A few weeks back, I placed a call to Hard Knocks director Matt Dissinger, who was nice enough to give me five minutes as he put the final touches on the season premiere set to air the following night.
Dissinger rejected the notion, countering that the public pink slips had always been presented in a measured manner, while pointing out that the exposure had actually helped lead to jobs for many players through the years.
"I don't believe that we take these things and exploit a player for fun," Dissinger said. "I think a documentary series is to document what happens, just the same as you would if a player has a great game or if he gets criticized in a meeting. This is not a scripted reality show. We didn't write the cuts into the show. It's just a matter of course for what happens in a training camp."
Dissinger's comments were in my mind as I watched the penultimate episode of the 11th season of Hard Knocks on Tuesday night. If you're a fan of the series, you know Episode 4 is traditionally when the Turk first comes calling. Arians' comments, and Dissinger's retort, allowed me to watch the episode with a fresh perspective.
What I took out of it was a slightly different approach by Hard Knocks. On Tuesday, we saw the focus placed less on the players who were in danger and more on the team and its process.
"Our employee that tells the player that you need to go see the head coach happens to be Rock Gullickson," Jeff Fisher explains. "And I think that's important because it should be personal. No one has worked more with our players more than the strength and conditioning coach."
Gullickson has been in the game for decades. He was close enough to Brett Favre during his days with the Packers to get invited to the Gunslinger's Hall of Fame induction this summer. The popular Gullickson feels like a better fit than what we've seen in past Hard Knocks seasons, where the turk duties are handled by a younger team assistant with no apparent tie to the player.
"When you grab 'em on that day and say, 'We've got to take this walk,' you do feel it deep inside," Gullickson said. "These kids have dreamed of playing at this level for years since they were small kids and all of a sudden it may be over."
Gullickson hands off the released player to Fisher, who has handled every final interaction with a cut player since he became a head coach. Again, this is different than what we've seen in past Hard Knocks seasons. It's a personal approach by the Rams, one other teams would be wise to follow.
The closing scene of the episode might be the best of the season so far. During a weightlifting session, Gullickson surveys the room while taking periodic glances at his phone. When a name drops in his inbox, that is his cue to grab the player and take him to Fisher.
The anxiety in the room pulsates from the screen. In a particularly deft bit of storytelling, we watch Gullickson approach the area occupied by Austin Hill, known to viewers as The Underdog Wide Receiver With The Precocious Daughter. Hill looks done for ... until Gullickson veers left and grabs another player instead. Hill is safe for another day. All of this is done in slow motion with the appropriate background music to achieve maximum effect.
Is that sensationalism? Bruce Arians may argue it is. I call it tremendous storytelling of a dramatic -- and sometimes traumatic -- aspect of football life.
Odds & Ends:
» Hard Knocks producers should have just flashed SYMBOLISM ALERT on screen each time we saw black crows chilling at UC Irvine on cut day.
» Is Les Snead OK? I believe we saw him for a flash tonight, but at this point I'm not ruling out a body double covering for a more sinister reality. Snead, the NFL's most photogenic general manager and a man front and center at various league events, continues to have no presence in this series. What gives?
» I like when Hard Knocks captures football in a way that's relatable to anyone who's played the game on any level. Forget about the money and the women and the cars and the fans, sometimes you gotta run gassers when your team commits a bunch of dumb penalties. (The Rams had nine of them in their second preseason tilt.)
» It's been a tough summer for Jared Goff, whose slow progress has been accompanied by some real pain. No. 1 overall picks are not supposed to take shots like this in a game that doesn't count:
» Rams offensive line coach Paul Boudreau on center Eric Kush: "Kush, he's got a little dirtbag in him and that's good." Only in football can the term "dirtbag" be seen as a compliment. Where I grew up, dirtbags were kids in Metallica T-shirts who smoked cigarettes and hung out behind Walgreens during school hours.
» I still can't believe the Rams gave Tavon Austin that fat contract extension, but I will say Austin is a "pint-sized but pugnacious dynamo" (to borrow a phrase from narrator Liev Schreiber) equipped with a captivating Little Man Complex. When Austin inexplicably picks a sideline fight with Hayes, defensive tackle Dominique Easley can only laugh and rhetorically ask, "Why you so little?"
» Nothing sounds better than a $74 order from In-N-Out. I'll ride or die with the Double Double Animal Style.