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James Harrison Often, tragic endings are relieved by fresh beginnings. It’s as if the universe consciously tries to pair off negatives and positives to keep human morale afloat.

The sports and entertainment industry, per usual, mirrors the situation at large.

Let’s narrow the field down to say, one sport and the span of one week, just to make things even more concise. The unwritten rule of emotional balance still more than holds true.

The day after Hard Knocks wraps up its last episode, The League comes rearing in to take its place. Jeff Tuel is no longer on track to become the first undrafted quarterback to start in Week 1, but that’s only because electrifying first-rounder E.J. Manuel is taking his spot for the Bills.

Once the Broncos and Ravens kick off their season opening clash, every minute will draw closer to the end of football for the night. However, those will also be minutes eliminated between then and the majority of what Week 1 has to offer on Sunday and Monday.

Hundreds of players became expendable this week as each team trimmed their roster from 75 to the finished 53-man product. A select crop of young names were saved from complete disappointment and signed to practice squads. Another handful will land on rosters after the fact - bad fits in one city that are gleefully pried from the scrap heap and employed in another.

The rest are forced to sit in purgatory, not necessarily hoping for injuries but understanding that they may be the only way to get a foot in the door of the NFL’s selective fraternity. It’s a heartbreaking existence which typically receives notice only from those directly affiliated with a longshot athlete, and sometimes not even then.

Plenty of Bengals now find themselves in a similar situation. Left without a job or a direction in which to proceed, they toil on, hoping that fate will drop a line. The dozens of players left on the outside of Cincinnati's roster bubble have a tumultuous few months ahead filled with phone calls, tryouts, and sleepless nights.

On the lighter side of the industry, a fresh edition of football season awaits. Those that are lucky enough to land a roster spot for the first time or haven’t cracked a starting lineup will have the chance to improve their standing, and those with high-caliber seasons under their belt will get another chance to show that they can sustain, and perhaps even wrap up a spot in Canton.

Some will get to the point where future in future years, the cut line will be nothing more than a torture reserved for lesser names. For others, 2013 will be the peak of a short-lived professional career. The stories, as always, will converge to create the wonderful tapestry that makes football the pinnacle of sport.

Whether for better or worse, the wait is over: action is imminent.

We’ll cover a wide range of stories as we analyze Hard Knocks one final time.

Big Hits:

Just because most players are facing a do or die scenario doesn’t mean there can’t be a few heartwarming moments along the way. Defensive tackle Larry Black returned to team facilities for the first time since his debilitating ankle/leg combo injury that landed him on IR before he could even step foot on the field in the preseason.

He navigated with the help of a scooter for his battered leg and was given plenty of attention by sympathetic teammates. Black told cameras that he’ll be able to walk again in October. For now, Black is taking small strides on a marathon course to recovery and won’t factor into the Bengals’ plans until the beginning of next season, at the earliest.

This week’s Harrison Watch was completely fruitless until the closing moments of the hour. After a number of players expressed their hopes for the upcoming season, things appeared to be wrapping up on an optimistic “us against the world” note, but HBO had saved their funniest moments for last. Just when everyone’s guard was down, there was James Harrison, camera in hand, attempting to film the camera crew that he so despised throughout the season.

He engaged in a very candid conversation with a camera operator about why they had to take certain shots of players, but kept a pseudo-serious filming facade the entire time, making the entire sequence one Harrison’s best.

The bit was followed by another bit of stored footage that showed Harrison pushing a camera away while he talked to a teammate and threatening to break HBO’s equipment, which viewers had to figure was a semi-regular occurrence that was kept under wraps. Hard Knocks will miss you, James. Good luck in the regular season, and be sure to bring plenty of your patented brand of crazy along for the ride.

All things roster related; Bruce Taylor, a linebacker and friend of fellow LB Jayson Dimanche, looked primed for a spot with the final 54 after Emmanuel Lamur was carted off in preseason contest number four. Apparently not, as Taylor was shown the door. The battle at fullback was won by Orson Charles, despite most of the coaching staff conceding that veteran John Connor played better during camp.

Connor was politely flabbergasted when he was told he hadn’t sewn up a spot on the roster. Longshot favorite Terrence Stephens didn’t make the team, either. When Stephens was cut, HBO put out a line for the ages when they said “the fat lady has also sung” in reference to Stephens’ penchant for showing off his vocal pipes.

Josh Johnson emerged victorious in the quarterbacking battle, unseating former Cardinals starter John Skelton. From what was shown in team meetings, the choice was not a hard one- Skelton did little to impress many of the coaches, contrary to what the audience (myself included) were lead to believe based on game footage. Johnson, in addition to being sound with the playbook, also provides a speedy wrinkle that can be utilized by an innovative offensive coordinator like Jay Gruden. Johnson’s athleticism likely put him over the top, because his passing was far from consistent.

All things roster related (cont.); Cameron Maybin, the former top ten pick who was looking to redeem his career in Cincinnati, received a follow-up segment in which he claimed to be at peace with failing to land a job in football.

He said that painting had always been his first love, and so with the gridiron out of the picture he could focus on pursuing his true passion. Wideout Dane Sanzenbacher finally got his story on air, and grabbed a spot in the final receiving corps as well.

He came across as a hard worker who understands the frailties of staying on an NFL roster, as he should after being cut by the Bears. DeQuin Evans must have a guardian angel in orange, because the backup defensive end who was slapped with an eight game PED suspension last week managed to make the roster.

Now, he has to make the most out of an eight game season. Last but not least, linebacker and feel good favorite Jayson Dimanche will be staying in Cincy this season. The cameras were rolling when he was told over the phone by head coach Marvin Lewis that the Bengals wanted to retain his services, and the culmination of so much hard work showcased part of what makes professional sports worthwhile. At one point in the preseason, Dimanche prayed on the sideline for his second wind. Apparently, the message was received.

Orson Charles Incompletions:

It really feels like the ball was dropped on the John Conner cut. Orson Charles may have the higher ceiling and is a recent draft pick of the organization, but throwing away a talent like Connor for long term payoff seems like a hefty risk to take.

Worst case, the team should have pushed harder to keep both men, as was discussed in coaches only meetings.

Letting a player walk that was clearly worthy of a roster spot will leave a bad taste in prospective signees’ mouths going forward.

Some veterans may be hesitant to choose the Bengals as their destination after seeing how the saga played out.

Big name players who received little to no airtime on the show: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Rey Maualuga, Mohamed Sanu, Andre Smith, and Leon Hall.

This group’s lack of presence likely means that they weren’t particularly captivating individuals, so in a way it’s probably good that they weren’t a staple on screen. There will be plenty of opportunity to hear their names on Sundays, anyway. It’s kind of the reason that they’re on the team in the first place.


King Of The Jungle: The final spot goes to the newly minted $55-million man, Geno Atkins. Atkins has been a terror on the interior defensive line for the past two seasons, and could probably strike fear into the hearts of real jungle animals if he deemed it necessary. His days of being steam rolled by Jermaine Gresham in the Oklahoma drill seem like a distant memory now that practices are no longer the main spectacle.

Longshot Winner: Drum roll, please… well, maybe the results aren’t that dramatic. With DeQuin Evans out for the time being and Terrence Stephens singing the blues, Jayson Dimanche wins the longshot title for the season.

Dimanche was overlooked in all seven rounds of the draft and had issues with conditioning at times, but he won over coaches with his raw ability and fans with his good-natured air.

With the emergence of Vontaze Burfict as an undrafted force for the Bengals only a year ago, there is plenty of hope for Dimanche to crack the starting lineup and make an impact from the get-go. He’ll have plenty of supporters in his corner from across the league if he does.

Episode Grade: B plus: There’s never a whole lot to work with from a television perspective with the regular season so close at hand, save for roster trimming. Episode five was a decent end to a decent season of Hard Knocks, entertaining if unspectacular.

Thanks For Reading: For those who took the time to sort through all five of these Hard Knocks recaps, you must either really be itching for anything related to football or not have a subscription to HBO, or perhaps both. In either case, I appreciate the readership.

It was a great experience to provide my love of the entertainment industry with my passion for the pigskin, and so anyone who was kind enough to come along for the ride is much obliged. To paraphrase what Jay Gruden said near the end of the show, being an NFL player is the greatest job in the world. To be a part of that experience, even in the smallest of ways, is pretty great as well.