If HBO’s Hard Knocks serves as the symbolic commencement of each and every football season in the modern era, as seems self-evident by this point, then there are worse images to open with than that of a pumped-up J.J. Watt dodging a tackling dummy in the gloaming of a sweltering Houston evening, and then (for reasons I cannot discern) catching footballs with one hand as they’re launched from a machine.
The whole point of Hard Knocks (which replays Wednesday at 11 p.m.ET/PT) is to get us impossibly excited for the football season to come. It’s essentially an NFL summer camp infomercial. And so it was no surprise, I suppose, that after last night’s opening episode, Watt – the Houston Texans’ impossibly biceptual defensive lineman – seems poised to be the star of television’s most compelling and profane and testosterone-larded soap opera miniseries. The dude is arguably the best player in the NFL, and he is built like a Greek statue, if Greek statues happened to have casual access to thousand-pound rubber tires.
Watt’s chronicle of his progression from being able to flip said wheel once to being able to toss it about 65 times is the kind of hyper-macho absurdity we’ve come to expect from Hard Knocks. But fortunately, it didn’t end there, for the first hour of Hard Knocks offered all of the clichés we’ve come to expect.
There was the Head Coach With Something to Prove in Bill O’Brien, the ex-Patriots offensive coordinator whose hardheaded will rescued Penn State from further ignominy in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The episode opened with O’Brien reminding his staff that no one took the Texans seriously as a franchise, which isn’t far from the truth; it portrayed the coach as a semi-regular dude who appears to genuinely give a shit, and who has a soft spot for the stylings of Rick Ross.
There was the Rookie With Something to Prove, in first-round pick Kevin Johnson, a cornerback with genuine talent whose sister also happens to be a Baltimore Ravens cheerleader. And there was the Veteran With Something to Prove, in Vince Wilfork, who played the past 11 years with the New England Patriots before defecting to Houston, where he was immediately linked metaphorically to an elephant, and then wound up proving himself to have an outside shot like Stephen Curry during a pickup basketball game.
But it didn’t end there. Already, the Texans are facing the sort of adversity that proves that they have something to prove: While there was no dramatic moment of impact, we heard O’Brien’s reaction when his star running back (and star atheist), Arian Foster, went down with a groin injury that proved to be overarchingly serious. And we heard profanity on all fronts: From Mike Vrabel, the former Patriots star who is now the Texans’ linebackers coach and appears poised to become the Foul-Mouthed Assistant Coach Who Elevates Himself to Stardom; from Romeo Crennel, another former New England assistant-turned-failed head coach who is now the defensive coordinator under O’Brien; and from Watt himself, who so effortlessly schools the Redskins during a joint practice that he seems almost embarrassed by what he’s done.
What makes Hard Knocks great is that it reminds us of pro football’s inherent contradictions; it is an insane pastime, presided over by wealthy men. “Imagine if you had to get up and truly work every day,” Vrabel says at one point, and there is no greater reminder of this frivolity than the brief footage of a dinner at the governor’s mansion in Virginia, where Texans owner Bob McNair uncomfortably hobnobs with both Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe and Redskins owner/bridge troll Daniel Snyder. Not long after that scene, the Redskins and Texans get into a fight during practice over something terribly stupid, which is just another reminder of how much we’ve missed the dramatic distractions of a sport that embraces cliché with a uniquely American aplomb.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb