Just as much as franchise players suffering serious injuries, the season premiere of HBO’s Hard Knocks, which airs Tuesday night at 10 p.m. ET, is one of those unmistakable signs that football season is finally upon us. The show might have lost some of its luster since it debuted 14 years ago, but it’s still far more worthwhile than the vast majority of TV shows that are about football without actually being football. This year, the Houston Texans are going under the microscope, which means we’ll be treated to more of J.J. Watt being a cyborg or a cuddly teddy bear, among other storylines.
But the pre-fabricated storylines are hardly ever the most interesting part of any Hard Knocks season. Far more often, what keeps us coming back is the unexpected… the weird habits, senses of humor, behind-the-scenes access, and rampant profanity that get filtered out on basic cable or network appearances. That’s what we remember, and these are the best examples.
“Let’s go eat a goddamn snack.”
You’ve probably seen this speech a couple of times, but man, if it isn’t one of the most motivating speeches I’ve ever… Wait, did he just close with, “Let’s go eat a goddamn snack?” Was that supposed to be dramatic? Did he forget what he was talking about and get hungry? I like that thought.
“And we’re gonna dominate the opponent at the point of attack, no matter how many blitzers they send, or free refills they give us. We will impose our will on the buffet, and… God, is anyone else hungry?”
Also, he uses the insult “slapdick,” which I’m pretty sure I never heard before he said it. It’s a delightful insult.
Carson Palmer hates stinky butts.
The Cincinnati Bengals have actually been on Hard Knocks twice, in 2009 and 2013, and from this 2009 clip, you can see why HBO was so eager to have them back. Carson Palmer is a quarterback, and his center that year was Kyle Cook. Palmer interrogates Cook about his stinky butt. As a quarterback, Palmer often has to touch his center’s butt, you see, and he doesn’t want the butt that he touches to smell bad. He feels very strongly about this.
Cook, for his part, is offended at the accusation, but concedes that he might have eaten something to cause this problem. This exchange is the greatest in Hard Knocks history.
Antonio Cromartie tries to name his kids.
I’m not going to tell Antonio how to live his life, but if he can’t name all his kids, he’s got too many kids, man. (At the time of filming the show, he had nine kids.) The New York Jets’ 2010 season of Hard Knocks was the pinnacle of the show, thanks in part to Ryan’s profanity and hunger, Cromartie’s virility, but mostly the Jets’ general Jetsiness.
Of course, one other crucial element contributed to the Jets season’s entertainment value (and maybe have single-handedly won it the Emmy): Shake Weights. Unfortunately, NFL.com won’t allow embedding of that video, but rest assured, it’s got all the lewd pantomiming you remember (or if you haven’t seen it, all you could imagine).
A damn good Shannon Sharpe impression.
The first season of Hard Knocks followed the Baltimore Ravens around after their Super Bowl win in 2000, and holy crap, Shannon Sharpe was on Hard Knocks. He may not be the easiest guy to listen to on CBS’s NFL morning show, but he was a cut-up back in his playing days, with most of his comedy based in the fact that he had a really funny sounding voice.
Rookie talent shows are a tradition in some NFL training camps, and first-year linebacker Tim Johnson brought the damn house down with his dead-on Sharpe voice. Shannon loved it most of all, as he hopped around like an over-caffeinated child at Johnson’s pronunciation of “restitution.” Quality impression by Johnson, quality headgear by everyone.
Bryan Cox’s daughters.
Former Jets and Patriots linebacker Bryan Cox, now the defensive line coach for the Atlanta Falcons, was a pretty intense guy on the field (notable for his huge neck board, a notably obsolete piece of equipment which I bet you haven’t thought about in a while), and apparently hasn’t chilled out much. Last season, he appeared to have taken the Falcons’ defensive line hostage to show them a slideshow containing pictures of his family.
Why would he voluntarily show these young men a picture of his adult daughter, only to yell at them, “Stay the f*ck away from my daughter?” They were even respectfully silent, rather than hooting and whistling — clearly because they’re terrified of Cox. Good luck to anyone trying to date his daughter. Good luck to his daughter.
Bernard Pollard’s dance moves.
After two seasons, Hard Knocks went off the air for five years, only to return in 2007 with the Kansas City Chiefs. Bernard Pollard was still a year away from becoming Public Enemy No. 1 in New England by destroying Tom Brady’s knee, and he made his mark on the locker room by busting out some fierce dance moves.
He’s got the goods, sure, but from his teammates’ reactions, you’d think he had just performed the entire “Smooth Criminal” routine. Running around like a madman is a reaction that makes everything better. Kevin Durant’s Rucker Park explosion wouldn’t raise the hair on your neck if he did it in an empty gym.
Honestly, I want a dance contest on every season of Hard Knocks. Forget Dancing with the Stars; we should have an all-NFL So You Think You Can Dance.
Vontae Davis gets traded.
This clip is the rare moment in a reality show where a layperson might actually learn something. From the 2012 season covering the Miami Dolphins, HBO examined the series of discussions that led to GM Jeff Ireland trading Vontae Davis to the Indianapolis Colts for a second-round draft pick. Now that it’s been a couple years, we know that Davis has eliminated the inconsistency that Ireland and head coach Joe Philbin described and become one of the very best cornerbacks in the NFL.
Perhaps the only truly reliable source of drama each year in Hard Knocks is when players are either cut or traded. They’re far more profound reminders that these players are humans rather than names on a fantasy football roster than dance contests, and Davis’ incredibly blank stare is a reflection of that. It’s a serious moment, but he could stand to close his mouth.
Chad Johnson gets cut.
The end of Chad Johnson’s Dolphins career was another one of those human moments that Hard Knocks does so well, only much, much darker. The short explanation of this segment is that Johnson was arrested for head-butting his wife, and was cut by the Dolphins shortly thereafter. In reality, after Johnson was arrested, he knew what it meant and the reality of his situation sunk in quickly and harshly. No matter how you felt about him, you knew he was in anguish.
Meanwhile, the entire Dolphins staff does their absolute best to not mention a single word about what Johnson did, or even if it was wrong. Every sentence uttered by Joe Philbin and company is drenched in euphemism and innuendo, as they decide very quickly that they need to cut Johnson for the sake of the organization’s public image.
This was broadcast in 2012, and it’s amazing how obvious it should have been to everyone how little the NFL actually cares about the moral fiber of its players. Roger Goodell’s Don Quixote-esque quest for an impossibly pious league has never once been about making sure only good people play in the NFL; it’s only ever been about optics. This clip is instructive in laying out just how that whitewashing process plays out on the inside, and that’s why it’s on this list.
Ryan Tannehill has no clue about NFL divisions.
Okay, one last moment from the 2012 Dolphins, and it’s thankfully on the lighter side. Ryan Tannehill was a rookie in 2012, and an amazingly ignorant one at that. He admits to being a fantastically provincial football fan, and having grown up in Texas, it’s not surprising that he probably knew more about high school football than the NFL.
He seriously doesn’t know where any of the NFL teams go, and it can’t be said for certain that he even knew the names of all 32 teams. (Hopefully, three years into his career, he’s since learned.) Easily the best part of the video is Matt Moore, the other QB in the conference room with Tannehill, do a dead-on Jim Halpert stare at the 1:20 mark of the video. We can’t believe it either, Matt.