In this, the 17th season of HBO’s Hard Knocks, the award-winning NFL Films-produced show has something that it doesn’t often get: a willing participant.
Most NFL teams would rather headbutt the grill of a tractor-trailer than consent to go under the magnifying glass of the training camp reality series. But this summer’s team, the Detroit Lions, actually volunteered to do it.
“They very much wanted to do the show,’’ said NFL Films vice president Pat Kelleher, who is one of the show’s executive producers. “It’s almost become a part of the culture of the NFL that you’re not allowed to say you want to do the show. You have to be against doing it.”
“That said, we’ve been able to get some great teams to do it over the years,” Kelleher added. “We want somebody who wants to do it. It makes our crew’s life and job easier if the team has a positive approach to it. And when the shows are done, most of the people — players, coaches, general managers, owners — usually feel it was a positive experience, even if they might’ve had some initial hesitancy about it.’’
This season’s first two episodes of Hard Knocks, which has won 18 Emmys since its 2001 debut, have drawn rave reviews. The first episode on Aug. 9 trended No. 1 on Twitter, ahead of the FBI’s raid on Mar-a-Lago.
The Lions have given NFL Films’ 35-person crew, headed by senior director Shannon Furman, unprecedented access to their suburban Detroit training facility.
“Our access has been really good,’’ Furman said. “There’s a lot more footage being sent home [to NFL Films’ Mt. Laurel, N.J., headquarters]. They’ve told me we’ve more than doubled the amount [of footage] coming in compared to last year [with the Dallas Cowboys].
We'd like to extend a personal thank you to the incredible crew of #HardKnocks 👏
— NFL (@NFL) August 21, 2022
“It’s been unbelievable,’’ said Ben Johnson, Films’ director of photography for the show. “Every player, every coach, everyone, has been on board with what we’re trying to do. It’s been too easy to film. We’re definitely sending them a lot more than we have the previous few years. We’re capturing so much good stuff you wish each show was two hours long instead of one.’’
NFL Films has 20 robotic cameras set up throughout the Lions’ facility in meeting rooms, coaches’ offices and other key locations. Those cameras are operated and monitored by two members of the crew.
There are five separate camera crews featuring a camera operator, a sound mixer and a production assistant that shoot every day. A sixth crew is added for practices and preseason games.
Campbell a Big Hit
Eight to 12 players and coaches are “wired’’ at practice each day, including head coach Dan Campbell, who has quickly become one of the stars of Hard Knocks ’22.
“People are falling in love with him,’’ Kelleher said. “He is the type of character much like Rex Ryan was when we had the Jets on [in 2010]. They become familiar with people.’’
The Lions volunteered to do Hard Knocks back in April, which allowed the NFL Films crew to do a lot of early prep work and establish a relationship with Campbell and his staff.
Again and again and again and again 😤
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) August 22, 2022
Furman and director Pat Harris made several trips to Detroit in the three months prior to the start of training camp to meet the coaches and general manager Brad Holmes, as well as the building and facilities people to get the lay of the land at the Lions’ facility.
“It’s always nice to know who the team is as early as possible,’’ Furman said. “It makes such a difference in the whole process. I had a chance to go out to Detroit three different times before camp started. I introduced myself to coach Campbell. He got a chance to ask me questions and learn a little bit about me. Building that trust early, it’s so important on a show like this. I loved working with [Cowboys coach] Mike McCarthy last year. But I didn’t meet him until July 19. We started filming two days later.’’
Finding a team to commit to Hard Knocks early hasn’t always been possible. In fact, finding a team at all hasn’t always been doable.
The first Hard Knocks debuted on HBO in 2001 after NFL Films president Steve Sabol convinced Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, whose team was coming off a Super Bowl title, to open its training camp doors to NFL Films’ cameras and microphones.
The Cowboys agreed to do it the following year, but then the show went on hiatus for four years because no one else was willing to do it. Finally, in 2007, Sabol persuaded his good friend, Kansas City Chiefs president Carl Peterson, to have his team do it.
“He had been on me for 4-5 years to do it,’’ Peterson recalled. “I said, ‘Steve, I just don’t see the benefit of this at all.’ I told him that, like everybody, we did some things that we don’t really want to share with other people; things that were exclusive and helpful, etc.
“But we were good friends and he stayed on me,” Peterson continued. “He’d say, ‘Carl, you’re going to have fans tuning in that you never realized you had.’ He said it would get our players ready to go because they’ll perk up if there’s a camera watching them all the time, which is true. I reluctantly finally said OK. Looking back, I’m glad we did it.’’
Sabol was absolutely right about the power of Hard Knocks. As Peterson found out, it isn’t just watched by hard-core football fans. That November, he was in Las Vegas during the Chiefs’ bye week for a few days of R&R.
“I’m in the pool at the Wynn or wherever we were staying,’’ he said. “This guy is swimming by. All of a sudden, he stops in the middle of his stroke, turns to me and says, ‘Hey, aren’t you Carl Peterson?’ When I told him I was, he said, ‘Man, I loved you guys on Hard Knocks. I love that show.’ I said, ‘Really? Are you an NFL fan? He said, ‘No. I’m not an NFL fan at all. But I love reality series. And I just love Hard Knocks.’’’
Legend of Sexy Rexy
One of the most popular Hard Knocks ever was the 2010 arc with Ryan and the Jets. The show shot Sexy Rexy’s Q Rating through the roof. Ryan took to the Hard Knocks’ cameras like a fish to water.
“That would be an understatement,’’ said Mike Tannenbaum, who was the Jets’ general manager from 2006 through 2012. “But to his credit, Rex is a great leader, and he’s very comfortable in his own skin. So, it all kind of worked for him and us. He was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to work hard. We’ve got a good team. And I want everybody to see us.’’’
— NFL (@NFL) July 7, 2021
Hard Knocks was must-see TV that summer. Non-sports publications like Entertainment Weekly and shows like Entertainment Tonight were doing stories on Ryan and the Jets.
Sabol had approached Tanenbaum, co-founder of The 33rd Team, about doing the show the year before in Ryan’s first year as coach. But he turned him down.
“Everybody thought it was a good idea but me,’’ Tanenbaum said. “I didn’t want to do it. The person that actually ended up convincing me to do it the next year was (Ravens’ general manager) Ozzie Newsome. He made a great point to me. He said that when they did it, they actually had better practices because when the players knew the cameras were on them they actually practiced harder. That stayed with me. A lot of people don’t know this, but Vince Lombardi used to have camera people at his practices for the same reason.’’
Tanenbaum gave NFL Films “soup-to-nuts’’ access that year.
“I trusted them absolutely, implicitly,’’ he said. “And they were incredible. They were pro’s pros. I can’t say enough about their professionalism and understanding of what was appropriate and not appropriate [to put on the air]. They’re not trying to embarrass anyone, but they’re trying to take viewers places that they ordinarily can’t go. We all respected that. We had an amazing experience with NFL Films even with our best player (cornerback Darrelle Revis) holding out on national TV.’’
There was no show in 2011, primarily because of the training camp uncertainty created by the NFL lockout. But, it returned a year later.
In 2013, the league made it more difficult for teams to say no to appearing on Hard Knocks. It announced that going forward, the only teams exempt from consideration would be teams that had appeared on the show in the previous 10 years, teams that had a first-year head coach or teams that had qualified for the postseason in one of the two previous seasons.
Telling a story
Sabol, who died of cancer in 2012 and joined his father in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020, liked to describe himself and his company as “storytellers.’’
That’s exactly what Hard Knocks is: a five-episode story about a team’s preparation for the upcoming NFL season. It introduces you to the characters and tells you their stories. It follows the established veterans and the longshot rookies.
“Not a lot of people might have known who (Lions running back) Jamaal Williams was going in[to this season’s show],’’ Kelleher said. “But after our first episode, they found out he’s a really good guy who is passionate about his craft and doesn’t ever want to go through another season like last year [when the Lions finished 3-13-1]. If you can introduce special characters who are working hard at their jobs, football fans and non-football fans can appreciate that.’’
Jamaal Williams put his whole heart into this speech. 🗣️ @jswaggdaddy
— NFL (@NFL) August 8, 2022
“That’s why I love this job so much,’’ Furman said. “I love telling stories. I said the other day that if this team isn’t your favorite team, they’re at least your second favorite team by the time you leave.’’
“What we do, which is a lot different than a lot of other reality shows, we’re just reacting,” Johnson said. “We’re reacting to situations. We have players mic’d at practice and games. But you’re always keeping your eyes and ears open for anything that’s going on that will help you tell the story of the game.
“We just react to the situation. Because we don’t know what’s coming. We just try to put ourselves in a situation to find these inside looks and show the audience what they don’t get to see normally’’
This is Furman’s eighth Hard Knocks. She said her “proudest moment’’ was telling the story of Raiders tight end, Darren Waller, in 2019. Waller battled drug addiction for years before finally getting clean in 2018. The Raiders claimed him off of the Ravens’ practice squad that year. He went on to catch 90 passes in 2019 and 107 in 2020.
“It’s usually so hard to get into backstories on this show because you’re so living in the moment and living in the training camp,’’ she said. “Being able to do that with him–and that was before anyone really knew who Darren Waller was–was kind of awesome because he was able to give us feedback about all of the people reaching out to him, and telling us the difference it was making in people’s lives. When you’re able to do that, that’s pretty special.’’
NFL Films essentially uses the same formula to make Hard Knocks now that it used back in 2001.
“We’ll make some little tweaks each year based on things that we think have gone well,’’ Kelleher said. ‘We’ve certainly added more cameras, more coverage. But the structure is pretty much the same. It’s documenting a team’s training camp experience.’’
A Flexible Plan
NFL Films goes in with a set of storylines it wants to focus on, but the situation is fluid. Kelleher and the people back in Mt. Laurel rely on Furman and Harris and the rest of the on-site crew to tell them about stories they unearth that need to be followed.
“Shannon and Pat and the crew out there will see things and shoot things that we didn’t necessarily know about going in,’’ Kelleher said. “Characters evolve. We didn’t know that the undrafted free agent offensive lineman from Nigeria (Obinna Eze) has only been playing football for seven years. Is that something we should be pursuing?”
“We knew going in that one of the storylines we were going to follow was the coaching staff, which is different from a lot of staffs in that so many of them are former NFL players, including Campbell,” Kelleher added. “Once we start shooting, does it come to fruition? Is it entertaining? Is it something that viewers are going to gravitate towards?”
.@Lions coaches Duce Staley & Aaron Glenn are pure comedy. 😅
Even the coaches get competitive at practice. (via @NFLFilms)
— NFL (@NFL) August 9, 2022
“Then (assistant head coach) Duce (Staley) and (defensive coordinator) Aaron Glenn had this rivalry that we kind of knew a little bit about,” Kelleher continued. “But then when we saw it up close, it was great. They really like to talk [trash] to each other, really like to go at it. It fit right into the vibe of camp that Campbell is trying to create as far as competition. So, we went with that.’’
“We knew the coaches were going to be great,” Furman said. “We had met with them beforehand a few times and they were terrific. We were unsure about the players. But when we did our research, we knew there were a lot of guys with really interesting stories. That was one of the reasons we brought [one-on-one] interviews back to the show in a more prominent way this year. We wanted the players and coaches to be able to tell their own stories.’’
It Takes a Village
Producing Hard Knocks is a Herculean effort. The on-site crew works 12- to 14-hour days for the six weeks they’re out there. Back in Mt. Laurel, dozens of editors and producers spend hours going over the footage and deciding what to use for each week’s show. Senior producer Gerry Reimel writes the script for each show.
“One of the reasons Hard Knocks has been successful is because it’s pretty immediate,’’ Kelleher said. “It’s different from a lot of other shows we do. Steve used to say we’re playing our Super Bowl right before the season starts because it does take a massive effort with a massive amount of people. It pretty much consumes our building for seven weeks.
“No other show we’ve ever produced or probably ever will produce involves as much manpower and as much people focusing on this show and getting it turned around and logged and edited. It’s pretty crazy,” Kelleher added.
Actor Liev Schreiber, who has narrated every Hard Knocks since its ’01 inception, was on vacation in Prague last week. So, Films had to find a recording studio there for him to do his voice-over sessions. This week, they had to find one in Kyiv, Ukraine, where Schreiber is doing charity work.
“It’s just another example of the amount of people and amount of time that we’re spending both at Films and in Detroit to get Hard Knocks on the air,’’ Kelleher said.
Deadline? What deadline?
HBO’s first airing of Hard Knocks each week is on Tuesday at 10 p.m. The crew’s deadline is Saturday at 10 p.m. But that’s not etched in stone. If something important happens on Sunday or Monday, they adjust.
In 2019, wide receiver Antonio Brown, who had been holding out, returned to camp on Tuesday morning at 10:30. They got it on the show that night.
“It’s crazy what we can do,’’ Furman said.
The signature episode of Hard Knocks every year is the final one, which takes the viewer through cutdown day.
Some have criticized NFL Films for showing players receiving the news that they’ve been cut. But they always have handled it in a respectful way.
“I know there are critics of that, and that’s the one thing that really upsets me,’’ Kelleher said. “It bums me out when somebody says Hard Knocks is exploiting those guys. We’re not exploiting them. We’re telling their story. Whenever we have a storyline of a no-name player, we’ve had instances where we’ve shown them calling their moms and their dads and telling them they made the team. It’s pretty special from a storytelling standpoint and from a personal standpoint for those individuals.”
“If you go back and look at how we present those storylines, whether they make it or whether they don’t, I think we treat those players with the kind of respect that makes me proud,” Kelleher added. “It’s certainly more respectful than a story in a newspaper that says a guy was a bust and didn’t care about football and all of that stuff. Because we show these guys and show their backstory. If it doesn’t happen for them, I think we present it in a very respectful way.’’