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'Hard Knocks' premiere a reminder of show's power

Why do we still love "Hard Knocks"?

Now in its eighth season, the novelty should have worn off by now. The beats are predictable, the plot is familiar. It's an unavoidable byproduct of durability.

And yet, "Hard Knocks" remains as addictive and fascinating as ever. Maybe it's not something to overthink. Maybe we don't get sick of "Hard Knocks" for the same, simple reason we fell in love with it in the first place: It just so happens to be the greatest football program in the history of the television medium.

For the second straight year, Around The League will provide recaps of all five episodes of "Hard Knocks" as it documents training camp with the Cincinnati Bengals.

That is, unless James Harrison tells us to stop.

And so it begins


A group of rookies sit around a table at a local restaurant, eating crab legs on the day before training camp begins. With them is an assistant coach armed with 25 years of experience.

"What you guys are about to embark on is different than anything you've ever dealt with," running backs coach Hue Jackson explains. "You gotta bring your 'A' game. These are a bunch of grown men who are going to fight to keep their jobs and your job is to take their jobs."

Before the opening credits have even rolled, any new viewer should understand what "Hard Knocks" is all about.

Nice to meet you, Giovani Bernard

We like this guy. How could you not -- he drives his girlfriend's mom's Honda Odyssey for crying out loud. The first running back taken in April's draft, it's clear Bernard has caught the imagination of the Bengals' powers that be. His speed and agility jumped off the screen in HD.

"Bernard is quick, he can catch," team president Mike Brown said. "Right now we think of him as a third-down back, but that could change."

Pacman's perfect debut

It's a special brand of high comedy to watch Pacman Jones' wife deride her husband for running out of gas directly in front of Paul Brown Stadium.

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Special props to the stadium worker who pulled over to put gas in Pacman's car. His "Love The Hustle" T-shirt was sublime -- and accurate.

A.J. Green's scare was scary

We wrote a post about A.J. Green's knee scare last week, but "Hard Knocks" showed us just how nerve-wracking the moment truly was. Green came down extremely awkwardly on his left knee, and the initial reaction of teammates told the story.

"No, no, no, no, no."

"He just fell."

"Oh no."

A season hanging in the balance before it begins. Green dodged major injury, suffering a bruised knee. Coach Marvin Lewis summed it up nicely during a conversation with his coaching staff the following morning.

"Well, we dodged a bullet."

Yep.

Bruce Taylor's tough start


When rookie linebacker Bruce Taylor was introduced to America pontificating about the conditioning test and its ability to "see who's been working out, see who's been bull----ing," you knew what was coming next.

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Taylor was physically wrecked by wind sprints, telling coaches his ingestion of a caffeine pill had undermined his ability to perform. Again, this was the man who hours earlier told the nation's premium cable subscribers he was "lean, mean and ready to go."

"I can't get up. I can't stand up," a humbled Taylor told teammates afterward. "Every time I stand up, I be about to fall."

Why do we fall, Bruce? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.

Hue Jackson's big stage


Something tells us this season of "Hard Knocks" could be the perfect advertisement for Hue Jackson, who deserves a second head coaching gig.

Jackson, prematurely canned in Oakland, had all of his positive attributes on shining display during Tuesday's premiere. Jackson is smart, energetic, fun and respected by his players. This show will be good for him.

Wow, James Harrison. Just wow


Harrison surpassed all expectations. As narrator Liev Schreiber astutely pointed out, Harrison is in this world, but not of it. He also really hates the "Hard Knocks" cameras, as multiple one-finger salutes made clear.

Our favorite interaction of the night -- by far -- goes to Harrison and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, who was making the (very logical) point that A.J. Green was a valuable commodity not to be roughed up on the field.

Gruden: We don't touch the merchandise ever.
Harrison: The merchandise is going to get touched.
Gruden: Not by you, not without pads ... our future relies on this (guy).
Harrison: The merchandise come this way -- boom -- it's going to get touched. I like touching merchandise.
Gruden: Our future relies on this (guy).
Harrison: I'm not going to kill him, but I ain't going to let him get his job done.
Gruden: Just relax.
Harrison: I ain't gonna kill him, but I ain't going to let him get the job done because that mean I ain't doing mine. Understand?
Gruden: Relax ... ( This is the moment Green slinks out of frame.)
Harrison: Understand? Do we understand each other? That's all I need to know.
Gruden: We do. I'm sorry, I'm sorry ... but seriously don't hurt this (guy).

Gruden was smiling during the whole exchange, but it reminded us of Joe Pesci's famed "Funny like a clown" scene in "Goodfellas." Gruden is Ray Liotta, slowly coming to the realization he is dealing with a maniac.

Feeling for Larry


How could your heart not break for Larry Black, the promising undrafted free agent whose season was wiped out in an instant following a terrible leg and ankle injury.

It was sad and incredibly affecting to watch Black crying on the phone with his parents, asking the medical staff to help him explain his situation to his mother and father.

It was a tough reminder of the stakes at this level. Most players don't end up the star of a fairy tale. "Hard Knocks" is the perfect title for this show.

Stray thoughts

» I'm not even ready to start talking about Andy Dalton's rubber wedding ring. We need to meet the wife who tamed the NFL's Glowing Ginger Man.

» HBO should put footage of every room check on its website. I want to hear more guys get chastised for leaving the toilet seat up.

» Jack Gruden -- the young son of Jay -- knows his stuff in fantasy. Grabbing Tom Brady in the fifth round? Well done, kid.

» Stunned by the scarcity of wives, girlfriends and cheerleaders in the premiere. Women haven't been this ignored on HBO programming since "Oz."

» Hey look, it's an Aaron Maybin sighting!

» The Oklahoma Drill is the inspiration for 94 percent of the elimination events on MTV's "The Challenge."

» Looking for a random-yet-awesome fantasy team name? How about Clovernook Country Club, where golf balls are known to decimate windshields of the working man.

» Seriously though, if James Harrison asks me to stop writing these recaps, I will. Just say the word.

If you missed the premiere of "Hard Knocks," fear not. An encore play airs Wednesday at 11 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.

Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter @DanHanzus.

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