Even a casual football fan like your humble recapper knows that HBO chose wisely in selecting the New York Jets as the focal point for the new season of its NFL training camp docu-series Hard Knocks (which struck gold in its last two installments by covering the pre-season antics of the Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals). Ever since their improbable run to the AFC Championship Game in January, the Jets have led the league in cocky pronouncements, none cockier than head coach Rex Ryan's guarantee of a Super Bowl victory in February 2011. The coach alone is as good an excuse as any for HBO to train their cameras on the Jets camp; a Rodney Dangerfield character come to life, Ryan is a slovenly butterball with no filter between brain and mouth. It's impossible to imagine him sitting down for a beer with a cerebral, ice-veined strategist like Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose idea of a quotable quote is "It is what it is," but that's what makes Ryan refreshing (if you're a Jets fan) or infuriating (if you're not).
Either way, Ryan should make for good television, but he's not the only source of drama swirling around the Jets these days. Second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez is looking to swipe the mantle of NFL golden boy from rival Patriots QB Tom Brady (although sadly Sanchez has recently broken up with HBO alum Jamie-Lynn Sigler, so it looks like that Hard Knocks/Sopranos crossover is off the table), and the soap opera surrounding the holdout by cornerback Darrelle Revis (who has not come to terms on a contract following a breakout year in 2009) will unfold throughout this five-part series.
The season premiere lets the uninitiated know what they're dealing with in Rex Ryan right off the bat, as he informs team members before an early summer break in training that "no matter what you're doing, it's better than my fuckin' vacation. I'm cruising the Baltics with my in-laws and shit." Having survived the cruise, Ryan returns to Jets camp at the State University of New York at Cortland to sign a two-year extension before giving the troops a pep talk pitched somewhere between Knute Rockne and David Mamet. (In case you're curious, Ryan's announced goal for the Jets is to "lead the fuckin' league in wins." He makes this point early and often.) He also alludes to the major drama hanging over camp, the Revis holdout, in predictable fashion: Yeah, he's pretty fuckin' good, but this isn't about one guy.
As the two-a-day workouts commence, the other major players and storylines are introduced. The Jets have a number of NFL veterans new to the team, including former Chargers great LaDanian Tomlinson, Dancing with the Stars favorite Jason Taylor, and Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes, as well as the usual hopeful undrafted free agents like Brashton Satele and Aaron Kia, both Hawaii natives. (Ryan likes Satele, who sprains his ankles three days into camp, but proclaims Kia to be "awful.") Workout footage alternates with comic relief (Ryan fining a coach for being in possession of tanning spray, and paying his own fines for excessive snacking), even as the negotiations with Revis's agent become increasingly strained. (The HBO crew's access to these sessions is a bit of a surprise, altough they are shut out of a face-to-face meeting with Revis that apparently does not go well at all.)
Unsurprisingly, Sanchez proves to be the most boring participant, mouthing the usual media-trained platitudes ("It's my job to make this my team") and keeping his composure when dessicated Jets legend Joe Namath drops in to criticize his technique. More promising drama-wise is the three-way battle for a fullback slot, pitting 16-year vet Tony Richardson, journeyman Jason Davis and Ryan's own personal draft pick John Conner (known, of course, as "The Terminator") against each other.
Like all the best reality shows, Hard Knocks ends with an elimination, although the Jets version of Tribal Council leaves something to be desired in the fireworks department. Aaron Kia is dismissed with an offhand "Hey, we're gonna let you go," while Kevin Basped, plagued with bad knees, is informed that "we're gonna go ahead and release ya." Not exactly "the tribe has spoken," but the ceremonial torch-snuffing - in this case, following the cut player back to his room to retrieve his copy of the playbook - does pack a punch.
- Before the commenters pounce, I should mention that I'm neither a Jets fan nor a Jets hater. I'm really not a football monogamist at all, and my loyalties are fluid from week to week, depending on what outcomes will make for the most compelling post-season. Sports-wise, my passion is baseball and I'm a Red Sox fan, so you can yell at me about that.
- Broadway Joe is looking more like Boca Raton Joe these days. The weirdly gnomish Namath shows up in Cortland with a sunken face, a bizarre Monkees haircut, and big ol' white shorts belted up around mid-chest. I don't think Suzy Kolber is gonna kiss him any time soon.
- Ryan offers his own creative solution to the Revis standoff: "I'll give him my contract, and I'll take the one he turned down."