For the vast majority of football fans, the final game of the preseason is treated with open disdain.
Most people don't watch on TV. Judging by wide shots, not many attend the games, either. Established players typically don't see a snap, making the contests a competitive afterthought. When season-ticket holders gripe about being forced to pony up for preseason games, you can certainly see their point.
But you have to hand it to Hard Knocks. Of all the revolutionary things the HBO documentary series has done through the years, finding the beating heart of Week 4 of the preseason is among its greatest accomplishments.
Because below the surface, that final exhibition matchup bubbles with intensity and desperation. You just need to know where to look. While you were going about your business last weekend, fringe players across the country were fighting for their football lives.
Example: When fifth-round pick Ricardo Allen dropped a gift interception against the Jacksonville Jaguars, his anguished scream wasn't for the cameras. He knew he might have blown the best shot he'll ever get.
"I owe my mama a new car. I owe everybody," Allen said to no one in particular on the sideline. "I just left the money on the field."
Sure enough, Allen was one of the players who didn't make the 53-man roster. He was lucky enough to earn a spot on the practice squad, or football purgatory as narrator Liev Schreiber aptly described it.
Some guys, like quarterback T.J. Yates, used a standout performance in that final game to lock down a job. Others, like wide receiver Freddie Martino, aren't so fortunate. Martino caught a 67-yard touchdown pass against the Jaguars and still found himself sitting in Mike Smith's office the next day.
We saw veteran linebacker Pat Angerer dumping his belongings in a large plastic bag and admitting he has a growing collection of bags just like it in his garage. He can't bear to go through the ugly visual reminders of opportunity lost.
And then there's Tyler Starr, the subject of one of the most emotionally gripping moments in Hard Knocks history. It's down to Starr and fellow rookie Jacques Smith for the final linebacker spot and Starr and his girlfriend are shown walking through the parking lot of their apartment complex, hoping the phone doesn't ring on cutdown day. A Falcons employee dials a number and we wait to see if Starr will reach into his pants pocket. He doesn't. The call is for Smith.
"God bless you," the choked-up rookie said. "God bless you, man."
Smith spouts some coaching platitudes and hangs up. Starr's girlfriend jumps into his arms. One of the greatest moments in both their lives happens in front of the cameras. Goosebumps on top of goosebumps. Hard Knocks got us again.
Some other takeaways from Tuesday's Season 9 finale ...
» Last season, Bengals roster hopeful Terrence Stephen covered the John Mayer single "Gravity," a song with lyrics that unintentionally summed up the NFL training camp experience. That's right, we had ourselves an unexpected John Mayer Poignance Alert! In this season's finale, we got a montage set to "Walking Shoes" by Mali Music. MORE POIGNANCE.
» Bryan Cox remains the best. I loved when he discussed all the showers he takes for the sole purpose of allowing him to enjoy his routine of smoking his comically large cigars afterward. Eagle-eyed viewers will notice Cox was puffing on Asylum 13 cigars, which run between $5 and $10 a pop.
» Much like A.J. Green last season, I found myself left wanting to learn more about Julio Jones. The star wideout did at least get the final word during the end credits, boasting to teammates "That's how you play cards, boy," followed by a Clay Davis-approved "Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeit."
» Ricardo Allen and his girlfriend have a "Words of Wisdom" jar in their kitchen. When my wife -- a loyal Hard Knocks fan -- jokingly asked if we could have one in our home, I briefly passed out.
» "Scott From The Falcons" -- aka The Guy Who Calls Players To Tell Them Their Dreams Are Over -- has a tough gig. Here's hoping Scottie has a promotion coming before next training camp.
» So yeah, we got a good look at the Jaguars' new see-through pool cabana area at their stadium. Immediate takeaway: The clear tank idea goes horribly south when comely twenty-something girls are replaced by upwardly mobile middle-aged dads. I imagine this could end up happening a lot.
» I know Matt Ryan isn't the most dynamic dude, but his leadership abilities appeared to be far superior when compared to Andy Dalton, Ryan Tannehill and Mark Sanchez, the previous three Hard Knocks QBs.
» Speaking of Home Box Office alumni, who wins a Hard Knocks dynamic-off between coaches Mike Smith, Marvin Lewis and Joe Philbin? Sample Smith hammer drop: "Congratulations guys. You played the game to win and we got a W tonight." Al Pacino, he ain't.
» So long, Mr. Cox, the 2014 Hard Knocks MVP. I hope you live forever.