Hard Knocks Review: It's A Theme Of Opportunity

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The fourth and penultimate episode of Hard Knocks aired Tuesday night and the theme was clearly a setup to next week's finale.

As fans, it's a beautiful opportunity to watch the Cincinnati Bengals on Hard Knocks. We're observers to the camaraderie between teammates, the personality of players, and the interaction of coaches in an environment where they're not filtered and coach's speak is left at the podium in the press room. Twice now we've seen this team's chemistry in '09 and now this year. Arguably it's better with this one, more down-to-earth, and even relatable.

Who didn't enjoy watching Andrew Whitworth bouncing his children with the ease of moving a chest piece? Or Domata Peko Jr., with a bedroom decked out in Bengals gear, pressuring his father to beat the Steelers and win a Super Bowl? Get 'em, Jr. Or Jayson DiManche's improvised rap that went, "Put me on special teams but I'm not a blocker. I better learn or they'll clean out my locker."

But that was the theme.

Opportunities.

Otis Hudson didn't have much of one. Signed to replace Tanner Hawkinson while the rookie lineman was rehabilitating, Hudson suffered his own foot injury. After one practice before the team traveled to Dallas, Lewis pulled him aside with typical Lewis honesty that he'll be cut when the team reduces their roster to 75. Lewis talked to all of the players that the team cut, from Quinn Sharp to Richard Quinn. All of it was civil, even playful in Quinn's instance with Lewis remarking, "You married up." Jordan Campbell, who beat J.K. Schaffer in arm wrestling but risked his championship status to James Harrison, who as the alpha male resumed his status as lead dog -- though we know that title really belongs to Vontaze Burfict now -- was just grateful to be around great linebackers.

Even wide receiver Jheranie Boyd (finally learning how to pronounce his first name), was given the opportunity but it wasn't much of one. A.J. Green returned to practice and played against the Dallas Cowboys, essentially pushing Boyd out. The writing was on the wall for Boyd, who watched the game without a snap to contribute. But you have to love his enthusiasm. Twice he reached out to Marvin Lewis, asking what he needs to do, begging the coach to allow him a chance to showcase his speed. At one point, I was hoping that they wouldn't release him. Then I realized that they waived him on Sunday. Being that as I wrote the report, you'd think I'd remember that.

In every dialogue, it was always about opportunity. We're not talking about the ass-chewing offered by Jay Gruden to his offense following the disastrous Springboro practice where there were multiple fumbles on exchanges, or a general lackadaisical effort during drills.

But the theme of opportunity wasn't just about the rookies and long-shot players. Mike Zimmer tabbed former defensive end Greg Ellis to help mentor Margus Hunt, who contributed with his first quarterback sack against the team that Ellis spent 12 years playing for -- and generating 84 quarterback sacks. Ellis taught Hunt to beat the man in front of you, then told Hunt what everyone has been preaching to him -- you have the freakish-level of talent, now you have to apply the mentality.

Mike Zimmer gave a similar speech to Devon Still. The defensive coordinator asked the second-year defensive tackle what his goals are after football. Still isn't thinking about life after football. What are Still's goals in football? Embrace the backup role and make sure there's no drop-off when Geno Atkins comes out. Zimmer didn't like that, saying he wants more out of Still. Pick up the intensity, higher expectations, play better or regret losing the opportunity that he has today because he washes out. Maybe as fans this is a little more alarming, but not necessarily surprising. Hopefully Still got the message.

But we always come back to the camaraderie, this time on the defensive line -- at one point nicknamed the Fisher-Price package. These are the deputies to Cincinnati's roster. Geno Atkins is working with DeQuin Evans, who made the mistake of not "being in the game" against the Cowboys -- and coach Jay Hayes took notice. Or Domata Peko working with Terrence Stephens. Someone asked Margus Hunt what people eat in his home country, Estonia. "Plutonium" was one response. "Straight up human growth hormones", may have earned a drug test tomorrow morning, but no less humorous with his typical quick wit.

The theme of opportunity will come to its tense conclusion next week as players learn whether they've made the 53-man roster. By the time the episode airs, we'll already know. The team will send out a press release, we'll do a story on it and that will be that. But when you add the human element of their reactions on Hard Knocks, it generates a greater impact. The feeling of relief, or emotional disappointment, will be felt and that's the greatest aspect that Hard Knocks offers viewers. It becomes more than just a game. We're no longer celebrating the Cincinnati Bengals; we're celebrating the players that play for the Cincinnati Bengals.

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