That's What She Said: 'Hard Knocks'
It all begins with a shot of a blue sky, punctuated by the kind of perfect, fluffy clouds you normally see in children's books. The camera pans down to a stunning pair of football fields, greener even than the sky is blue, dotted by Atlanta Falcons players in red and white practice jerseys.
Two players collide, grabbing ahold of one another's pads, battling until they go careening out of bounds. Two more stay locked in each other's grip after the whistle blows the play dead. Center Joe Hawley bristles as rookie linebacker Jacques Smith gives his helmet a jab after play is stopped. Moments later, offensive tackle Ryan Schraeder gives Smith a shove and a couple of punches to the helmet.
Just another day at an NFL training camp, and our up-close-and-personal, high-definition look at all the action means "Hard Knocks" is back.
The HBO/NFL Films collaboration returns for a ninth season, focusing for the first time on the Falcons. During five one-hour episodes, viewers will get a look at head coach Mike Smith and his 90-man roster as they open training camp in Flowery Branch, Georgia, trying to rebound from a disappointing 4-12 season in 2013.
The focus for this Falcons team from Day 1 is clear: get tougher and win the line of scrimmage. With physical play at a premium, skirmishes between teammates occur regularly, eventually causing new offensive line coach Mike Tice to exclaim, "We're not going to get any better doing that s---t."
Tice, who utters several profanities in the episode, seems primed to take over for Jets special-teams coach Mike Westhoff, whose foul mouth made him famous in a previous season of "Hard Knocks."
A few players come up with memorable quotes of their own:
Receiver Harry Douglas, while unpacking: "Don't judge me, but I use women's deodorant. It keeps me fresh, I just love the way it smells. I don't like the way men's deodorant smells. Got my Secret."
Running back Devonta Freeman, while testing out a bathtub at a possible rental apartment: "Big tub. Boss like. Just chillin' right here."
Defensive tackle Donte Rumph on playing well enough to shed his unfortunate nickname, Cupcake: "We threw Cupcake in the river with two cement bricks on his feet, so Cupcake is dead."
Defensive lineman Ra'shede Hageman, watching skydivers land before a scrimmage: "Would you do that? Would you skydive?"
Teammate: "I'm scared of Ferris wheels, dog."
Paul Soliai, a 345-pound defensive tackle, on skydiving: "I'd do it, but I'm too heavy for it."
Guard Jon Asamoah: "Yeah, you might need two parachutes."
Scene Stealers And Breakout Performers
After one episode none of the Falcons players seem like they'll make the impact of, say, a James Harrison, Margus Hunt or Antonio Cromartie in years past, but star running back Steven Jackson is certainly likable early on. Here's Jackson helping his teammates stay focused when facing the prospect of future cuts:
"Only so many men gonna make this team," Jackson says. "But at the end of the day we can still be brothers, we can still reach out to each other, still uplift each other. That's really what life is about, you know. ... I make a lot of money, had a lot of success ... I want you to know, whatever you need, whatever you ask me I'm gonna try to do my best to make sure you have that."
Later in the episode Jackson injures his hamstring. Coach Smith says he's expected to miss a few weeks. While the coaches switch their focus to rookie running back Freeman, the cameras might focus more on Jackson's art. Early on in this episode the "Hard Knocks" crew tagged along as Jackson welcomed people to an exhibit of his work at a Los Angeles-area art gallery.
Kroy Biermann is likely to get a lot of camera time, something he's used to by now. The defensive end, fighting to come back from an Achilles injury last season, is married to reality "star" Kim Zolciak. The former "Real Housewives of Atlanta" cast member is now the focus of Bravo's "Don't Be Tardy," a reality show about her life with Biermann and her six children (four with Biermann, two from a previous relationship).
Douglas is primed to be the show's comic relief, dropping one-liners here and there. And he'll likely share a little of the stand-up mike with rookie safety Dezmen Southward, who did an impression of special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong in front of the team.
"How many receivers we got on this team?" Southward says.
"Julio and Roddy!" someone yells.
"How many balls we got?" Southward continues.
"One," a teammate's reply.
"Well then, one of y'all better get your ass on special teams."
A Few Fireworks, But ...
Unlike last year, when the opening episode of "Hard Knocks" told the sad story of Bengals defensive tackle Larry Black dislocating his ankle and ending his season, the Falcons make it out of Day 1 of the series with no major injuries. The team does, however, lose a player to retirement.
Defensive tackle Peria Jerry surprises coaches and teammates with the news he will be retiring, effective immediately. He seems sure of his decision to leave the game, but not so sure about what he might do next. "Probably just, you know, work, with [my family]," he tells Coach Smith. "You know, do something with my family. You know, just something. I'm gonna figure it out."
The opening episode concludes at Archer High School, where the Falcons hold a "Friday Night Lights" scrimmage in front of over 12,000 fans. After the game, players sign autographs while the sky explodes into fireworks.
The first episode of "Hard Knocks" begins with hard hits and ends with a bang, but lacks some of the humor and edge of previous seasons. Let's hope for more dramatics in episode two next week.