Hard Knocks is back for another NFL training camp, premiering on Tuesday night with an inside look at the Miami Dolphins, and the HBO reality show delivered what it always has: Behind-the-scenes access and insight that’s uncommon even in the NFL, where fans have an insatiable appetite for information and no end of outlets providing nonstop news coverage.
The reason Hard Knocks works, in fact, is that it isn’t really about the news but about the people. Any fan could have checked the transactions and learned that the Dolphins had cut guard Derek Dennis and signed guard Eric Steinbach. But Hard Knocks gave us a taste for what Dennis was feeling as his NFL dreams were dealt a crushing blow, and also gave us a taste for the personality of Steinbach, who said after his workout, “All I need now is a cold tub and a cigarette and I’m good.”
The three-man quarterback competition among first-round draft pick Ryan Tannehill, free agent addition David Garrard and last year’s starter Matt Moore will obviously be a major part of Hard Knocks, but the first episode dealt more with Tannehill’s contract negotiations. Tannehill’s holdout was presented as so worrisome that we hear the team’s chief contract negotiator, Dawn Aponte, telling coach Joe Philbin that it had reached the point where Tannehill may sit out the entire 2012 season and enter the 2013 NFL draft. (Although that’s always the worst- case scenario in every negotiation with every rookie, it’s highly unlikely that either side ever thought there was a real chance that was going to happen with Tannehill.)
The players’ wives are also a big part of the show. All three of the entrants in the Dolphins’ quarterback competition are married to attractive blondes, and then there was the wife of Chad Johnson, who is heard saying of her husband, “We met on Twitter and he was being his dickhead self.” For his part, Johnson informed the audience that he didn’t have sex for the entire season he spent with the Patriots. (Later, Philbin was shown lecturing Johnson about watching his language when talking to the media.)
But while the players’ off-field personalities and romantic relationships may bring in a broader audience, for football fans the most interesting parts are the candid assessments of the players’ on-field performances. One of the best such moments was an assistant coach saying of tight end Les Brown, “He is a complete liability at pass pro and run block.” And recent reports that cornerback Vontae Davis had fallen out of favor in Miami were bolstered by the evidence on display in Hard Knocks: Davis could be heard complaining that he was tired during a practice, and at another point Philbin got on Davis’s case for taking a bathroom break.
That raises the possibility that both Brown and Davis may be looking for work by the end of training camp. One of the best parts of Hard Knocks every year is (let’s face it) seeing guys get cut. It’s not pleasant, but it’s fascinating to watch. There will be plenty of that on Hard Knocks in the weeks ahead, and the season premiere suggests that it will be, as always, compelling television.