HBO’s Hard Knocks was created in 2001 and rather than following a team that had been struggling, the first season focused on the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Baltimore Ravens. The next year was the Dallas Cowboys and then after a five-year hiatus, Hard Knocks returned to camp with the Kansas City Chiefs, followed by a repeat appearance of the Cowboys. So Dallas was the first team to repeat Hard Knocks.
And unless you’re a girl scout just dying to push three packs of Samoas and Thin Mints to this two-story in a cul-de-sac, most try to avoid repeating Hard Knocks.
The next team to repeat was the Cincinnati Bengals in 2009 and 2013 and the LA Rams will be back on the show this summer after their own four-year hiatus from the program, having appeared in 2016 under head coach Jeff Fisher.
Now some would say that appearing on the show is at least a distraction, if not a curse. But the Rams are certainly better for it if allowing the HBO camera crews into their facilities in 2016 was what set in motion the circumstances to go 4-12 instead of any semblance of mediocrity that might have kept Fisher around for another year.
Instead, the Rams had their worst season since 2011, Fisher was fired after 13 games, and the Sean McVay era began in 2017.
For McVay, being on the show will be a new experience. After having spent his previous seven seasons in Washington — a franchise yet to be featured though how interesting of a choice they could have been in 2020 given the circumstances of the last week — he probably also didn’t expect it this soon. Hard Knocks usually picks a franchise that has a special interest storyline but also probably hasn’t been as successful as they’d like to be but the Rams were in the Super Bowl 18 months ago and barely missed the playoffs.
And for the first time in the show’s history, they’ll be featuring two teams at the same time as they look at the opening of SoFi Stadium and the shared experience of both McVay’s LA team and the Chargers, their long-term roommates. They must also feel surprised to be on the show so soon after the 12-4 season they posted in 2018, but perhaps the shared distraction will ease the burden of appeasing the coaches, management, and the cameras all at the same time.
At the very least, perhaps the Rams’ recent experience with the show will help them navigate it with expert precision for the second time around. After all, 10 players — which is not an insignificant number when you consider that it has been four NFL years and new head coaches usually mean overhauling the roster — were in camp with the team during their first year in LA in 2016.
Jared Goff, Tyler Higbee, Rob Havenstein, Malcolm Brown, Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers, Morgan Fox, Troy Hill, Johnny Hekker, and Jake McQuaide have plenty of collective guidance to give to the other 80 or so players fighting for a roster spot and hoping to be the next Devon Cajuste.
(I guess the Cleveland Browns tight end in 2018 is my go-to reference point for a Hard Knocks “character” this morning.)
Others will also have Hard Knocks experience, but outside of the greater Los Angeles area. Andrew Whitworth was on the Bengals in 2009 and 2013, so he’s actually going through the twice-in-five-seasons for the second time in his career. Center/guard Austin Corbett was a high second round pick of the Browns in 2018 and so he was guaranteed a spot but didn’t last much longer than Cajuste.
What could be gained by the program in terms of focusing on the fact that some of these players were here four years ago too?
One interesting player to follow could be Troy Hill. An undrafted free agent in 2015 who briefly played on the Bengals with Whitworth, Hill was an afterthought during the 2016 preseason. He made the team but it hasn’t really been until recently that he got fixed into that starting cornerback spot for the defense and is now playing opposite one of the best in the game. How does Hill feel now that he’s gone from a Hard Knocks afterthought to being a key part of the secondary?
Similarly, Higbee and Havenstein have improved their own stock immensely compared to 2016, even if the latter is in a valley of the rollercoaster.
There are many reasons that this season of Hard Knocks won’t be like any other, including the fact that as much as 20% of the upcoming final roster had recently appeared on it and with this team. Maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world.
Whitworth’s Bengals won the division both times they were on the show. He’d like to go 3-for-3.