My wife and I are devoted fans of HBO’s Hard Knocks.
Neither of us has seen every season. We have, however, watched each of the last three seasons - showcasing the 2016 Los Angeles Rams, the 2017 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and now, the 2018 Cleveland Browns - and enjoyed each a great deal. Her first-ever fantasy football team, assembled last fall, featured Hard Knocks alumni Jameis Winston (oops), Mike Evans (she over-drafted him by a lot), and Todd Gurley (who single-handedly won her the championship). She drafted each, in part, because of her familiarity with them from the program.
It’s a little disheartening to think that we might never have the opportunity to see the Buffalo Bills featured on the show.
Back in 2015, when the team had just replaced Doug Marrone with Rex Ryan at head coach, Vic Carucci of The Buffalo News reported that the NFL had asked the Bills to be featured on Hard Knocks - and that the team had declined. It was within their right to do so, and the NFL could not mandate that they be featured because of its own rule preventing compulsory inclusion for teams with first-year head coaches. The Bills couldn’t be forced into Hard Knocks in 2017 for the same reason, and are also exempt in 2018 and 2019 because of their playoff appearance last season.
As a strict rule, teams publicly bristle at the notion of having HBO and NFL Films crews shooting hundreds upon hundreds of hours of footage while they prepare for a season. Early each spring, the handful of teams in consideration in that given year are asked about the idea, they wrinkle their proverbial noses at it, one of the teams ends up on the show, and that team and the league typically profit from the arrangement. The next year, it’s wash, rinse, and repeat.
It’s not hard to guess why teams are loathe to the idea: it leaves open the door to criticism and controversy. As just one of many examples from the show’s history, in just two episodes’ worth of Hard Knocks so far this year, Browns head coach Hue Jackson, rookie wide receiver Antonio Callaway, and even new Bills receiver Corey Coleman have been spotlighted in, arguably, less-than-ideal circumstances. It has led to some negative press.
That type of exposure is what teams work diligently to avoid first, and downplay second. With Hard Knocks and the level of access it requires, preventing unflattering footage from reaching fans is, at least to a certain extent, out of the team’s control. With something like, say, the Bills’ newest video venture, Buffalo Bills: Embedded, the opportunity for a more tightly-produced final product is created.
Excited by the prospect of watching Hard Knocks-esque content featuring the Bills, my wife and I watched the premiere episode of Embedded when it released last night. When it finished, we both agreed that it felt like a surface-level episode of Hard Knocks - full of fun moments from practice, overflowing with energizing platitudes and entertaining camaraderie, and some endearing moments for fan favorites. It’s an especially good look at Sean McDermott and his points of emphasis for training camp. On the whole, it’s an enjoyable watch. The episode was well-produced technically, and certainly worth a quick look for any Bills fan.
But it also lacked a lot of what makes Hard Knocks unique: namely, the brief off-the-field glimpses into players’ personal lives, the tension of a pressure-packed, behind-closed door meeting, the underdog stories of roster bubble players, the depth of human interest, and so much more. Where Hard Knocks feels like a well-produced reality television series, the first episode of Embedded felt like well-produced marketing material.
Obviously, that opinion is subject to change, since I’m directly comparing one 17-minute episode of Embedded to a whole heck of a lot more Hard Knocks. We don’t know what’s yet to come in Embedded, but I’m writing this today, so I have to go on what I’ve seen through today.
I wanted to watch Rod Streater and Jerry Hughes play more than one third-down play in Madden (let alone an entire game of duos in Fortnite). I would have loved to see actual story lines, like the three-way quarterback competition, fleshed out a bit more. I would have been interested to view a meeting between the GM, the head coach, and the head of PR, formalizing their media strategy for the LeSean McCoy investigation (there was a similar, Josh Gordon-related scene in the first episode of Hard Knocks this season).
Granted, Embedded is working with a far smaller time limit, but the point remains: I was left wanting more, while knowing that what I was missing may not be coming at all. There are three more episodes of Embedded yet to come before the regular season begins, but it’s probably unfair for me to heap Hard Knocks-level expectations onto this production.
I wish that teams didn’t feel compelled to avoid the Hard Knocks bubble simply out of antiquated habit, or because of their unrelenting need to control every narrative. Negative press can be a pain for a team to deal with, but it happens with or without a show like Hard Knocks, which, at least in these recent seasons I’ve seen, is typically pretty balanced in how it portrays its subjects.
Take the aforementioned Jackson as an example: the two Browns episodes that have aired this year have given his critics fresh ammo, yes, but the show has also humanized him in a way that, arguably, no other medium could. In the end, the show’s treatment of Jackson feels eminently fair. It has shown Jackson continuing to deal with old adversity, working through new adversity, and trying to build a culture with a lot of moving parts. Whether or not it’s fascinating television is up to the viewer, but it certainly comes off as agenda-free.
That unfiltered (or, at least, less-filtered) look at a team is rare in today’s NFL, where press conference quotes can essentially be accurately auto-generated before the words are uttered, and where behind-the-scenes access is either unavailable or highly controlled. Hard Knocks is not necessarily agenda-free - it’s still a league product that is ultimately selling the league’s product, after all - but it certainly gives fans access that is increasingly harder to come by.
It’s exceedingly unlikely that the Bills will ever buck the league trend and volunteer for Hard Knocks, or even agree to do it if asked. It would take intervention from the ownership for that to happen willingly, and Embedded aside, that has not really been how the Pegulas roll. So we’ll wait, add the Browns to the list of teams that Hard Knocks gave us a soft spot for, and pine for the day that the NFL requires the Bills to be featured.