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‘Hard Knocks’ Episode 4 Recap: “Knock on Wood If You’re With Me”

The penultimate episode of the HBO miniseries saw the Raiders take a field trip to Winnipeg for a preseason game that did not go well. As for Antonio Brown, well, your guess is as good as anyone’s.  

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

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 voiceover intones, “but every August football comes to wine country.” And how!

So you are wondering, yes, about Antonio Brown.

A short list of other people who have wondered about Antonio Brown this preseason: head coach Jon Gruden, general manager Mike Mayock, starting quarterback Derek Carr, you, me. Maybe even Antonio Brown himself?

First, the reason he wasn’t playing with his new team was frostbite. Then it was his helmet, and then it was frostbite and also his helmet. As of Tuesday, the penultimate episode of this season’s Hard Knocks, it was, um, still frostbite and maybe also still his helmet. As recently as Sunday, Brown was continuing to fight the good (???) fight over his love for his bad helmet: He petitioned the NFL to keep using it, again, and was denied, again.

The last we heard, per Pro Football Talk, was that Brown was “close to picking a new helmet, and his decision will include a custom-made model and an endorsement deal.” Well, that will surely convince everyone that the helmet hang-ups were legitimate!

Lest you worry about the fate of the prickly wide receiver—who, by the way, was never friends with Ben Roethlisberger, not ever; now DEREK is my best friend, he’ll have you know—well, Hard Knocks is here to sing you a song. Much of the plot of this episode seemed to revolve around showing that, actually, people love A.B. For instance: the cheering crowd at a high school game that he visits, and the kids who write him fan mail, even though they are Seahawks fans, if you can believe it. Such is A.B.’s magnetism. But if you didn’t get that, let the man tell you himself: “People don’t hate A.B.,” quoth A.B. “They actually love me.”

As my colleague Danny Heifetz suggested last week, it’s entirely possible that the Raiders have been exercising some degree of censorship over this season of Hard Knocks, as all the teams the NFL turns to for the preseason semi-docuseries, semi-promo-vehicle are entitled to. Which, on the one hand, would suggest that this season’s inability to deal with much of anything in the way of news or meaningful story lines isn’t the NFL’s fault. On the other hand, it is, because the NFL arranged this whole shebang in the first place.

Which puts the show in a tough spot, particularly when it comes to Brown. The narrative seems to be building up to the idea that the season’s final episode will offer, at last, some payoff—presumably in the form of Brown finally taking the field. We learned that he’s two weeks out from being cleared to play, so we’ll see whether that actually happens before the regular season, but it seems clear that the show’s producers view this as a narrative arc: The prince wandered, saw the horrors of the outside world, sat for a while beneath the Bodhi tree, and then, er, went back to the palace, and all was well. Or something. We are meant to think, apparently, that his feet are nearly healed, that his helmet recalcitrance has nearly faded, and that, on the eve of the regular season, his Raiders tenure is nigh. It might be, or it might not, and the reasons might be good ones, or they might not. But Hard Knocks has chosen this season to tell us a story instead of the news, so we had all better hope it’s one that actually has an ending.

O Canada

Watching the Raiders’ preseason game in Winnipeg against the Packers loom closer and closer was a lot like watching the kids play at the beach in Jaws. If you paid any attention to the debacle, you know some of what happened—namely, the field was in such grubby condition due to badly patched goalpost holes that both teams opted to withhold many of their starters for fear of injury, and attendance was laughable. But as our fellas sweated and schemed in wine country, they did not yet know what awaited them.

Sure enough, the thing was a mess—though it was all worth it, kind of, to watch Gruden stew, sardonically congratulating the referees on their “great field,” which ultimately led to the teams playing on a shortened, 80-yard field to avoid the problem areas.

This Week in Jon Gruden

We got a mashup of a cherished Grudenism this week: “Knock on wood if you’re with me,” he repeatedly exhorted his players, who then pound their support of their coach’s sage maxims ranging from not pulling on teammates’ jerseys to not cutting their pants. (An apparently pervasive problem?)

Chiefly, though, the coach shined in his so-angry-I’m-smiling rage north of the border; “I’m sure the league office will consider cancelling kickoffs now,” he straight-facedly told the refs of playing successfully in a kickoff-less game.

So, Did Gruden Cut Derek Carr?

OK, OK, a joke. But also … kind of not totally joke? The preseason opened with Gruden’s profuse praise of Nathan Peterman, and in Winnipeg, we saw Peterman, um, shine. I think. In any case, it was enough to knock Gruden out of his bad mood: “You made some great throws, man,” he tells the quarterback, before going even further. “Proud of you, Nate,” he says as he walks away. Watch your back, Carr.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.