As fans await the end of another excruciating period of football purgatory, counting on small favors becomes the only way to keep sane.
Anything that can divert minds from the month-long wait at hand is worth embracing.
Many will turn to big plays in the preseason, fantasy preparation, or surviving on the occasional scrap of relevant news.
All are temporary fixes for dog day delirium, but none provide the proper combination quantity and quality that content-starved NFL diehards desire.
Enter Hard Knocks, HBO’s yearly glimpse at the inner workings of a franchise during the yearly grind of training camp.
The show promises five commercial-free, hour-long blocks of sweet release from the otherwise mundane month of August. Though the spot is reportedly frowned upon by the majority of the league, the network managed to land the Cincinnati Bengals, an exciting young squad that some are calling a Super Bowl dark horse.
Seasoned Hard Knocks aficionados will recall that the Bengals are already premium television veterans, having been featured on the program in 2009. Head coach Marvin Lewis’ presence may invoke an image of continuity, but little else remains intact from the team of four years previous.
The new era of Bengals football is one marked by dynamic athleticism and far less of the legal headaches that plagued the franchise for much of the last decade. That doesn’t mean this year’s bunch is without its share of characters - professional athletes are consistently some of the best comedians on reality television.
Episode one of Hard Knocks 2013 included just about everything a prospective viewer could want - comedy, drama, character development, and the sweet sound of cracking shoulder pads. Take a look at some of the most memorable pieces that HBO gathered from the first week of camp, as well as a look ahead to next Monday’s show.
-- It only took a few minutes of Bengals footage to grasp how underwhelming the Dolphins were as the featured team in 2012. Head coach Joe Philbin operated with the demeanor of a walking corpse, and there wasn’t much cooking on the player side either, especially after the enigmatic Chad Johnson was cut from the team in the early going.
Cincinnati may be mired in the middle of midwestern nowhere, but they certainly don’t lack in the character department. James Harrison, Geno Atkins, Jermaine Gresham, and running backs coach Hue Jackson have all emerged as potential comedic heavyweights. With Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Marvin Lewis all in place to fill the leadership void, Bengals camp has the framework to provide a full range of desirable personalities for viewers.
-- Speaking of Harrison, the long-time Steelers stalwart spent the majority of his time on screen either shirking cameras or intimidating teammates and, in one instance, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. If there’s one reason to watch the episode, it has to be Gruden fake laughing his way through a verbal onslaught by Harrison on how he must hit teammates at full force during practice or risk losing his job.
Harrison went as far as to repeatedly demand agreement from the offensive honcho, who eventually apologized for trying to get his players to the field in one piece. We all knew that he was one of the more intimidating men in football, but Harrison built a strong case for the psyche ward on Tuesday night.
When you can dedicate a multi-minute sequence to one player’s attempt to avoid a camera crew, you figure that said player is bound to provide plenty of must watch moments. Message received, James. Keep on doing what you do, and everyone else will try to stay the hell out of your way.
-- Giovani Bernard is a certified media darling. There was hardly any time when the former Tar Heel wasn’t the main object on screen, and for good reason. Not only is he a blazing-quick second-rounder playing at a glamour position, but it also turns out that the kid is one of the better spoken players on the team, and in the league for that matter.
Bernard is cut out for prime time in nearly every way imaginable, and Hard Knocks is unlikely to let you forget it. While Bernard consumed massive quantities of limelight, starting back BenJarvus Green-Ellis was M.I.A. for the entire hour, unless wearing a red flowered shirt to a team dinner counts as an appearance.
Bernard is getting plenty of media run as one of the best young weapons in the game, and HBO has embraced the opportunity to set the hype meter on full blast.
-- The bread and butter of episode one undoubtedly came when the team hit the field to perform the vaunted Oklahoma drill near the end of the hour. At the time, no one besides James Harrison had been allowed to tackle at full speed, and so the drill was more therapy session than skill-building experience.
The Bengals evaded the carnage a bit by adding an offensive lineman to buffer the runner from the oncoming defender, but the sequence still provided plenty of thrills. After an exhausting session of bumping bodies and churning legs, the scene culminated with tight end Jermaine Gresham calling out star defensive tackle Geno Atkins for one last battle in the trenches.
At the risk of sounding like a 12-year-old describing a new Call of Duty game, the ensuing collision was epic. Gresham pushed hard off the line and drove Atkins out of the pit, where the two continued to square off until broken up by teammates a few seconds later.
In all fairness, Gresham started off the line early to gain leverage and stands at 6’5” to Atkins’ 6’1”. Even so, viewers took note that Gresham could hold his own beyond the passing game.
A.J. Green wrenched his knee early on in camp, so it’s only logical that he appeared for very little of the first episode.
There’s still plenty of time to bring the star receiver into the mix, and rest assured the producers won’t miss out on the opportunity.
Paging Pacman Jones. Cincy’s nickel corner has a checkered legal past, to say the least, but he’s taken a 180-degree turn of late and spent the last few seasons playing the role of law abiding citizen (minus a small issue at a bar in June).
Again, HBO will tap into every human interest story at their disposal, so Jones’ journey is a lock to surface in future episodes.
King of The Jungle: Giovani Bernard and James Harrison both made a case, but Jermaine Gresham’s Oklahoma drill heroics earn him the crown as this week’s top Bengal.
With Tyler Eifert in the mix, Gresham appeared eager assert his dominance as the top tight end by any means necessary. Holding his own against Geno Atkins was a perfect way to prove that he can provide more than just veteran wisdom.
Leading Longshot: Unfortunately, a feel good story has yet to emerge from the fracas. Undrafted rookie Larry Black scored some sympathy points when he suffered a broken leg/dislocated ankle combo injury, but also eliminated himself from future airtime in doing so. Hard Knocks is incomplete without a Danny Amendola or Les Brown to play the underdog role, so expect the emergence of multiple longshots in episode two to make up for lost time.
Episode Grade: A Minus: Perhaps the rating is inflated by the Dolphins underwhelming performance, or maybe the Bengals are a genuinely captivating group. In either case, episode one was highly enjoyable from start to finish.
Next Week’s Episode -
What To Expect: Vontaze Burfict got into a scuffle with Steven Jackson during joint practice with the Falcons, hopefully the cameras were rolling when it happened. The game itself was also highly entertaining. The Atlanta crowd was surprisingly raucous for a preseason tilt and both teams responded in kind as they collaborated to produce one of Thursday’s best performances.
Bold Prediction: Receiver Dane Sanzenbacher enters the mix as the leading longshot. Bears fans are familiar with the Ohio State product, who consistently shined in training camp only to fizzle out when the regular season rolled around.
He’s already at it again, having caught a long touchdown pass and taking a 71-yard punt to the house in his first preseason action of 2013. If Jon Gruden dedicates an enthusiastic rant to your merits, you may as well book your ticket to Honolulu. That was blatant sarcasm, to be clear.