Many (including me) think the Jets broke the Hard Knocks mold in 2010, and that every year since then the show has been trying to live up to something that won’t be recaptured until another Rex Ryan-coached team enters the spotlight again.
Before the Texans were selected as this year’s Hard Knocks guinea pig, Ryan danced around the possibility for doing in his first year with the Bills what he did in his second year with the Jets. Maybe he was being uncharacteristically coy. Or maybe he now realizes that his team didn’t really benefit from the assignment.
As the Texans prepare for the first episode of their turn under the Hard Knocks microscope, that’s the biggest question: Does it really help?
The Dolphins thought it would help. And it didn’t.
“When I see Bill Belichick allowing the Hard Knocks cameras into his organization, then I’ll believe the experience might be a good thing for the team,” Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald tells Richard Deitsch of SI.com. “I do not think it serves the teams and I do not think it helped the Dolphins. Indeed, it made multiple players upset with coaches when they heard how some coaches spoke about them in private. It created some embarrassment for the players and fostered some distrust of the coaches. This from what players told me.”
It also didn’t help the Dolphins from a strategic standpoint, given that one opponent said he picked up the Miami snap count from watching the show. That opponent’s name is J.J. Watt, whose Texans will risk having their snap count picked up by opponents who watch this year’s show.
The late Steve Sabol, who like his father, Ed, should be in the Hall of Fame, routinely defended the Hard Knocks approach by pointing out that former Packers coach Vince Lombardi loved it when cameras were at practice, because it made his guys go at it harder. Steve Sabol said on many occasions that Lombardi would direct the NFL Films crews to pretend they were shooting practice even when the cameras didn’t have film in them.
But it’s one thing for a snippet or a sound bite to be edited into a broader package that would show up weeks if not months after the fact through a rabbit-eared TV set that had no way to record the information. Today, every frame and every can be captured and dissected.
From the perspective of fans, the scenes that get dissected the most involve the termination of a player’s employment. During the otherwise forgettable 2012 version of the show, the only memorable moments involved coach Joe Philbin cutting receiver Chad Ochocinco and G.M. Jeff Ireland telling cornerback Vontae Davis he’d been traded to the Colts.
The following May, Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league wants to make the process of cutting players more “humane.” The best place to start would be to not put those moments on HBO every year.
That’s why some teams will never do it, at least not willingly. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said in 2013 that he’d fight a Hard Knocks assignment “tooth and nail.”
“I think it’s a total distraction, and I think it’s an embarrassment to players,” Arians said at the time. “I think when players are released, some of the things that are said between coaches and players are too personal, and nobody else’s business.”
There’s another potential drawback that I hadn’t previously considered. The special access given to Hard Knocks potentially undermines the important relationship between the team and the non-league-or-team-owned media that covers it.
“I’ve watched every Hard Knocks for the exact reason I didn’t want the series showing the team I cover: They get access I don’t, so they get storylines I don’t get,” John McClain of the Houston Chronicle tells Deitsch. “They get information I don’t have a chance to get before they do. As a reporter, I don’t like it when anybody gets something I don’t have, but Hard Knocks gets access that isn’t fair to media who cover a team. . . . The Hard Knocks impact is behind the scenes, when the cameras shoot injuries and players being released. That’s where Hard Knocks will impact my job, and I won’t know it until I watch the series, which I would never miss, anyway. Watching in the past, I’ve always felt bad for the media who regularly cover the team.”
I’ve always felt bad for the players who have no say at all in the assignment, but who are the ones most directly affected by it. They’re trying to work, to compete, to earn a job or to keep a job. And they all have to deal with the presence of cameras and microphones that capture everything they do and say — and that capture everything said about them or done to them.
And even though the team has final say over what gets aired, there’s always a chance the team will make things even worse for a player by not removing an embarrassing exchange — like when former (and now current again) Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie had trouble rattling off the names of his children.
So, no, it’s not a benefit for teams. But with the NFL making a long-term commitment to the project, it doesn’t matter whether the teams like it. If the arrangement lasts long enough, they’ll all eventually have to do it.