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Star-crossed: One potential 'Hard Knocks' team stands above the other options

·8-min read
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Season 16 of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” has been green-lit and will be coming to a device near you shortly.

We just don’t know which team (or teams) will be featured for the 2021 edition. Typically, we do by now; last year’s Chargers-Rams combo show was announced on June 18, and the 2019 Raiders edition hit the wires on June 12. An announcement could come as soon as this week.

However, we do know which teams are eligible — and that no team that’s not on the eligible list is realistically going to volunteer for said duty. As far as we know, it has always gone to a team that is assigned to allow the all-seeing cameras behind closed doors.

Last year’s show was a mixed-bag season by many reviews, albeit a fascinating watch in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic almost completely upending every NFL franchise’s day-to-day operations. This year’s back-to-normal (almost) edition has some promise to it.

Franchises that are exempt include those with: 

1. a first-year head coach (Jaguars, Jets, Falcons, Chargers, Lions, Eagles and Texans);
2. a playoff appearance in the past two seasons (Ravens, 49ers, Chiefs, Packers, Patriots, Saints, Texans, Eagles, Bills, Seahawks, Titans, Vikings, Steelers, Washington Football Team, Buccaneers, Browns, Rams, Colts and Bears);
3. an appearance on “Hard Knocks” over the past 10 years (Dolphins, Bengals, Raiders and Chargers).

That means only five teams are eligible for for 2021 duty: the Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos and New York Giants. (If there’s an exempt team that possibly could volunteer for duty, it might be the Jacksonville Jaguars, an attention-hungry franchise coming off a fireworks offseason in which they added Urban Meyer, Trevor Lawrence and Tim Tebow — all the ingredients the network could reasonably want.)

Although Meyer admitted to NFL Network’s Rich Eisen earlier this month that the coach “wouldn’t mind the world knowing ... that we have some really good players” and would be open to the reality TV spotlight shining on them, we’re putting the Jags to the side for now.

Let’s focus on the five who can’t say no if asked to do the show — ranking them in reverse order by likelihood and watchability.

5. Panthers

There’s probably some Sam Darnold curiosity out there floating around. Maybe some interest in college transplant Matt Rhule and how he runs his team. Christian McCaffrey ranks up there among the best-selling jerseys.

But this team lacks some punch from a ratings-potential standpoint. Cam Newton is long gone. Steve Smith, who was made for this show, has been retired for a while now. The Panthers of yore offered some real sizzle at one point. But this young team’s characters (for lack of a better word) are hardly established as brands right now.

Nothing against Derrick Brown, Brian Burns, D.J. Moore, Donte Jackson or Jeremy Chinn — lots of talented, young players on this roster. They just don’t move the needle for TV purposes.

If the Panthers are the pick, maybe we get to see how fascinating offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s coaching style works. Maybe we see the process behind Darnold’s reboot. McCaffrey’s comeback from injury is noteworthy. So we’d make the best of watching it. But the Panthers would not be our first option.

4. Giants

This could be a sneaky good choice, actually. But would HBO execs agree?

They would from one standpoint: New York sells. The Giants are a foundational franchise with a large following, and Big Apple teams typically guarantee ratings.

But the Giants’ brass might not accept this assignment without kicking and screaming. Owner John Mara once famously said that the Giants would be on “Hard Knocks” when “I’m next to my father in Gates of Heaven cemetery.” The younger Mara remains alive and well, according to our sources.

On top of that, head coach Joe Judge comes from the Bill Belichick coaching tree, and you know what that means: Judge would rather give himself paper cuts on both of his corneas than do the show. (This, of course, can be quite entertaining for the viewer if it came to pass, but that’s another matter.)

Saquon Barkley's return from injury is a big New York Giants storyline this season. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Saquon Barkley's return from injury is a big New York Giants storyline this season. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There are some storylines here. QB Daniel Jones is entering what one might assume is a flashpoint season. Saquon Barkley returns from injury in the crosshairs, too, having missed 17 of his past 29 games. And we are big fans of defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, a possible head coaching candidate next cycle.

We also think the Giants have a better shot to win the NFC East than many other observers believe. We just don’t know if a Giants season gives us the best shot for the most entertainment bang for our buck either.

3. Broncos

A (little-known) fourth rule for “Hard Knocks” eligibility: “Any team with a Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock at quarterback shall not be one of HBO’s first two choices.”

OK, we totally made that up. But it feels kind of apt, eh? (Full disclosure: We really like both as young men, having spent one-on-one time talking to each. But can they be good quarterbacks? That we cannot say for sure.)

As exciting as a QB battle sounds on the surface, that particular duo just leaves us wanting more. Perhaps Lock is ready to break out. Or maybe Bridgewater finally gets his chance to lead a quality team back into the playoffs.

But consider us skeptical until further notice.

Yes, the Broncos have a devoted following and absolutely have some compelling storylines. Von Miller’s return from injury is a big deal — and he’s a big name with a personality. Unfiltered head coach Vic Fangio makes for some decent discussion for what he says on the record. And prior to playing a single NFL snap of note, third-rounder Quinn Meinerz is already a star in the making — or at the very least, his belly is.

Fangio could be on the hot seat. There’s a new GM in George Paton. A QB battle. Lot going on in Denver.

Heck, there’s even faint hope out there that Aaron Rodgers could be a trade candidate. If that were to happen in earnest, we’d happily adjust the rankings. For now, however, they remain in third.

2. Cardinals

There’s some meat to this one, believe it or not.

J.J. Watt has arrived. Kyler Murray is a possible star in the making. Kliff Kingsbury is … handsome!

But the Cardinals really are fascinating in several ways, and they appear better after an offseason spending spree brought in Watt, Rodney Hudson, A.J. Green, Malcolm Butler and others. Tough division they play in, but the Cardinals have some contender elements to them — and perhaps it’s a do-or-die season for Kingsbury and GM Steve Keim, who knows?

There also would be some newsy elements, we suspect. Chandler Jones didn’t show up for OTAs, seeking a new contract. Larry Fitzgerald has yet to announce his 2021 intentions.

Heck, any team with DeAndre Hopkins and this type of talent at receiver would be worth watching for the training-camp battles alone. Especially with some question marks at cornerback and the need for Isaiah Simmons and rookie Zaven Collins needing to step up at linebacker.

This would be a quality candidate, although not the best.

1. Cowboys

Look, we would find any reason not to put the Cowboys in the top slot, if for no other reason than to break up Dallas’ monopoly on landing prominently on these sorts of lists.

But come on.

These are the freakin’ Cowboys. America's Team. They print money — for themselves and for networks. That’s why they earn this slot. There’s a reason why the Cowboys are always on TV in big games, including this year’s season opener in Tampa against the world-champion Bucs.

Then again, the storylines this year actually back up the hype.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott would be center stage if the Cowboys are featured on HBO's
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott would be center stage if the Cowboys are featured on HBO's "Hard Knocks." (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Dak Prescott — a legit franchise QB — got his deal but still is coming back from a major injury. Mike McCarthy’s disastrous 2020 season puts him very much in the spotlight (even if he makes for mostly bad TV). Ezekiel Elliott is, let’s face it, a bit odd; the more of him on our devices, the better.

And yes, there is Jerry Jones. The soon-to-be 79-year-old is never far from a running camera, and some might use that as a negative for “Hard Knocks.” (We get it.) But Jones is nothing if not a showman. Perhaps he’ll grace us with an audience on “The Bus.” Or perhaps “The Yacht” — equipped with two, count ‘em, two helipads.

Like them or not, the Cowboys just move units. They have the name recognition. Their fans will watch and consume just about anything Cowboys-related. Their opponents will hate watch them, hoping they screw up. They’re the Howard Stern of the NFL, if you will.

Interestingly, the Cowboys’ “All or Nothing” series in 2017 was sort of devoid of major drama, outside of Zeke’s sideshow, bouncing back and forth between courtrooms and the practice field during a terrible season.

Even still, it’s pretty clear on the surface which club would make the most sense from a ratings standpoint.

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