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'Hard Knocks' recap: Season finale filled with sad endings

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Sitting at a restaurant with two colleagues on roster cutdown weekend, Raiders defensive line coach Brentson Buckner summed up what makes this moment so difficult for NFL players.

"First time I got cut, it was eye-opening," Buckner says. "You get cut, you're like 'Oh, hold up, you mean you're telling me I'm not one of the best in the world no more? You've got to regroup."

Buckner hits on something that's easy to forget: The battle for life at the bottom of NFL rosters might seem like a competition of scrappy Average Joes, but in reality, these camp battles feature players who were legends of their high schools and stars of their college teams. The level of competition in the NFL warps how we see these players from afar.

But if you're in it? If you've lived the extraordinary lives these young men have? You can't imagine being told you're not good enough. The loss of your job is unpleasant. The hit to your pride -- the forced recalibration of your reality -- can be devastating.

"I kind of feel like a piece of s---," explains tight end Luke Willson, a Super Bowl champion in Seattle who found himself on the losing end of a roster crunch in Oakland. "But other than that, it's tough. I mean, it sucks. It's part of the business."

The "Hard Knocks" finale is filled with sad endings. Willson misses the cut. So, too, does former Broncos standout linebacker Brandon Marshall. Wide receiver Keelan Doss -- a.k.a. The Local Kid -- doesn't make it. Neither does linebacker Jason Cabinda -- we're thankful HBO doesn't show us the moment when he has to break the news to his sweet mother.

Fortunately, Doss gets picked up by the Jaguars and Cabina is signed by the Lions. Their NFL dreams will continue. For Willson, there's less certainty. The 29-year-old tight end begins a waiting game that offers no promises.

"I've been fortunate to be on the other side for a while," Willson says. "I still think I got some ball left in me, so I'll call my agent here and see how it goes. First time going through this, but it is what it is. It's not what it's not."

Cutdown weekend offers no drama for some players on Oakland's young roster. Safety Johnathan Abram and defensive tackle Clelin Ferrell are both first-round picks whose talent and draft status guarantee job safety. But that won't be the case forever.

"Only thing I keep thinking about is, if you get cut, what do you do next?" Abram asks Ferrell while the pair fish off San Francisco Bay.

Replies Ferrell: "Hope I never have to find out."

Eventually, Ferrell will. They all will. The goal is staving off that reality as long as possible. That's the "Hard Knocks" life.

EXTRA POINTS ...

-- Patrick Mahomes ran away with the NFL MVP award last season, and now Jon Gruden has boat raced the competition to secure "Hard Knocks" MVP honors this summer. Love him or hate him, Gruden has charisma that jumps off the screen. Knock if you're with me. I loved the scene of Gruden in the passenger seat of an SUV on the way to the Raiders facility, cranking up "Wherever I May Roam" by Metallica at 5 a.m. Later, as Gruden discusses the team's upcoming roster moves, we see the coach in what appears to be a state of near exhaustion -- his eyes bleary and the lines in his face as defined as ever. We don't know if Oakland will get the expected return on its 10-year, $100 million investment, but the man has clearly dedicated his life to making the Raiders a success.

-- More Gruden: Loved his words of encouragement to a new official working the Raiders' preseason finale: "Welcome aboard. Good luck. You're in a sh-- ... you're in a crazy business, man. I wouldn't do it if I was you. I'd sit in New York City in an air-conditioned [room]. Correct all these f--- ups."

-- I know everyone in high-def slo-mo looks unstoppable on NFL Films, but no player this side of peak Jerry Rice has ever looked more unstoppable than Antonio Brown at Raiders practice. If season predictions were based on "Hard Knocks" footage, I'd predict 300 catches for Brown. Instead, I peg him for his typical 110.

-- Another strong season of narrator work from Liev Schreiber, who saved his greatest one-liner for the finale: "Mike Glennon has been battling all camp to secure the backup quarterback job. Right now, he's ahead by a neck." Even Ray Donovan's got Glennon neck bits!

-- Willson is one of my favorite "Hard Knocks" personalities ever. A funny, gregarious guy who will probably do very well in broadcasting if he chooses that path post-football. I also loved his elevator small-talk with the young Raiders staffer tasked with leading him through the cut process at team headquarters. "Yeah, it's kind of a sh---y day for you guys." Having empathy for The Turk is profoundly Canadian.

-- Raiders owner Mark Davis stayed in the background on "Hard Knocks," but we got a really nice moment in the finale when he takes cameras inside his dad's office, untouched since Al Davis' death in October 2011. "'Til you find someone who has been a scout, a coach, a general manager, a commissioner and an owner, it's pretty hard to find someone to fill the shoes for this room, so it's stayed this way." The comments help you better understand the burden the son of Al Davis has faced his entire life.

-- And there you have it, another year of "Hard Knocks" is in the books. Click the tabs above if you missed any of our five episode recaps. If you're interested in a stroll down "Hard Knocks" memory lane, you can access my complete recap archive here. Finally, below you'll find the complete "Hard Knocks" XIV playlist. This was one of the best collections of music the show has ever put together, so enjoy. Thanks for reading. 'Til next year!

Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter @danhanzus. For more from Hanzus, check out his weekly NFL Power Rankings and listen to the Around The NFL Podcast, three times a week.

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