This has been a different summer at NFL training camps -- and a different season of Hard Knocks -- but some things never change.
It's the last weekend before the start of the regular season, and that means final roster cuts across football. Every team needs to get down to a 53-man roster, with an additional 16 spots reserved for the practice squad (a boost of six openings from past years because of COVID-19 concerns). As usual, Hard Knocks did fine work introducing us to a handful of roster longshots on both the Rams and Chargers.
Most years, we get to see at least one player overcome the odds to realize his dream of making an NFL roster. So consider it very on brand for 2020 that none of the profiled longshots on this season of Hard Knocks survived cutdown weekend in Tuesday's season finale. Should we connect this to a summer without a preseason schedule, a reality that robbed undrafted free agents and late-round picks a huge stage to sell themselves? It probably didn't help.
Darius Bradwell, the rookie running back who, according to Chargers conditioning coach John Lott, came into camp looking like the "ice cream man," slimmed down, but still got the call from The Turk. Teammate Breiden Fehoko (the Haka dance man) also got the worst phone call in football. Rams longshots JuJu Hughes (Mr. Toothpick), Donte Deayon (skinny laughing guy) and even Brett Favre's favorite try-hard linebacker, Clay Johnston, were asked to turn in their digital playbooks.
"I played my nuts off," Johnston explains. "It was a blast."
Each of the longshots accepted invitations to join their respective practice squads -- with the exception of Johnston, who opted to join the practice squad of the Panthers, the team that employs both his father and his former coach at Baylor, Matt Rhule.
The saddest story in the finale is reserved for Derwin James, the Chargers' star safety who began the episode talking with Keenan Allen about being one big season away from having his own shoe, and ended it limping off the field after suffering a season-ending knee injury.
Hard Knocks shows us how it all went down, a non-contact injury in practice that left teammates and coaches stunned. An unidentified Charger is heard shouting, "No! No!" as James drops to the ground. "You straight, bro?" Melvin Ingram asks. "You got a cramp?" It was the sound of a concerned teammate almost trying to will the situation into something less serious.
"Every agent that has a safety that's out of work has called in the last 48 hours," says general manager Tom Telesco in the aftermath of the devastating injury.
Unfortunately for the Chargers, there's no replacing a player like Derwin James. You can hear it in Anthony Lynn's voice as he speaks on the phone from his office. "Our safety is down." There was no need to identify which safety he was referring to. James is a one-of-one type of deal.
No one is going to feel bad for the Chargers, of course. "Next man up" and all that. We learned over the past five Tuesdays that this team has expert leadership with Lynn, and it's now the head coach's job to convince the Bolts they still have a Super Bowl ceiling even without their greatest star.
No team achieves glory without surviving some hard knocks along the way.
EXTRA POINTS ...
- Man, the James injury is such a bummer. We all knew it was coming during the finale, and that knowledge made the montage of James dominating in all phases at practice all the more painful. If James returns to action next September as expected, he'll do so having missed 27 of his last 32 games. That's some really sloppy work by the Football Gods.
- Congratulations to Anthony Lynn, your official Hard Knocks: Los Angeles MVP! Lynn pretty much had the virtual trophy in the bag entering the finale, but he removed any question when he gave that honest and heartfelt pep talk to Bradwell, a young player who Lynn -- a former undrafted running back himself -- sees as a promising prospect in need of guidance. How could any player watch this season and not want to play for Lynn? The Chargers hit on someone special.
- Meanwhile, Sean McVay had a somewhat-quiet Hard Knocks debut this summer. I have a theory he decided to opt out when that whole move to take his shirt off and pretend his dog could do pool tricks went horribly sideways in the premiere. There was just no coming back from that.
- Sometimes the Hard Knocks Player-Works-Out-Alone-At-Dawn/Dusk montage feels like posturing (see: Watt, J.J.) and sometimes it ... well ... doesn't. File Tyrod Taylor's pre-dawn workout in the latter category. Taylor isn't the most talented starting quarterback in the league, but there's a reason he's getting his third opportunity to start for a team in his 10 years in the league. He works his ass off, communicates well with his coaches and teammates, and sets an example others can follow. That'll play.
- I found it weird that the name "Philip Rivers" never came up once in five episodes.
- And with that, we wrap coverage of the 15th season of Hard Knocks on NFL.com. It was another entertaining batch of episodes made especially memorable because of COVID-19 storylines and last week's powerful social justice episode, which will go down as one the series' very best. Click here to access the Hard Knocks: Los Angeles Spotify playlist, which I curate every year with the love and passion of a lovesick high school freshman.
Let's do this again in 2021 -- preferably without masks.