HBO’s Hard Knocks is back, and with it the annual exploration into a Pandora’s Box embellished with NFL glitz, ardour, plight and politics.
This year’s edition of the all-access docuseries turns the unfiltered spotlight towards America’s Team as the Dallas Cowboys make their third appearance on the show.
And some would argue the setting could not be more perfect, with Mike McCarthy shouldering expectations of a drastic revival following a 6-10 record in his first campaign at the helm.
His motivational methods last season included smashing watermelons with a sledgehammer during the team’s road trip to face the Minnesota Vikings. So yeah, things could get interesting.
Terms like ‘unprecedented’ and ‘new normal’ could make an unwelcome cameo, though the Cowboys will be greeted by more conventional training camp surroundings a year after the coronavirus pandemic tore through offseason programs.
The 2020 Hard Knocks venture to Los Angeles entailed nasal swabs, staggered classroom seating, fewer choreographed hand shakes, copious hand sanitiser, plastic visors, opt out deliberation and the deafening silence of no fans in attendance.
As is the ongoing nature of the pandemic a few of the aforementioned may well still apply, but the world unequivocally finds itself in a far more favorable position this time around.
Positive tests could still be a thorn in preparations, and on the back of that may come discussions surrounding vaccinations amid division in some corners of the league regarding COVID protocols and players electing not to receive the jab.
But on a lighter note, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones will be present and primed with his cauldron of gold-drenched sound bites.
On the practice field the progress of quarterback Dak Prescott beckons as a lead chapter following his return from the season-ending ankle injury that derailed the Cowboys’ season in Week Five. He arrives in the wake of penning a four-year, $160m deal in March with a playoff caliber receiving corps for company.
Playing a starring role within that will be second-year wideout CeeDee Lamb, whose rather solid rookie season amid tough circumstances went somewhat overlooked. The beat of the training camp drum has been strong and word is the 2020 first-round pick is lighting up practice with suction hands and fancy footwork.
Elsewhere it feels like there could be a shift in balance to monitor when it comes to the volume of touches in the backfield, with Tony Pollard having made ground on an Ezekiel Elliott seeking to respond to a significant production hit last season.
That is not to say Zeke is no longer the No.1 running back in town, but expect a more committee-like notion to the Cowboys offense this year.
“We’ve got Tony Pollard, and Rico [Dowdle] has looked good,” said McCarthy in July. “We’ve got some younger guys who can play and produce, so it’s not necessary for Zeke to run the ball 25-30 times a game. When you get to December, January football, you want him to be in top form to be able to run the ball 25-30 times if needed.”
There could yet be a British angle to track should the cameras choose to pan to Middlesex-born defensive line coach Aden Durde after he joined up with his old Atlanta Falcons boss Dan Quinn, who succeeded Mike Nolan as Cowboys defensive coordinator earlier this offseason.
Defense in Dallas shall be a priority after ranking dead last in 2020, first-round linebacker Micah Parsons poised to revitalise the unit and local media touting a recharged-looking Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. There, too, is considerable pressure on Quinn to not only improvement, but rebuild his own reputation having been fired as Falcons head coach after six seasons.
The behind-the-scenes showcase might also offer insight into some not so familiar faces such as Mexican-born offensive tackle Isaac Alarcon, a product of Monterrey Institute of Technology that was signed by the Cowboys in 2020 having come through the International Player Pathway Program .
Perhaps the most beloved Hard Knocks trait is its ability to humanise childhood heroes and unearth the underdog stories, the quirky characters.
Be it Vince Wilfork turning up to Houston Texans camp in those overalls, Chad Johnson’s ‘child, please’, William Hayes revealing his belief in mermaids or Antonio Cromartie naming all 14 of his children.
The words “Set hut!” meanwhile remain synonymous with former Cleveland Browns offensive line coach Bob Wylie and his stomach bobbing in keeping with the snap count during the 2018 series.
Wylie both iconically and unknowingly tapped into the realm of viral Hard Knocks content as viewers were exposed to the philosophies of this amateur magician while he played tape of gorillas to showcase their ‘perfect lineman posture’.
Then there was his dislike for stretching – notably his favorite part, however, as it allowed him to ‘sit down for 10 minutes’.
“Stretch is way overrated,” he began.
“Did you know, World War I and World War II, all those guys that fought in that war, they did pushups, jumping jacks, situps, climb the rope and ran. None of this fancy s***. And they won two World Wars.”
Cleveland’s turn also introduced us to tight end Devon Cajuste during his pursuit of a spot on the 53-man roster, the 27-year-old having since retired to focus on healing, spirituality and crystals. It was in one memorable scene that Cajuste found out his father had recently suffered a third heart attack while accompanying him in an interview as part of the show.
Between a moment like that and Hue Jackson hugging John Dorsey as he cried over the death of his mother, Hard Knocks typically captures the realest of day-to-day life.
There will be livewires like Donte Deayon whose zest for life is infectious through the screen, and others like Aaron Donald whose superhuman physique tempts you to put down the share bag of Doritos.
“I’m just going to be honest, I almost wrecked my truck when Jerry (Jones) called me, driving through a rainstorm,” said McCarthy in July, describing his reaction to the news the Cowboys would be on Hard Knocks. “But once I got it back on the road, I’m all in. I’m excited about it.”
As Rex Ryan said in the 2010 edition with the New York Jets – “let’s go eat a goddamn snack!”
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