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!
The most telling moment of the 2019 Hard Knocks season finale arrived late, when Raiders owner Mark Davis escorted cameras into the team’s innermost sanctum: The all-silver-everything lair of the late Al Davis, which his son informs us has been left virtually untouched since Al’s death in 2011. There, Mark provides as much reflection as could be found anywhere in this season of the HBO miniseries: “He didn’t leave an instruction booklet,” he admits. We’re supposed to take this as confidence about the team’s looming 2020 move to Las Vegas, but the prevailing sense is: Well, who the hell knows what’s going on? A mission statement for the season, perhaps.
This Raiders chapter of Hard Knocks was, alas, a drag. For all the seeming intrigue of a team on the precipice—of leaving the city where it was formed, and maybe, just maybe, of success—we got a snoozefest instead. The move to Vegas went all but unaddressed, with exactly no sentimentality expended on the idea of playing one final season in Oakland—and in front of Oakland fans—perhaps because of Davis’s own tense relationship with the city that refused to build him a stadium at the public’s expense. The preseason’s biggest question—what in tarnation is going on with Antonio Brown?—went unresolved: We got scant few details about the foot and helmet issues that have kept him off the field, and the show concluded with the wide receiver still riding the bench for the team’s final tuneup, a loss against the Seahawks.
The show’s attempts to manufacture additional drama in the usual Hard Knocks mold—the heartbreak of a fan favorite getting cut, say, or a quarterback battle—were for naught: None of the would-be charmers ever really got the screentime necessary for investment, and the starting quarterback job still seems to be securely Derek Carr’s.
Absent real drama, Hard Knocks left us to scour the oddities and footballisms—but even those were few and far between. At the very least, let’s hope the Raiders someday find a way to resolve the greatest football mystery of our time: How do you pronounce “salmon”?
This Week in Jon Gruden
At some point we will have to have an honest conversation about Gruden’s hair, but friends, let’s spare ourselves today.
In the meantime, the Hard Knocks season finale showed us Gruden in full kid-in-a-candy-store mode. He rocks out to Metallica! He snidely compliments Seattle’s weather! He chases his one true love, Nate Peter-man, around the field! He is, it seems, eager either for the season to start or for the show to end. Frankly, same.
Heartbreak of the Week
The final week of preseason brings cuts galore as teams trim their 90-man rosters down to 53. Gruden kept four quarterbacks on his final roster, a decision that might make you wonder whether, as Ringer honcho Bill Simmons said on his podcast this week, the head coach has lost his fastball. Who can say? (The number’s now down to a more reasonable three: Nathan Peterman will begin the season on the injured reserve with an elbow injury.)
To watch the final episode of a Hard Knocks season is to know that most every B-roll player getting serious screentime is going to get the ax. And such was the case here, as Brandon Marshall, Jason Cabinda, Luke Willson, Luke Willson’s hair, and Luke Willson’s hair’s conditioner were all sent packing. So too was Keelan Doss, who was positioned as the season’s plucky upstart of choice—a Bay Area native! A person Gruden maybe loved more than his wife! But Doss, an undrafted rookie, had a rough showing during the Seahawks game and alas, that was that. (He’s since signed with the Jaguars practice squad.) “I kinda feel like a piece of shit, but other than that,” says Willson. Fair enough.
OK, but They Have to Have Resolved the Antonio Brown Situation, Right?
Short answer: No. Long answer: Um … no.
In this week’s episode, we finally saw Brown practicing with the team—and in his shiny new helmet to boot. (One teammate remarks that the new rig is “like a Camaro”; “That boy looks like a Power Ranger,” says Keon Hatcher.) But his post-frostbite feet are still a problem, we learn, and so a full season of Hard Knocks came and went without the team’s biggest star and most interesting story line taking a single snap in a game.
Instead, we’re left with the moving revelation that … Brown is working out a lot. See, for instance, the dramatic pool training above, or else the hype video that Brown himself posted this week, “Inside Antonio Brown’s relentless offseason preparation”—apparently a retitled copy of a Raiders.com jam that the team gave the alternative headline “Antonio Brown aims to maximize opportunity with Silver and Black.” It’s not the offseason anymore, after all.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.