The Raiders have one more season to play in Oakland before they disembark for Las Vegas. This year, HBO’s Hard Knocks is following the Raiders through their preseason training camp, and we’ll be breaking down each episode. “There’s no whining in football,” the voice-over intones, “but every August football comes to wine country.” And how!
Not even Hard Knocks can keep up with the swirling winds of the Antonio Brown helmet drama. Episode 3 figured to be spectacular after the Hard Knocks cameras chased the eye of one of the NFL’s strangest storms the past week and a half. In that span, Antonio Brown had his helmet saga revealed, lost his grievance to wear the helmet, tweeted he would swap a signed helmet for a newer version of the helmet he wants to wear, returned to practice for the Raiders, learned his helmet loophole had been rejected, stopped practicing, filed a second grievance against the NFL, and got publicly chewed out by general manager Mike Mayock.
“It is time to be all in or all out,” Mayock said.
That seems impossible for the people producing Hard Knocks. Whether because Brown’s story is moving so fast or the Raiders are flexing their muscle over HBO’s editorial choices, the show has not revealed the depths that it is capable of regarding helmetgate. There was no revealing footage of the possibly homemade paint-job helmet Brown reportedly tried to wear earlier this month, and there weren’t any boiling frustrations between head coach Jon Gruden and Brown. Instead, this episode focused on the good vibes Brown shared with Gruden in the handful of days between when Brown thought he could wear his helmet (August 13) and learned he couldn’t (August 17). We don’t have many answers after Tuesday or satisfying reveals, but we do have plenty of funny anecdotes.
Antonio Brown Is Like MJ, Sort Of
Hard Knocks introduced Brown’s return to Raiders training camp the same way Space Jam introduced Michael Jordan to the Tune Squad.
A bunch of players doing silly warm-ups are interrupted by a dramatic entrance that says, “Look who’s finally ready to play.” A slow-motion shot pans from Brown’s ludicrously expensive shoes to a faint smile, and then Brown spends the rest of practice dunking on his teammates while everyone watches starry-eyed and R&B music plays. The only difference between that Space Jam scene and Brown’s introduction in Hard Knocks is that tight end Luke Willson’s calves are frailer than Daffy Duck’s.
Brown even has his version of Michael’s secret stuff. Drinking from a green Gatorade bottle during practice, he can’t focus on anything but how delicious the watermelon-and-berry-flavored sideline concoction one of the assistants conjured for him is.
“This shit is sick,” Brown says. “Keep this shit by the damn cooler.”
The assistant keeps his word, because Brown is on the sideline of the team’s preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals, handing out drinks and telling people it’s his secret concoction, offering it on the rocks.
Everyone who can sidle up to Brown wants to know about how his feet, which were frostbitten from cryotherapy. Problematic guard Richie Incognito continued his newfound friendship with Brown and made some small talk before cutting to the chase.
“What are they doing for your feet?” Incognito asked. “Oils and shit?”
Browns shook his head. “Cut the skin off.”
Brown’s attitude is new skin, new me. “Too much noise right now,” Brown says in a one-on-one with the cameras. “More work, less noise.” (It’s important to note that he would stop practicing a few days after this message.) He adds that he feels like the “enemy of the fucking state.”
The episode ends on a cop-out. Brown’s attempt to exploit a regulation loophole and wear a newer version of his old helmet is blocked, and once again he stops practicing. This story isn’t told through behind-the-scenes footage, but rather through NFL Network clips, a Mike Mayock statement that had already been on social media for two days, and a voice-over explaining that the good vibes we saw of Brown at practice had ended.
The episode does not dive into the substance of Brown’s helmet issues, the potential medical ramifications of him not wearing approved equipment, or any of the rancor between Gruden, Mayock, and Brown—a sharp contrast to the Cleveland Browns’ approach last year on the show when the disconnect between then–head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley was palpable. It’s possible the Raiders are flexing their control over the editorial process more than predecessors: As Peter King wrote in his column this week at Pro Football Talk, “I’ve said this multiple times: Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock do not want any part of Hard Knocks, and because teams have the opportunity to view the prospective show before it airs each week, there’s no question in my mind that the Raiders are being heavy editors.” Perhaps Jackson and Haley both being fired midseason for internal squabbling solidified for Gruden and Mayock that little net good can come from cameras everywhere.
The Hard Knocks producers seemed to offer a mea culpa by leaving us with one gem. At one point during practice, Gruden asks Brown whether his feet hurt.
“When it’s real hot that shit starts to burn, I’ve got to take my shoes off,” Brown says.
“Why don’t you go to a cryochamber?” Gruden asks.
The Duality of Man
In one of the finest pieces of editing in cinematic history, Hard Knocks captures a conversation between tight ends coach Frank Smith and tight end Darren Waller in which Smith is trying to convince Waller to watch Fight Club. Smith explains it is about “the duality of man, the good side and the bad side.” With that, the camera cuts to backup quarterbacks Mike Glennon and Nathan Peterman.
The majestic voice of narrator Liev Schreiber takes over: No. 7 Mike Glennon and no. 3 Nathan Peterman understand the yin and the yang. Light and dark.
Gruden’s demand of Glennon and Peterman to be more assertive on and off the field has been one of the best subplots of the entire series, as Gruden tries to rehabilitate former Bills punch line Peterman.
Yet Gruden is not thrilled with the (lack of) progress that Peterman is making either, and when asked whether he wants Glennon or Peterman to play the majority of their next preseason game, Gruden spends a solid seven seconds making this face:
That is a man staring into the abyss.
Gruden decided to give Glennon more playing time, and the decision eventually bore fruit as he posted 175 yards and two touchdowns in the 33-26 victory. After the game, Gruden addressed the locker room about their coming game against Green Bay in Canada and celebrated Glennon’s performance.
“We’ve got a weird week coming up, but we’re a bunch of weird guys,” Gruden says before he names Glennon the standout performer of the game to cheers from the team. “Mike Glennon’s got some neck, man! We’ve got some neck!”
This is Mike Glennon:
This Week in Jon Gruden
Gruden lets quarterback Derek Carr have the final say at the end of a team meeting, and Carr announces that he has a special guest: Jon Gruden. Gruden is confused. In walks famed impersonator Frank Caliendo, who does his Gruden impersonation in front of the entire team. It’s not the first time the two have been in the same room together.
Caliendo’s Gruden voice is so good it’s not clear whether real or fake Gruden is speaking when the camera isn’t on his face.
“Glennon, love you man,” fake-Gruden says. “We needed a quarterback on the team with a lot of neck, we’ve got a good guy for that.”
On the sideline of their preseason game against Arizona, Raiders linebacker Tahir Whitehead tells rookie safety Johnathan Abram that he gets dry mouth when he wears a mouthguard, which is why he chews gum on the field. Abram (the same guy who insisted “salmon” was pronounced sammon in the premiere) agreed, but said that gum tastes so good he ends up swallowing it. Whitehead tells Abram he can’t swallow gum.
“Man, I swallow all my gum,” Abram says.
Raiders linebacker Vontaze Burfict interjects to say he can only have gum in his mouth for two minutes before he swallows it. Whitehead shakes his head and says that’s like swallowing rubber.
“You shit it out!” Burfict says. He then admits it kind of hurts.
“You’re going to be fucking constipated,” Whitehead says.
“They’re going to get you an enema,” Abram says.
“I don’t even know what that is,” Burfict says.
“That’s like when they take the old folks, and …” Abram says, but he is laughing so hard he cannot finish his sentence. It’s a stomach-churning but heartwarming reminder of what Hard Knocks is all about. Every team has to work through some shit.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.