The first episode of Hard Knocks, featuring the Bengals training camp, concluded Tuesday night. Unlike the previous iteration in '09, this didn't feature a core of personalities that dominated the show with buzz words and antics. In fact, this episode largely highlighted the team's camaraderie, chemistry, and how much they enjoying being together. Obviously there are players that Hard Knocks will gravitate to, from the starting quarterback Andy Dalton, to the superstars in A.J. Green and Geno Atkins. But you never felt like the show was dominated by one person. Rather it was dominated by one team.
The opening moments of the episode was the setup. From Andy Dalton doing pilates with his wife Jordan, to Geno Atkins throwing out the first pitch at the Reds game, most of the first ten minutes opened the show's storylines. There were speeches from Mike Zimmer talking about excellence and Marvin Lewis reiterating that by "busting your ass", you will find a job; if not with the Bengals, then with someone else.
But if there was a personality, it wasn't a player.
Hue Jackson opened the show, treating his running backs to dinner at a local restaurant and talking to rookies Giovani Bernard and Rex Burkhead about how tough training camp can be. Marvin Lewis hosted the team's staff party prior to the first practice with coaches, front office personnel and their families (nice pool, Marvin). Adam Jones runs out of gas, finds someone passing by to get him to the stadium and leaving his car behind for AAA... and his wife. A.J. Green learned how to drive a BMW and Giovani Bernard is cruising through Cincinnati traffic in a minivan. Nice.
A.J. Green's injury was highlighted early, showing the play, the diagnosis, and that was the extent of his participation. Lewis told Zimmer afterward that the team "dodged a bullet." That goes without saying, Marv. Eventually the men cleared out and Jay Gruden's son occupied a laptop explaining his fantasy football team to Andy Dalton (who was very interested) and Andrew Whitworth (who was just hanging around).
Some of the nicer moments, the one's that fans will gravitate to, was the bantering between coaches and coaches and players. Jackson, an assistant defensive backs coach in '12, moved to the offensive side of the ball as the team's running back's coach. Jackson often mixed it up with the defensive players, sometimes down-right trashing-talking them. Several times Mike Zimmer called Jackson out, "are you lost," or "quit talking to my guys", all in obvious light-hearted humor.
Jay Gruden spent a moment to banter with James Harrison, telling him to lay off the merchandise (A.J. Green). Harrison likes touching the merchandise. Eventually Gruden relented and they understood each other. But Gruden had the final word with "seriously, don't touch him." Later, Gruden was tracking down Bernard on a passing play and when the play was over, Gruden was clearly sucking in massive amounts of oxygen. Giovani with a hand on his back asked, "are you alright?" Gruden: "Shut up."
And the storyline on James Harrison? Avoiding the cameras at all cost; shutting doors behind him, even sprinting away from them. And when he wasn't avoiding them, he was flipping them off. Very Harrison-like. We expected nothing less. But there was a few minutes about the attitude Harrison brought; and the delicious highlights of him pile-driving Carson Palmer. Alright. We kid. Kind of.
What I really enjoyed though is the camaraderie; most of that we've known about for two year, but haven't seen up-close like what Hard Knocks provides. From Jermaine Gresham challenging Geno Atkins in the Oklahoma drill, to the players and coaches making fun of Dalton's rubber ring or Bruce Taylor's conditioning, it was awesome. Taylor Mays talking with teammates (extensively too) about superhero powers. Wow.
There were some focused storylines, including Giovani Bernard getting comfortable in his apartment and shouting to party-goers in a pool several stories below "who dey". Or how much the defense is targeting to Bernard, to the point of Lewis telling players to take it easy on him. We're not sure if that was a good thing for Bernard's ego. The rookie life, I suppose, can be rough. Mike Brown offered his commentary that Geno Atkins walks "like a duck", but we weren't privy to much Chris Harrington conversation.
The most heart-breaking moment was obviously Larry Black's injury, when he dislocated his ankle. Let me say this. You never get the human feel of a player suffering a season-ending injury until you see their reactions afterward. Larry Black, an undrafted free agent, realized the extent of his injury and broke down in tears; an injury that he realizes could jeopardize his very young career. Though we have a feeling he'll back; Marvin Lewis and defensive line coach Jay Hayes have praised Black's worth ethic, saying "he has a chance" at nose tackle.
We can understand how non-fans might be bored with this episode, largely because it didn't feature the more extravagant personalities. But then the Bengals don't have those anymore. For most of us who live and breath Bengals, it's clear that Cincinnati has the best chemistry among the players, the coaches, and the relationship between the coaches and the players is just as enticing.
What did you get out of it?