HBO’s training camp documentary series has taken a few hard knocks of its own of late. Collateral damage as the result of last year’s lockout, the show didn’t air at all in 2011. And when it came time to select a team for this year’s edition, Hard Knocks found few takers. HBO would have loved to revisit the New York Jets, the soap opera of a team that sparked the 2010 edition, especially considering their offseason acquisition of lightning rod Tim Tebow. In a rare display of decorum, however, Rex Ryan and company turned down the opportunity for a second go-round. A number of other teams could have provided ample dramatic fodder for the series: the Denver Broncos, rebooted with Peyton Manning; the reigning champion New York Giants; the ever-dysfunctional Dallas Cowboys. Instead, Hard Knocks finds itself in the same city as Showtime’s inside-baseball series The Franchise: Miami.
The first new episode does little to disprove the notion that the Dolphins are, at best, the third-most interesting team in Miami, and far from the most charismatic franchise in the NFL. New head coach Joe Philbin looks like an insurance salesman and, so far, seems to have a personality to match. He’s no Rex Ryan, which may be a good thing for his team, but it doesn’t do much for Hard Knocks viewers accustomed to pithy quotes like “Let’s go have a goddamn snack!” The team itself is in do-over mode after the failures of recent years, and superstar players with dynamic personalities are few and far between.
The major drama to be played out over the next few weeks is the selection of the starting quarterback. As training camp begins, there are three contenders: Matt Moore, who took over in the second half of last season and finished strong; David Garrard, the 10-year veteran who spent his entire career with the Jacksonville Jaguars until getting cut last year and missing the entire season with a back injury; and Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins’ first-round pick in this year’s draft and their (fingers crossed) franchise quarterback of the future. For the first few days of camp, Tannehill is a contract holdout, but when he signs and shows up on the third day, the competition begins in earnest. Garrard is understandably rusty at first, yet when Philbin drops by the quarterbacks meeting to advise them of the preliminary depth chart, it is Garrard’s name in the top slot.
If there’s a breakout personality in the first episode, it’s Chad Johnson, who has reverted from Ochocinco to his given name after a lost year with the New England Patriots. Like many wide receivers, Johnson is a flake and a showboat, and he’s obviously practiced at giving good sound bite. After obliviously wandering into a high-level coaches meeting and complaining about not being allowed to go home, he suddenly stops and asks the flabbergasted coaches, “Oh, is this confidential?” In discussing his inexplicably lame performance last year, when he couldn’t catch wide-open passes from Tom freakin’ Brady, Johnson notes that his wife didn’t have sex with him all season—except “when I scored a touchdown, I scored.” Rex Ryan would love him, but after a press conference in which he drops a half-dozen F-bombs, Philbin hints that he should probably take it down a notch. It’s going to be that kind of season.
Still, as with the best reality series, the basic structure of Hard Knocks ensures that a subpar cast won’t completely derail the show. In playing up the elimination aspect that comes with cutting players from camp, it’s not so different from Survivor and its descendents. (The Hard Knocks equivalent of “the tribe has spoken” is “I’m gonna need your playbook.”) The scrimmages are immunity challenges of a sort, as performance in them can dictate who stays and who goes, and tempers tend to flare in the heat of battle. Still, given the news out of Jets camp this week about brawls breaking out among the players, you can’t help but feel the HBO suits are kicking themselves over what might have been.
- Of course Chad Johnson met his wife on Twitter. And of course their first date was at McDonald’s.
- Chad’s definition of love: “If you pause Call of Duty for someone, that’s the fuckin’ one.”
- A sign at the Dolphins training facility reads “Champions practice here.” Unfortunately, they don’t play here.
- Matt Moore is not ashamed to tell you that he spent the offseason keeping up with The Bachelorette.