Did you know the NFL put a rule in place to force teams to appear on Hard Knocks? You see, everybody likes watching a TV show about an NFL team’s training camp, but no NFL team wants to let a bunch of cameras film every moment of every meeting and practice and subject their players to even more interviews and media responsibilities. So there’s a formula: If you’ve appeared on the show in the last decade, or if you have just hired a new head coach, or if you’ve made the playoffs in the past two seasons, you don’t have to participate. (You thought all these years teams were trying to get in the playoffs because they wanted to win the Super Bowl. No: They just wanted a Hard Knocks exemption.)
That left only a few eligible teams for Season 13. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were one of them, and, really, this is an ideal time for the Bucs to be the focus of a show. After roughly 15 years of irrelevance, they seem poised to strike thanks to the emergence of quarterback Jameis Winston and a crop of young talent around him. And since he’s going to be the team’s best player as they become a legitimate contender, the Buccaneers would probably appreciate it if he got a little extra face time with the country so that the first thing we think when we hear “Jameis Winston” is “good, smiley, likable football player” and not … anything else about Jameis Winston. (Last year he settled two federal lawsuits with a woman who accused of him of raping her in 2012, while both were Florida State students. Winston was never prosecuted, and he has denied the accusation.) The show opens with a display of Winston’s humor and humanity, an MTV Cribs–style tour of his childhood home in Bessemer, Alabama, including where he slept, and where he peed and drank water when he was outside, two locations that he admits were probably too close to each other:
He also shows us a cockroach that he believes is giving birth, but is possibly mating:
Jameis Winston has already made Hard Knocks incredible. pic.twitter.com/wYSJAXgL0G— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) August 9, 2017
The first episode closes with a display of Winston’s dedication, showing him waking up at 5:30 a.m., eating by himself, arriving at the team locker room by himself, praying by himself, and lifting weights by himself.
In between, Winston leads a camp for children, singling out the lone girl attendee as a model of leadership; he is praised endlessly by his teammates; he is grilled for the smallest mistakes by coaches. The episode is an effective snapshot of life for the face of an NFL franchise. But it’s not just a show about what it’s like when you’re the face of a franchise—it’s a living example. Hard Knocks is the show the NFL will make you appear on when you are the face of a franchise.
Some other things from the first episode of Hard Knocks:
- I know every team does it, but I will never stop being entertained by rookies being forced to sing at training camp. Undrafted linebacker Riley Bullough—one of the Michigan State Bulloughs—stole the show with a hauntingly beautiful rendition of “679” by Fetty Wap. (Jameis loved it.)
Bullough was the focus of another part of the episode, with coach Koetter singling him out for his leadership even though he’s just the team’s middle linebacker. Bullough has hustle and grit and all that stuff football people get excited about. As he runs through a blocking sled, he screams “FUCK YOU” at the blocking sled.
Blocking sleds are inanimate.
But back to the singing. Quebecois tight end Antony Auclair sang “O Canada” in French, which is also called “O Canada.” And for all the bad performers, Doug Martin displayed a spot-on impersonation of the Sandman from the Apollo Theater.
- There should probably be a show entirely about Gerald McCoy, who shows up to training camp like this because he went to Japan in the offseason:
McCoy accidentally sacks Winston in a drill where Winston was wearing a no-contact jersey. I always wondered what happened when defensive players mess this up; apparently the answer is “profuse and immediate apology.” (“They’re gonna trade me!” McCoy yells.)
- Jon Gruden shows up. Many often speculate about whether the ESPN commentator is interested in getting back into coaching, and now we have our answer: Gruden is already back into coaching, he just isn’t getting paid for it and nobody is asking him to do it. I get the sense that at any given time, Gruden is at a training camp somewhere in America yelling unwanted advice at some random player. “Anytime you need me, I’m right up the road,” he shouts into a QB meeting. When the door closes, head coach Dirk Koetter says, “You think he misses ball?”
- Ryan Fitzpatrick has to be the only Harvard grad in the world with a Yeti Coolers hat:
- The show really wants to highlight that DeSean Jackson is a big star, which it does by displaying a cameo of Jackson in Ballers where he interacts with the Rock. The episode also closes with a supercut of players discussing Game of Thrones.
I am sure that conversation about another HBO show started organically.
- While we’re talking about Jackson, I’d like to praise his accessory game. He has an emoji sleeve:
And NBA socks:
You might ask why an NFL player is wearing NBA socks. Wanna find out? Get your hands on a pair of socks NBA players wear. They’re so comfortable.
- Jackson teaches his kid how to catch footballs while falling into a pool. “One hand like Odell!” he advises his kid. Personally, I’d only show my children my own highlight tape if I was an NFL player, even if I was extremely bad.
- The Buccaneers are constructing a new practice facility, and for some reason, the team’s brain trust is excited by the act of construction. GM Jason Licht muses at how skillful the workers seem to be, while special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor uses the construction site as an extended metaphor in a speech about the importance of each player doing their job. “If the guy pouring the cement doesn't do a great job, the guy putting the metal to it, it affects his job! They need to get that building done to reach their goals!" It’s possible they’ve never seen anybody build anything before.
- Linebacker Kwon Alexander describes the inspiration for his new hair color as “Flamin’ Hot Cheetos”:
A good teammate would dye his hair like Takis to provide a perfect one-two punch. Instead, Jameis Winston expresses his preference for Flamin’ Hot Funyuns.
- The episode features a mini-profile of rookie running back Jeremy McNichols, who FaceTimes Snoop Dogg for advice.
Snoop Dogg’s youth football league has now produced a slew of NFL players, and all of them seem to count on Snoop himself for advice. Snoop lives exactly the type of famous-person life I would want to live if I were famous.
- The best part of the episode, though, is a nice Marriott hotel employee patiently explaining to Jameis Winston how he can accumulate extra Marriott points by declining housekeeping service. Winston is a millionaire who is excited by the prospect of earning those 500 extra points a day.
A new thing we know about Jameis Winston: TONS of Marriott points, extremely messy hotel room.
HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.