The first voice you hear in the season premiere of "Hard Knocks" is that of Jon Gruden. How could it be anybody else?
From the moment the Oakland Raiders were announced as the subject of the 14th season of "Hard Knocks," it was a given that Gruden would be the season's star and poster boy. In a way, it's not much different from where the Raiders are as an organization in 2019. This is Chucky's show -- and it's on him to make Oakland must-see TV again. It's been a minute.
The Jon Gruden of 2019 walks a delicate balance. He's a Super Bowl-winning coach, but most players on the current Raiders were barely out of elementary school the last time he coached a team to the playoffs (that would be the 2007 Bucs). Gruden has the resume, but the paper has cracked and yellowed after a decade spent in the broadcast booth.
For all his public posturing leading up to the announcement, "Hard Knocks" always made sense for Gruden. For many who follow the sport, the coach's return to the sidelines was greeted with a heavy dose of skepticism. Gruden's first year on the job -- a 4-12 finish and trades of two superstars -- failed to convince doubters that he wasn't better off nominating Grinders and hawking Corona beer.
So consider "Hard Knocks" the perfect vehicle to posit that time has not passed the 55-year-old coach by. To show he's not Don Draper in 1970, or Shaq on the Celtics, or Rick Dalton shooting spaghetti westerns in Italy. The real proof that Gruden still matters will come if he can make the Raiders relevant again. But for now? "Hard Knocks" is a golden opportunity to engage in some positive personal branding.
"Everybody right now has dreams, don't they guys?" Gruden tells his players in the opening scene of Tuesday's premiere. "Everybody in the NFL have a dream of making it in the NFL. 'I gotta dream of winning a Super Bowl.' 'I gotta dream of being in the Pro Bowl.' I'm really not into dreams anymore, OK? I'm into f----- nightmares. You gotta end somebody's dream. You gotta take their job. You gotta take their heart. Are you guys clear about this NFL s--- now?"
Gruden's monologue proved to be foreshadowing on Tuesday night. A few minutes later, we meet defensive tackle Ronald Ollie, an undrafted free agent who appeared on the Netflix series "Last Chance U" during his time at East Mississippi Community College. On the surface, Ollie seemed to be a perfect candidate to get the five-episode arc treatment as the Requisite Underdog Long Shot. But when Ollie pulls himself out of a practice with an injury then blows off a treatment appointment, Gruden pounces on the opportunity to send a message.
"You know what? Let's get some of these f----- guys outta here who don't want to play," Gruden snarls on the practice field. "You know, if we're not going to listen to the trainer, who are we going to listen to?"
Just like that, Ollie is sent packing. In the NFL, a dream can turn into a nightmare that fast.
-- Welcome to the 14th season of "Hard Knocks" and the eighth year of weekly NFL.com recaps from yours truly. As always, I'll be offering up my insights on every episode from now through the finale on Sept. 3. New episodes premiere on HBO every Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET and PT. I'll also be talking about each episode on Wednesday editions of the Around The NFL Podcast.
-- If you were hoping "Hard Knocks" would shed some light on Antonio Brown's mysterious injury situation, no dice. Narrator Liev Schreiber explains that Brown "is hobbled by injuries to his feet" and the internal Raiders conversations we see don't dig into the origin story. The hope here was that "Hard Knocks" would confirm the incredible report from NBC Sports on Tuesday that Brown is dealing with frostbitten feet after "entering a cryotherapy machine without the proper footwear." Let's hope Brown gets back to 100 percent soon. Let's also hope that report is 100 percent factual.
UPDATE: NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported on Wednesday that Brown is indeed dealing with frostbitten feet from using a cryotherapy machine without wearing the proper footwear.
-- More Brown: Early in the episode, we see Brown working out with a personal trainer and moving like a 48-year-old Dad at an alumni flag football game on Thanksgiving morning. Later, we see AB looking like, well, AB during a Raiders practice. If the foot situation is still a subplot by next Tuesday, Raiders fans can start getting nervous.
-- How about the "Hard Knocks Theme" getting the remix treatment in Season 14? The dulcet tones of John Facenda lay over David Robidoux's stellar theme song like a warm blanket. Somewhere, Steve Sabol is smiling.
-- Derek Carr is a nice guy with muscular arms. That was my overall takeaway from the quarterback's "Hard Knocks" debut. If I'm a Raiders fan, my only concern might be that Carr is a little too nice to be Gruden's QB1. Remember, Gruden is looking for a team of monsters running on nightmare fuel. Carr seems like a guy who would insist he help you move out of your fifth-floor walkup then pick up the tab on beers afterward.
-- We have an early "Hard Knocks" MVP candidate in rookie first-round pick Johnathan Abram. The loquacious safety out of Mississippi State was all over the first installment, flexing his equine knowledge during a horseback riding expedition with fellow rookie Clelin Ferrell, debating the proper pronunciation of "salmon" with a lightly annoyed Carr and running afoul of teammates and Gruden for his physicality during a shorts and helmet practice.
Said Gruden: "There's a new league forming if you guys want to go knock the s--- out of each other for $800 a week."
-- "Old Town Road" serving as the soundtrack for Abram and Ferrell's Napa Trail adventure was the most 2019 thing imaginable. Abram even knew it was coming in real time. "Y'all gonna play 'Old Town Road' as the back song!"
-- The 2000 clip of John Madden preaching the virtues of the seven-man blocking sled was absolutely perfect. Both in how it connected the Raiders coaching great to the current Silver & Black regime and also how it reminded me (and I'm sure a lot of you) of how much the retired Madden is missed from the modern NFL landscape. BOOM!