Hard Knocks is doing something it couldn't have done a decade or so ago: deliver an intimate look inside the training camps of not one, but two NFL teams at the same time.
If this were the early 2000s, such an endeavor would have required flying hard drives full of footage back to NFL Films' Mount Laurel, New Jersey, headquarters. For a show that runs on Tuesday, just hours after the final cut is completed, "it would have been impossible," NFL Films VP and senior coordinating producer Ken Rodgers said Thursday.
Thanks to advancements in technology, that is no longer the case, but a new set of challenges have arisen in this most unusual offseason. How might the crew from NFL Films and HBO Sports get up close and personal with these NFL players while also socially distancing?
It's a question that doesn't have a specific answer, and the outcome could very well look different than the imagined course of action at this point with camp still a month away.
"This year, that will be the main focus for us is making sure we work within all the guidelines present during training camp to keep our players, coaches, staff members safe," Rodgers said, adding later that NFL Films will be relying on decisions made by the NFL and NFLPA. "It will still be Hard Knocks, but it will also be Safe Knocks, I guess, this year as well."
The same could be said about the football side of things, which will operate under what remains a fluid set of requirements and circumstances. Rams coach Sean McVay didn't mince words when acknowledging the surreal and somewhat frustrating environment in which all NFL teams will operate at the start of training camp.
"It is a little bit mind-numbing when you really get down to it," McVay said. "I think it's really just figuring out what's gonna be the best way to operate but also have the agility to adjust and adapt in what is going to be a very fluid situation.
"I mean, is this crazy, Coach Lynn?" McVay said to Chargers coach Anthony Lynn in the videoconference call. "We're talking about some of this stuff and we're playing football. I mean, we're gonna social distance, but we play football? I mean, it's really hard for me to understand all this. I don't get it. I really don't."
Just like the game itself, adjustments might end up being paramount in these camps, and Hard Knocks will be there to document and deliver it. Lynn admitted the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting protocols laid out for camp have forced him to change his training camp schedule "a lot." But there might be a silver lining to the unprecedented obstacles -- much like the popularity of other new sports docuseries that have aired during the pandemic, the U.S. can gather to enjoy a weekly distraction from reality, and through that, they might also receive inspiration in how to live amid the pandemic.
"I think we have to be very transparent in showing people how we're taking care of one another and how we're trying to do this safely," Lynn said. "Just be a good example for our community and the rest of our country."
The platform provided by Hard Knocks will be more than just football, then. Of course, it always is; Hard Knocks' best work comes from the stories told around the game.
This season, it'll also be about the new home of the Rams and Chargers: SoFi Stadium, a $5 billion Inglewood palace for football in Los Angeles. A new era of football will begin in Southern California, and NFL Films and HBO Sports will be there to deliver the total picture for five weeks. That picture just might also include a close look at how NFL teams are working to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
"I can just imagine Steve Sabol being here still, which I wish he was, and I can imagine him looking at me and saying 'Well, Ken, that's what we pay you for -- to figure that out,'" Rodgers said. "You have to adjust on the fly, call an audible and produce things a different way. NFL Films has been around since 1962. We've seen a lot of stuff. We're prepared to adjust however we have to."