We know little about how this NFL season is going to unfold. The NFL still has not released guidelines for how 90 NFL players (not to mention coaches and staff) will be able to report to training camps, which are currently scheduled to start in six weeks. The guidelines the league has released have not been agreed upon by the NFLPA and have been called “humanly impossible” by Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. A number of Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys, including Ezekiel Elliott, have already tested positive with COVID-19. Ten states that cover a third of the league’s teams are seeing record highs for new coronavirus cases per day, and it is unclear how the NFL will resume activities six weeks from now in a manner that will keep players, coaches, and staff safe.
But we do know that Hard Knocks is coming back. The show that gives behind-the-scenes views of NFL training camp will follow not one, but two NFL teams for the same preseason for the first time in its history. The show will feature both Los Angeles teams, the Rams and Chargers, who are set to move into the brand-new SoFi Stadium this season. At $5 billion, SoFi Stadium is the most expensive stadium in NFL history and more than double the second-most expensive. Hard Knocks could be one big infomercial for the project. But it will also chronicle the most uncertain preseason in NFL history. The show is scheduled to air on August 11, but like everything else in life now, whether that will happen as planned is TBD.
How will the coronavirus change training camp?
Everyone wants to know this, including players and coaches. In a conference call with reporters promoting the Hard Knocks announcement, Rams head coach Sean McVay expressed bewilderment.
“We’re gonna social distance, but we play football?” McVay told reporters on Thursday. “It’s really hard for me to understand all this. I don’t get it.”
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN on Thursday that an NFL season was in doubt.
“Unless players are essentially in a bubble—insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day—it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” Fauci said. “If there is a second wave, which is certainly a possibility and which would be complicated by the predictable flu season, football may not happen this year.”
Hard Knocks may be our first view inside that bubble.
Could Colin Kaepernick make an appearance?
Kaepernick’s return to the NFL has been widely speculated since Roger Goodell addressed the topic on Sportscenter earlier this week (after prodding from a number of the league’s most famous players) in which Goodell encouraged teams to sign the former 49ers quarterback. On Wednesday, Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said the team might give Kaepernick a workout.
“It would be crazy to not have him on your workout list.” Lynn told ESPN. “I haven’t spoken with Colin, not sure where he’s at as far in his career, what he wants to do, but Colin definitely fits the style of quarterback for the system that we’re going to be running. I’m very confident and happy with the three quarterbacks that I have but you can never have too many people waiting on the runway.”
Based on that answer, it sounds like Kaepernick would get a workout if one of the Chargers’ three quarterbacks (Tyrod Taylor, rookie Justin Herbert, and second-year passer Easton Stick) got injured.
How will Hard Knocks address the Black Lives Matter movement?
The protests against police brutality and systemic racism that have spread across the world after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor will likely be discussed on the show. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL have swiftly shuffled to the side of protesters after years of trying to undermine peaceful protests, which should give the show leeway to explore these topics. Hard Knocks dives deep into the personal lives of players, and it would not be surprising for the show to highlight several who are involved in their local communities, the causes they have been working on over the summer, and their own experiences with racism. Lynn is one of three Black head coaches in the NFL and it would be surprising if the show didn’t at least address the league’s lack of coaching and front-office diversity considering roughly three-quarters of the league’s players are Black. Lynn, who helped build a school in Tanzania in the summer of 2019, will likely have poignant thoughts to share in training camp.
“In 1992 I remember watching L.A. burn and here we are in 2020 and I’m watching it again and it just hit me, nothing has changed,” Lynn told The Los Angeles Times in June. “I haven’t done anything to make this a better place for my son. I remember having the talk with him when he was 16 about how to handle police and then at age 30 I called him up and just had the talk with him again because I’m so scared. I want to do something but to be honest with you, I don’t know what that is.”
How will Sean McVay lead this Rams team?
The youngest coach in modern NFL history failed to lead his team to a Super Bowl win against the Patriots two seasons ago, and then last year the Rams missed the playoffs altogether. McVay responded by dismantling his experienced staff, including firing defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who had been running NFL defenses since before McVay was alive. Now McVay is a young coach with a relatively young staff competing in the NFC West, which might be the NFL’s toughest division.
How will the Chargers look without Philip Rivers?
The last time Philip Rivers did not start for the Chargers was December 31, 2005. Rivers is in Indianapolis now, and the Chargers have turned to quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who is going to babysit the no. 6 pick in the draft, Oregon’s Justin Herbert, until Herbert is ready to play. This is déjà vu from Hard Knocks two years ago, when Taylor started ahead of Baker Mayfield in Cleveland but was replaced in September. One of the major challenges will be Los Angeles’s offensive line, which has a few new pieces and weak protection on the outside.
Will Jalen Ramsey be the star?
The Rams dealt two first-rounders and a fourth-rounder for Ramsey, one of the league’s top defensive backs who is in the final year of his contract and will soon want to be the league’s highest-paid cornerback. Ramsey has become famous for trash-talking, but that came back to bite him when the Jaguars skidded in 2018. Ramsey could easily be the star of the show, but he may have learned his lesson.
How will the show handle the Chargers’ little-brother syndrome?
The Chargers moved to Los Angeles after the Rams to play in a soccer stadium where they were consistently flooded with fans of the opposing team. As if playing road games at home wasn’t demoralizing enough, their new home, SoFi Stadium, is shaped like the Rams’ old logo. The Chargers may not want to publicly talk up any rivalry with the Rams, but the very premise of the season may make it unavoidable.
How will American sports without fans look?
The first event at SoFi Stadium is a preseason game against the Saints scheduled for August 14, and it is unknown whether fans will be able to attend. There have been creative options put on display in other sports that have returned, like stuffed animals (and sex dolls) in the crowds at Korean baseball games and augmented crowd noise on soccer broadcasts, but Hard Knocks would provide one of the first looks at how players feel and prepare for such a different environment.
How much editorial control will the teams wield?
Hard Knocks claims to offer “an unfiltered all-access look at what it takes to make it in the National Football League.” But NFL teams are able to view each episode before it airs. Last year, the Raiders seemed to flex more of their editorial muscle than teams have in the past to control the narrative around the Antonio Brown saga. There was a bizarre juxtaposition between what was being publicly reported about Brown versus what was being shown on each episode that suggested the show’s “unfiltered” access does get filtered after all. That will be crucial to keep in mind for what could be the most tumultuous training camp in NFL history.
Surely part of Hard Knocks will be promoting a behind-the-scenes look at an uncertain training camp and all of the precautions both teams are taking to keep employees safe amid the pandemic (the beginning of Dave Chappelle’s new special comes to mind, in which audience members wearing masks have thermometers pointed at their foreheads). But any potential lapses in health precautions—even if they don’t violate NFL guidelines—may be heavily scrutinized by viewers. What might be the most interesting part of this season—how teams adapt to the coronavirus and keep players healthy—may also be the most edited.