is getting a damn Emmy nom.
Then, there’s the warm story lines we’ve grown accustomed to over the years: a team in search of redemption, an undrafted rookie who is totally destined for failure and a grizzled vet who’s out to prove he still has what it takes to get the job done (but never does). And finally, we have the grandest tradition of them all –witnessing horrible quarterbacks fight for their rightful spot on the roster. This year’s contenders? T.J. Yates, Sean Renfree and Jeff Mathews. That’s more depressing than The Leftovers.
In short, this could be a season for the ages. To prepare our hearts and minds, let’s look back at the history of Hard Knocks, all the guts, glory and goddamn snacks from the greatest show on TV.
2001: Baltimore Ravens
Breakout Star: HEEEEAAAP
Key Scene: Anything with Shannon Sharpe
The inaugural season of Hard Knocks was the ideal scenario for both HBO and NFL fans alike. We were given an intimate look at the defending Super Bowl champions as they trudged through training camp, hoping to make their way back to the big game. On top of that, we had charismatic veterans Shannon Sharpe and Tony Siragusa, both of whom obviously saw this as an opportunity to audition for future television gigs. There was humble “I hope it works out for him” rookie Todd Heap (Spoiler: totally worked out) and a (sexy?) supporting turn from QB Elvis Grbac. Combine all that with Ray Lewis, Rod Woodson, rookie hazing, Todd Heap’s girlfriend, players getting cut, Brian Billick being Brian Billick and our first real look into an NFL training camp, and you had compelling TV indeed.
2002: Dallas Cowboys
Breakout Stars: Roy Williams, Chad Hutchinson
Key Scene: Chad Hutchinson and Richmond Flowers sing “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”
The second season was a little less-than-ideal for HBO. They traded in the “Super Bowl champs looking for a repeat” story for the “Good ol’ Dallas Cowboys in search of the glory days” trope. And to make matters worse, we had to watch them pretend they could do it with Quincy Carter as their starting QB. Just brutal. Despite all that, there were some entertaining tidbits that made this season worthwhile, like veteran Emmitt Smith chasing the all-time rushing record, Joe Avezzano dropping F-bombs like a champion, Judy Trammell as the villainous Cowboys cheerleading coach, the blossoming friendship between Flowers and Hutchinson and a kickass new theme song: “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi.
2007: Kansas City Chiefs
Breakout Stars: Paul Rudd, Dwayne Bowe
Key Scene: Bernard Pollard pops it.
After a five-year hiatus, Hard Knocks came roaring back, this time with the Kansas City Chiefs. This season gave us comeback stories with Priest Holmes, contract holdouts with Larry Johnson and Dwayne Bowe, the introduction of Arena Football star Bobby Sippio, and the wonderful rookie bromance between Tank and Turk. Not to mention this is the first (and only) season not to be narrated by Liev Schreiber, as HBO turned the reins over to KC native Paul Rudd. Kansas City did manage to stick to the one Hard Knocks story line that no team can shake – the battle between two god-awful quarterbacks with Damon Huard and Brodie Croyle.
2008: Dallas Cowboys
Breakout Stars: Martellus Bennett
Key Scene: Pacman Jones can’t not catch a punt and Wade Phillips is giddy about it.
Get your popcorn ready because the Super Bowl-bound (not really) Dallas Cowboys are back to bring us the most Kardashian-like season of Hard Knocks ever. What the ‘Boys lacked in intriguing story lines they more than made up for in character-driven performances from the likes of Terrell Owens, Pacman Jones (and his reinstatement), Tank Johnson, Magic Johnson, DeMarcus Ware (and his heartwarming daughter), Roy Williams, MRS. PRICE, Tony Romo (J. Simpson version) and the ever-present/soul-sucking Jerry Jones. Also, there was Phillips, whose coaching style was this close to forcing HBO to change the title to Soft & Cuddly Knocks.
2009: The Cincinnati Bengals
Breakout Star: Chad Ochocinco
Key Scenes: A conversation about personal hygiene with Carson Palmer
Next up, it’s the no-good-to-very-bad Bengals (who wound up being pretty good). This season was rich in story lines, such as Carson Palmer’s return from injury, the contract holdout of the slightly overweight Andre Smith, and the ups-and-downs of rookie tight end Chase Coffman. As entertaining as those things were, they paled in comparison to many musings of Chad Ochocinco. It’s hard to pick a favorite Ochocinco moment but it’s probably when Chad explained that Romo and Simpson broke up because she bought him a boat…or Chad’s love affair with McDonald’s…or Chad’s advice on how to get a girl (borrow her cell phone, secretly dial your own number, then text her later)…or Chad claiming he only dropped two passes the entire season…or Chad teaching us that “Child, Please” is his nice way of saying “Fuck You.” He should get a Lifetime Achievement Award or something.
2010: New York Jets
Breakout Stars: Danny Woodhead, Peak Rex
Key Scenes: Anything involving Rex Ryan, Antonio Cromartie attempting to name all of his children.
In football, praise and blame falls equally on the head coach. So allow me to stand and applaud Rex Ryan for leading his men into one of the finest, most entertaining seasons in Hard Knocks history. Rex was Peak Rex, long before he learned about the consequences of saying nonsensical things out loud. This season was highlight HEAVY, led by Rex’s famous “Let’s Go Eat a Goddamn Snack” and the amazing King Ugly Competition. Other highlights included Danny Woodhead’s battle to make the squad, Mark Sanchez’s adjustment to being the face of a franchise (hilarious in hindsight), the contract negations with Darrelle Revis, and everything involving Rex. Lastly, I’ll never forget where I was when I first witnessed Antonio Cromartie attempting to name all of his children in front of a camera. God bless this show.
2012: Miami Dolphins
Breakout Stars: Ryan Tannehill. Or his wife.
Key Scenes: Tannehill and those divisions.
After skipping 2011 camp (stupid lockout), Hard Knocks returned with a Miami season that carried the ‘Bad QB Torch’ with a three-way battle between the injury-ridden David Garrard, Matt Moore and rookie Ryan Tannehill. This season also gave us “Mr. 7-Eleven” himself, Chris Hogan (ALWAYS OPEN). As for the rest of the season, it was basically like watching Game of Thrones. All the characters we grew to know and love were eventually given the axe. You had Vontae Davis, sadly cut due to injury, and former NCAA basketball player Les Brown, cut due to under performance. And once again, Chad (not “Ochocinco” anymore) Johnson, who worked his magic with lines like “If you pause Call of Duty for somebody, that’s the fucking one” – in reference to his wife. Eventually Johnson was let go, too, due to criminal activity. That’s the last we’ll see of Chad Johnson as a featured player on Hard Knocks…or is it?
2013: Cincinnati Bengals
Breakout Stars: Margus Hunt
Key Scenes: James Harrison showing the love.
And for our last season we head back to Cincinnati, where Andy Dalton sports a rubber wedding band and James Harrison is probably flipping you off. In all seriousness, Harrison should be considered for the Hall of Fame based on this performance alone. Witnessing his hatred for the camera crew – and, really, every living thing on earth – is something you’ll tell your grandkids about one day. Other highlights include position battles across the board, Vontaze Burfict, who destroys windshields and is not “scared of your bitch-ass,” Estonian defensive end Margus Hunt adjusting to the American locker-room and Aaron Maybin, who has a real talent for football painting. How did Harrison not physically eat this kid?