NFL teams are using Zoom just like everyone else. It’s certainly not the opening for this year of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” that anyone in the Chargers or Rams organizations would have expected at the close of last season. Yet what was set to become a show-first duo, following both L.A.-based franchises in the run-up to the first games of the 2020-21 season, the outside world has encroached more than usual.
So where “Hard Knocks” has honed a particular rhythm over the two decades it’s been on the air, this season’s expectations are appropriately different. While training camp has always been an exercise in logistics, the “back to work” vibe in this latest season’s first episode has an even more untethered feel than usual. Liev Schreiber’s “Hard Knocks” narration has always had a tinge of nature documentary to it, of describing an elusive species in their natural habitat. This year, those definitive explanations have plenty of hedging. So many transitions add an extra “almost” or “kind of” or “maybe.”
With so much tumult elsewhere, “Hard Knocks” has found its anchor in the individuals. There’s the customary window into the lives of the teams’ respective head coaches. That Rams coach Sean McVay channeled his offseason quarantine boredom into transforming his dog into a budding pool basketball prodigy is maybe the most illustrative detail in the whole premiere. The stage is also set for certain players’ arcs as the NFL season draws closer. Contract talks, rookie expectations, and team restructuring continue to be the time-tested dramatic tentpoles they’ve always been.
Through the eyes of these coaches, “Hard Knocks” is also dealing with the idea that the ongoing pandemic has leveled out people’s experiences even more than usual. Where past seasons showed how a common opponent used to entrench coaches at the top of a rigid sports hierarchy, the idea of surviving this season has made sure that no one is exempt. Stars can only get so much preferential treatment in the face of something that requires everyone’s diligence to make sure games can even take place. (The frequent invoking of the Miami Marlins’ handling of player safety protocols is also a nod to the quick weekly production turnarounds on these episodes as well as an indication of how much these sports have their eyes on each other.)
These annual windows into training camp have always had a way of making players seem more accessible, of demystifying what it takes for a professional athlete to be game-ready after an offseason hiatus. But even if past seasons of “Hard Knocks” have stretched for something beyond football, nothing has made players seem more relatable than the montage of them receiving their organized camp-opening Covid tests. First-round draft picks walk into a testing room and have to show an ID. World-class professional athletes, seemingly fine with subjecting themselves to the weekly physical torture of pro football, are visibly shaken by the prospect of an imminent nasal swab. One player’s look back to the camera after being told the test won’t hurt is so well-timed you’d think he’d been spending the summer studying tape of Phoebe Waller-Bridge instead of AFC West opponents.
But this season won’t be any more of a radical reinvention than necessary. Sure, at its heart, “Hard Knocks” continues to be a workplace drama. (How bizarrely comforting it is to see Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn drop into general manager Tom Telesco’s office for a quick chat. Remember when that used to be a thing that just…happened?) Roster cuts usually form the backbone of the series, but they happen earlier than usual this camp. Though the virtual meetings help kick off the tenor of the season, the threat of them returning soon becomes a way to scare players into taking health protocols seriously.
And for as much as some aspects of this camp may feel familiar to people trying to go back to work or adjust organizational tactics on the fly, there’s also been a strong thread through “Hard Knocks” that does enforce the uniqueness of these players’ situations. Some may recognize the anxieties of watching a younger new hire challenge for a particular position, but there aren’t many HBO subscribers who’ll know the feeling of signing a nine-figure extension. (To the show’s credit, there’s less fanfare that accompanies Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa’s new deal than may have been present under less perilous economic conditions for the rest of the country.) When Chargers heir apparent QB Justin Herbert drops in perfect spirals into small nets positioned downfield, it underlines the idea that these guys have a distinct set of skills and aren’t just being brought onto an NFL squad on a whim.
Still, like so many other areas of life over the past half-year, the football on display in this opening episode is an approximation. The walkthrough practices don’t have the same helmet-crunching sound, even if there weren’t going to be any Oklahoma drills anyway. It’s more about the precision of ramping back up to an attempted normalcy than highlighting anything that looks like gameplay. It’s a helpful upfront reminder that, try as we might, no area of life in the waning months of 2020 will look completely familiar. That goes for the practice fields of the NFL, too.
“Hard Knocks” airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. on HBO and is available to stream on HBO Max.