Pop Culture

How to Make This Year's Hard Knocks Better

Next Tuesday night, HBO brings forth yet another saga of Hard Knocks, their now-annual look into one NFL team attempting to achieve big things in the upcoming football season.
Whereas our Houston Texans had one of the more memorable seasons in 2015 (thank you Vince Wilfork’s overalls, and Charles James II’s candor), last year’s season with the Los Angeles Rams, well, sucked. At the end of all of it, Señor 8-8 a.k.a. former Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, got fired; the team’s No. 1 overall draft pick looked like the 212th and the most interesting subplot involved the existence of mermaids and dinosaurs. Yeah, a fun piece of television it did not make.

Luckily we have a new season arriving with the NFC South’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You know, the Bucs. The team that finished 9-7 last year and hasn’t been involved in the playoffs since the Patriots went undefeated in the regular season. A whole decade ago. The team that managed to snag a top-flight young quarterback with a rather checkered past (Jameis Winston), a deep field threat to match their monster wideout (DeSean Jackson) and a pretty solid defense. In other words, this should be infinitely better than last year’s season with the Rams.

Here’s the question, though. Is anything about the Bucs on television a good thing? We’re going to get the pre-requisite amount of country from Winston and defensive end Gerald McCoy. There’s already a clip circulating between Jackson and Mike Evans discussing the power of emojis. (Easy hint: women love heart eyes.) And there will be plenty of position battles, training-camp high jinks and more discussed over the next five weeks or so to attempt to keep us riveted.

You know what Hard Knocks needs? It need look at its Netflix equivalent, Last Chance U, for a few helpful pointers on taking people we have zero idea about and making them captivating. You’re not going to get the Texans every single year, in which the head coach attempts to break a Guinness World Record for swearing and also tugs at our heartstrings via his son. It won’t provide us with the kind of car crash that was Last Chance U’s brawl at the conclusion of the first season.

The highlight of the first season of Hard Knocks came not during a quarterback battle between Randall Cunningham and Elvis Grbac but rather a rookie attempting to impersonate locker-room leader, Super Bowl MVP and shouter of nothingness into the universe Ray Lewis. The same occurred with Pro Football Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe. The NFL’s reel of Hard Knocks highlights over the course of the show’s existence appears as follows, highlighting how vanilla (or real, depending on who you ask) the show is. Let us follow the NFL's approach and promptly correct the Bucs on what they should absolutely not do.

5. J.J. Watt Practicing By Himself…In the Dark (2015)
One night near the Methodist Training Center over on Kirby, J.J. Watt stayed after practice. He, much like Last Chance U’s head coach Buddy Stephens knew the cameras were around and decided to stay after. It’s a complete J.J. Watt action-hero role with him staying late on the Juggs machine catching one-handed passes. You know how many interceptions J.J. Watt had the year when the Texans were on Hard Knocks? Zero. At least you knew J.J. Watt, All-American, was working even when the lights were out. But that’s a lie.

More Memorable Moment: The real J.J. Watt story of the 2015 preseason was finding out he had a hammock in the Texans training facility where he liked to sleep. That is the insane dedication football warriors love to see from their couches on Sunday. Honorable Mention: Charles James II’s sock collection, Khari Lee’s spot-on impersonation of Bill O’Brien, DeAndre Hopkins’ “I Fear God” taunt at DeAngelo Hall before breaking his ankles on a route.

How Can The Bucs Improve On This?
A full-on reel of Jameis Winston hype speeches. Winston is already a Bible-toting pastor on his off days (and occasionally in front of school kids, where he may say the wrong thing). Why not show him telling people he’ll run through a wall with them?

4. Bernard Pollard Trying Out For The Twerk Team (2007)
Bernard Pollard as a Texan was known for many things: hard hits, occasional interceptions and being a lovable member of the community. As a Kansas City Chief, the most memorable thing he did besides take out Tom Brady’s knee in Week 1 of the 2008 season? Twerk his ass off during the Chiefs’ turn on Hard Knocks. (Bill Simmons still hates him for that Brady thing.)

Again, when Pollard got his dance on, America still hadn’t fully accepted twerking in their lives, much less a man doing so. Last Chance U had its dancing characters, of course, fun-loving guys who took the idea of a junior college and made it what it was. Maurice Jones-Drew? A complete hater who allows holleration in his dancieree.

In fact, this may have been the most memorable moment from the Chiefs' turn on Hard Knocks. Nobody is truly interested in learning about a quarterback battle between the immortal Brodie Croyle and Damon Huard and the team finished 4-12. In other words, a playoff team from 2006 was a bad team in 2007.

How Can The Bucs Improve On This? DeSean Jackson actually had a role in the Tupac biopic All Eyez On Me. That’s enough to improve on dancing. Besides, the kind of dancing DeSean does in some spaces…you can’t really celebrate in the NFL. But Gerald McCoy? Being from Oklahoma where they got fed Swishahouse mixtapes the same way Dallas kids did? Oh, he can dance. Plenty.

3. Tyler Starr Making The Falcons’ Final Cuts (2014)
Show of hands if you remember Tyler Starr, South Dakota linebacker. You don’t, do you? Okay, now do you remember Tyler Starr’s rather attractive girlfriend? Yes, yes you do. She is the sole reason why NFL Films even included this clip in a year where the Falcons eventually fired Mike Smith, started all over with Dan Quinn and began building a roster that eventually blew a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl, almost five years after that team blew a 17-0 lead in the NFC Championship game. And had their star quarterback lead a dogfighting ring in 2007, which eventually lead their then head coach to drop off letters in everyone’s locker that he was quitting to go coach at Arkansas.

Yes, it is never not fun to bag on the Falcons whenever possible.

More Memorable Moment: Actually, the best moment regarding somebody getting cut or losing a scholarship didn’t even happen on this season of Hard Knocks or Last Chance U. Remember the Dolphins' year where their GM basically called Vontae Davis in his office and told him he was traded to his face? Remember how Davis basically wanted to punch that man in the face? Or how about last season when the NFL’s coach Most Likely to Go 8-8 basically cut Nick Foles over the phone? Far better drama than a fringe linebacker who never played in an NFL game making the final cuts.

How Can The Bucs Improve On This? Cut. Ryan. Fitzpatrick. Doesn’t matter how you do it — phone, text message, fax, email, just know that no NFL football team with Ryan Fitzpatrick on its roster has ever made the playoffs that season. I remind you again, Ryan Fitzpatrick has thrown for nearly 26,000 yards and 166 touchdowns compared to 133 interceptions. Never has a roster which employed him from 2005, the year Bun B’s solo debut album dropped(!), gone to the playoffs with him. The Bucs want to expand? Let go of Fitz. Know what happened to the teams that let go of Fitz in Cincinnati and Houston the year after he left? Playoffs!

2. Chad Johnson Getting Cut For Headbutting His Then-Wife (2012)
Oh, this was absolute gold in regards to reality television. Chad Johnson (then Chad Ochocinco) was arrested for domestic violence after he and his then-wife got into an altercation in which Johnson allegedly headbutted her. How did brand-new head coach Joe Philbin respond? He cut Johnson in his office, effectively ending his NFL career only hours after he was released from jail. Mind you, this was the same season in which Vontae Davis got traded and we found out Ryan Tannehill’s wife manages to keep assault rifles in rental cars. Yes, this was almost the Holy Grail of ridiculous Hard Knocks seasons, only the two years of the Cowboys and Bengals may have topped it. Oh wait, we still have a No. 1 coming…

More Memorable Moment: This was the big takeaway from that season outside of the trade of Davis to the Colts. So kudos, crack NFL Films staff, you got this one right.

How Can The Bucs Improve On This?
Don’t have anybody get arrested for domestic violence. Matter of fact, don’t have any training-camp arrests, period. Following the Johnson incident and Ray Rice punching his then-fianceé and the Baltimore Ravens promoting the worst press conference in the history of press conferences, the NFL took a harder (read comical) stance on domestic violence with “No More” ads and the sort. Didn’t stop Josh Brown from verbally and physically assaulting his ex-wife during their marriage or Greg Hardy tossing a woman onto a bed full of automatic weapons or Ez...yeah, the NFL’s policy on domestic violence is absolute shit and more reactionary than legit serious.

And the most memorable Hard Knocks moment according to the NFL?

1. Rex Ryan and His Bag of Snacks (2010)
Here’s how Rex Ryan endeared himself to America: he was a fat, loud-mouth, boisterous head coach who loved to eat. Also, before the NFL and HBO went in tandem on a policy where only non-playoff teams qualified for Hard Knocks, the Jets found themselves as the most awarded squad since the initial Hard Knocks crew, the 2001 Ravens. Coming off an AFC title game appearance, the Jets of 2010 managed to do the most careless thing of all: they brought McDonald’s on the field during training camp and ate it during practice.

Again, these are the Jets. When everyone decided to make fun of Antonio Cromartie not being able to correctly name his nine children, everyone should have honed in on how unhealthy and unsafe the Jets were for eating what amounts to hamburgers that could survive a Nuclear War before stretching during practice. Needless to say, Rex was pissed. And it led to the greatest quote in Hard Knocks history from a head coach besides “I’m not a 7-9 coach”: “Let’s go get a goddamn snack.”

Yeah, there may be no topping being pissed that your team decided to eat and make fun of obesity across the country by telling them to go eat the right way.

More Memorable Moment?: None. This is the apex of Hard Knocks' ridiculousness and character development.

How Can the Bucs Improve on This? Simple, try to make Dirk Koetter have any semblance of a personality. Even though Jameis Winston will no doubt be the absolute star of the show, there are a few sneak stars. Koetter isn’t going to be one of them. That offense, though? All the potential stars. All of them.

There you have it. We’ve successfully figured out how to save the Bucs' upcoming stint on Hard Knocks. All they have to do is avoid a domestic violence arrest or arrest period, make sure plenty of camera time is dedicated to DeSean Jackson, Gerald McCoy and Jameis Winston and, ultimately, cut Ryan Fitzpatrick. It’s for the greater good of NFL humanity.

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Brandon Caldwell has been writing about music and news for the Houston Press since 2011. His work has also appeared in Complex, Noisey, the Village Voice & more.
Contact: Brandon Caldwell