Sean Pendergast

New Orleans Saints Cancel Preseason Practices With Texans, "Hard Knocks" Likely The Reason

Throughout the press conference on Wednesday to announce the Houston Texans' participation in HBO's award-winning Hard Knocks series on life in NFL training camp, a recurring theme was the possible concern that head coach Bill O'Brien might have about the presence of the NFL Films cameras affecting the team's preparation and somehow putting the Texans at a competitive disadvantage.

The NFL is tough sledding, it's Darwinian, and any little thing that moves the competitive scale a single iota in the direction of a team's opponent is treated like poison by the head coach. To their credit, the NFL Films leadership in charge of producing and directing Hard Knocks not only have a nearly decade-long track record of handling the project with appropriate care, but also did their best to assuage those concerns on Wednesday.

"Our role isn’t to help other teams for competitive balance," NFL Films Supervising Producer Ken Rodgers said Wednesday. "Our goal is a character-driven show that really X’s and O’s haven’t been a big part of this show because the HBO audience is watching things like Game of Thrones and they’re looking for characters, they’re looking for stories, they’re not really looking for the X’s and O’s breakdowns that you can find on other networks.”

Another topic that, at the time, appeared to be totally unrelated to any questions of effecting competitive balance was the Texans' planned preseason trip to New Orleans to practice with the Saints in advance of their preseason game on the Sunday afternoon during Week 3 of the preseason schedule. When asked about whether or not the Hard Knocks crew would be making that trip, here's what Rodgers had to say:
“We will be following the team. New Orleans and the Saints won’t be part of the story line, we’ll be following just as we followed the Falcons here last year, we’ll be following the team to their home and away games, so that’ll be part of the story is their trip to New Orleans. But again, it’s not, not that that team has anything to do with Hard Knocks, we’ll be following the Texans as they travel, not the team on the other side of the line of scrimmage.”
Well, it now appears, two days later, that the Texans will only be traveling to New Orleans for the preseason game, as according to the Houston Chronicle's John McClain, the Saints have opted out of the inter-squad practices during the week leading up to the August 30 game at the Superdome.

According to McClain, the presence of the Hard Knocks cameras played at least a partial role in Saints head coach Sean Payton's decision to back out of the practice sessions. Instead, the Saints will practice in West Virginia with the New England Patriots in advance of their Week 2 preseason game. (The Saints open their camp in July in West Virginia before heading back to New Orleans.)

“Really, the decision was more about getting back into a schedule here (New Orleans) and then certainly recognizing the fact that they are going to be featured on Hard Knocks, but it was really about our team and what is best for us,” Payton said.

Texans head coach Bill O'Brien is a big believer in practicing against other NFL teams during training camp as a way to facilitate rapid improvement. He sees it as productive, as evidenced by the Texans' participation in practice sessions with the Atlanta Falcons in Houston and the Denver Broncos in Denver last preseason prior to preseason games against those teams. (The Falcons sessions were televised as part of last season's Hard Knocks.) Those practice sessions, in part, helped the Texans improve from a league worst 2-14 in 2013 to 9-7 in 2014.

Now, the Texans will be practicing only with themselves in the 2015 preseason, so while Hard Knocks and its crew will no doubt continue to do a respectful and thorough job of making sure no sensitive information is included day to day, practice to practice that would put the Texans at a competitive disadvantage, the mere presence of the cameras would appear to have had at least a minor effect on a more global decision effecting the team's preparation for 2015.

The Saints' decision to bail on these practices is certainly not something that should have a profound, direct impact on the team's final record, but it is a brick knocked out of O'Brien's figurative preparation wall, and something that logically the head coach cannot be enthused about.

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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts afternoon drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the post game show for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast