Hard Knocks is back. The ninth season of the hit HBO sports series made it clear from the very beginning that the focus will be on toughness. Coaches and players alike hammered the point home with buzzwords, cliches, and even a couple of fights. Much of the focus was (as was hinted at in the preview) on toughness, something Head Coach Mike Smith mentioned several times. The team implemented several changes to the practices and added new coaches to help address the team’s physicality, especially on the offensive and defensive lines.
The show picked up a few days before playing camp, providing a window into the personal lives of several of the Falcons’ star (and some new) players.
The highlight of the pre-camp stories was RB Steven Jackson, who presented some of his artwork in a small Los Angeles gallery. Seeing Jackson as a multi-faceted person instead of just a faceless football player sets a great tone for the show, and something that it should focus on more. On the flip side of things, viewers got yet another look into Kroy Biermann’s reality TV family (seen also on Real Housewives of Atlanta and several other shows). Biermann, who is coming back from an achilles injury, was the low point of the episode, offering more Kardashian than interest to the story. His wife also shows up later, for some unexplainable reason.
Once the show moved on to training camp, the show’s pacing came to a screeching halt. In attempt to familiarize viewers with the rookies, coaches, and players, the cameras focused on players moving into the practice facility. The slow process was hopefully a necessary evil that will make later episodes have much more impact. Viewers also got to hear their first boring speech about team chemistry from QB Matt Ryan, which, while intelligent and solid advice, was an odd fit when compared to the personalities of his teammates.
From here, more comedy was slowly added to pick up the pace, including the revelation that WR Harry Douglas uses women’s deodorant. That’s his secret. He will undoubtedly be one of the more entertaining players of the show.
Once Hard Knocks made its way to actual football, the show hit its stride. Newly extended WR Roddy White and S William Moore showcased their ongoing challenges to one another, WR Julio Jones sped across the field, showing no ill effects from his foot injury, and rookie OL Jake Matthews looked like a five-year veteran, shutting down Kiermann in drills.
One of the better, non-cliche inspirational moments came when Jackson gave a speech to the rookies about teamwork and being your best man. This made it that much more frustrating when it was announced that he once again has a leg injury and will be out for several weeks (something that happened all too often last season). Rookie RB Devonta Freeman, who is officially listed as #4 on the RB depth chart, was then given a large portion of the snaps. If he can learn pass protection and stay healthy, the speedy back may find himself with a large amount of playing time in 2014.
Cameras followed Freeman on his hunt for a home with a shorter lease, a tour that was contrasted with the home of an established veteran. The big money lifestyle versus that of a rookie is easy to understand looking at the numbers, but becomes much more real when contrasted visually.
The first player to leave the team was DT Peria Jerry, a 2009 first-round draft pick of the Falcons. Jerry abruptly decided to retire, admittedly without any plans for what to do afterwards. Head coach Mike Smith appeared both concerned about the lack of a future plan and understanding of the toll that football takes on a body. Watching Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitrioff handle the personnel changes will continue to be the most heartbreaking and compelling parts of the series.
Altogether, it was a slow start for Hard Knocks. There were fights, but they didn’t provide anything interesting. There were insights into the players lives, but most felt forced. There were pep-talks and signs of leadership, but much of it was filled with cliches and words meant for the camera to catch. Even so, there was a lot of ground work laid to make for an interesting show, especially with the first preseason game this Friday.
(Editors Note: It appears this season, Hard Knocks will in fact be available via HBO GO the following day as opposed to live)