One of the first scenes of Tuesday’s season premiere of “Hard Knocks” showed Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy playing with his young son. He asked his boy who was going to be at Buccaneers practice. Daddy, of course. And who else?
“Jameis!” the boy exclaimed.
It seems with this season of “Hard Knocks,” HBO figured out what the toddler already knew: We want to see the quarterback.
Last season, “Hard Knocks” was boring. I know, HBO could put up a test screen for an hour and some would gush about how awesome “Hard Knocks” was. It’s a testament to the show that people are so blindly devoted to it. But last season with the Los Angeles Rams wasn’t good. It was so dull, I wondered if we were seeing signs the show was fading away.
It turns out we just needed a more interesting team and a better game plan.
It was clear from the first episode that the producers are going to focus on two things this season: football and star players. More specifically, they’re going to focus on Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston. Smart.
We started the show with Winston showing us around his hometown of Bessemer, Ala. We saw his grandmother’s modest house where he grew up, the new grill, where he and other kids peed off the steps and the water spigot he drank out of (“You had to stay away from the pee though!” he said). We saw Winston get excited to collect some extra Marriott points by turning down daily housekeeping. There were two great scenes with Winston and coach Dirk Koetter: One in Koetter’s office in which the coach told Winston he had to cut down on his mistakes, and another on the field where Koetter cussed out Winston after an interception. There was McCoy joking that the Bucs were going to trade him after he hit Winston on accident in practice. We got a long look at Winston interacting with kids at his camp. And near the end, after a brief break from Winston, it was right back to showing Winston’s morning routine, seemingly as the first Buccaneers player to hit the facility for a workout.
In many previous seasons, “Hard Knocks” has given us long looks at unknown rookies trying to beat the odds or the show has tried to find compelling stories of players far down the roster. They didn’t focus much on established stars. The producers tried to make stars, or at least create compelling characters for the show. In the season opener Tuesday we mostly saw Winston, McCoy, DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans. Stars will always sell well.
There were still the “Hard Knocks” staples. We saw three players get cut. We saw what the players did on their day off (with a great “The Big Lebowski” reference as it started with a bowling clip). We got to know undrafted rookie Riley Bullough, a linebacker who is impressing with his leadership. But all of that worked because they were ancillary stories around Winston, the compelling anchor of the show.
And the show focused mostly on football, which hasn’t always been the case on “Hard Knocks.” It took a page from the brilliant Amazon Prime “All or Nothing” series in that way. There were no long scenes figuring out if the players had air conditioners for their rooms or whether Jared Goff bought everyone fans, like we had to endure last year. We weren’t forced to follow around players for long and mundane segments on their day off, hear sob stories about how many times a journeyman veteran has moved or have a painfully drawn-out introduction to someone’s spouse or girlfriend (though the second episode teaser promised … MIKO GRIMES!). Even when “Hard Knocks” spent some time on Bullough, it was almost entirely about him making an impression at practice. When we were introduced to rookie running back Jeremy McNichols, it was mostly him missing assignments on the field. And that had a great payoff, as we found out McNichols’ mentor is Snoop Dogg. When Snoop called McNichols (“Coach Snoop” on the ID) to give him a pep talk and tell him to master the playbook, he actually had some good advice too: “Who knows the most, plays the most.”
The most time we spent away from Winston or the practice field was when the rookies sang in front of the team, but that was hilarious. It included Doug Martin playing “Sandman” and shooing safety Justin Evans off stage after a truly horrible rendition of “Eye of the Tiger,” and everyone standing for tight end Antony Auclair’s “O Canada.”
But HBO never strayed too far from Jameis, and I imagine much of this season will focus on him. He’s one of the league’s rising stars, and a charismatic presence off the field. Tuesday’s episode was an interesting look into who he is. “Hard Knocks” has had a tough time getting teams to volunteer, so they’re often stuck with whoever the NFL says has to do it. As a result, they haven’t had many star quarterbacks. Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons were on in 2014, but before that the best quarterback on the show was probably Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys in 2008. The producers must have been thrilled to get Winston this year.
“Hard Knocks” had gotten a bit predictable, and it really seemed stale with a dreadfully boring Rams team last season. Then they got lucky with Winston and figured out a simple truth: Nobody has ever gone wrong focusing on the quarterback.
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