The newest season of Hard Knocks starts with a bang. Well, actually a Bill.
"Let's be honest with each other," Texans coach Bill O'Brien says to his coaches on the eve of training camp. "This place has no respect in the league, just so you guys are all aware of that. This organization is 96-126. Thirty games below .500. Turn your TV on. Nobody talks about the Houston Texans because nobody thinks we're gonna win. And the disrespect that they show our quarterbacks? I'm tired of that, too. Because both those kids can play. They just need a chance and one of them is going to get it. Enough is enough. Every player that is out there -- all 90 players -- are players that I want for the 2015 season. When you f------ guys show up to practice tomorrow, they better be ready to f------ go."
(SMASH CUT TO HARD KNOCKS THEME AND OPENING MONTAGE)
Now that's a statement of intent. O'Brien is the jolt this series needs after feckless Mike Smith lulled America's premium cable subscribers to sleep with his doomed attempt to inspire the Falcons last summer. O'Brien is a different cat -- all fire and passion and ferocious F-bombs. Oh, the F-bombs! BOB drops them with the verve and power that the English language's most versatile word deserves.
In past Hard Knocks seasons -- there have been 10 of them now -- the head coach is often overshadowed by one of his lieutenants. We don't see that happening in Houston. In one team-building exercise, O'Brien goes around the room and asks players to identify key Texans figures -- from the COO to the owner to fellow teammates sitting in the meeting. When one Texans player can only identify linebacker Akeem Dent as a "Georgia guy," O'Brien lets him have it.
"I don't give a f--- about Georgia," the coach said. "If you haven't figured it out already. I don't give a f--- about Georgia, LSU, Arkansas, Northeast Oklahoma. I care about people. This guy's Akeem Dent!"
If O'Brien is the ID of the Texans, then J.J. Watt represents the franchise's heart and soul. As expected, Watt is a major focus in the premiere. Hard Knocks shows us the outrageous effort Watt puts in to remain the most dominant football player on the planet. His work ethic is unreal. In one passage, Watt explains a workout routine in which he turns over a 1,000-pound tire. Two years ago, he could do it once. Last season, he flipped it 30 times in one day. Earlier this offseason, he set a personal high with 51 turns. Two weeks ago, he reached 65. This is Rocky training in the Russian mountains stuff.
Watt enjoys being famous and in the spotlight -- he admits as much on Tuesday. We get access to a late-night workout -- Watt alone and sweating and under the lights -- where he manhandles tackling sleds and works on his hands with the Jugs machine (those 1-yard touchdowns passes aren't going to catch themselves!). Afterwards, he signs autographs for dozens of adoring fans, does an interview with NFL Network, then returns to sign more autographs.
Hard Knocks helpfully tells us that Watt's long day isn't done until around 10 p.m. The cynic in me wonders if the entire thing is a performance by Watt, designed to show HBO and the world that nobody can touch his MAXIMUM WATTAGE. But ultimately, I guess it doesn't really matter. His drive is unmatched. Can you blame him if he wants people to see it?
We were less satisfied with the premiere's coverage of Arian Foster's serious groin injury, which we expected to be a major plot point of this episode. Foster is seen early in the episode talking up the workout sessions engineered by his brother, Abdul, but his injury occurs off camera and we get no access with the running back from that point on.
The most intriguing bit occurs when a Texans staffer first tells O'Brien that Foster has "tweaked" his groin. O'Brien slowly trudges off the field and we get to see him process the crushing setback in real time.
(one beat ...)
(two beats ...)
Alright. (deep breath, shakes head)
O'Brien has moved forward. Sulking will do no good in his uphill quest to return the Texans to relevance.
» Welcome to the 10th season of Hard Knocks and the fourth year of weekly recaps from Around The NFL. I'll be offering up my insights of every episode from now through the finale on Sept. 8. Helpful note to the stragglers out there: HBO runs encore presentations every Wednesday at 11 p.m. ET.
» The Texans travel to Redskins camp for practices. They clearly can't wait to leave by the end. (The episode ends with one Texans player telling another: "Let's get the f--- out of Richmond." Our favorite part of the trip: Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall gets in DeAndre Hopkins' face after the Texans wide receiver drops a pass.
Hopkins -- a laconic, edgy and compelling presence here -- pushes Hall's hand away and repeatedly utters the line, "I fear God, boy" as players from both sides jaw at each other. Later, Hopkins devastates Hall with a lightning-quick out pattern that leaves the corner on the seat of his pants and with an injured groin that continues to sideline him. Hopkins' comment upon seeing Hall on the turf? "I just finished it. I didn't start nothing."
» Despite O'Brien's fast start, Vince Wilfork remains the favorite for Hard Knocks MVP this season. He appears prominently in two segments here -- a game of family hoops where he strokes long jumpers and dominates in the post ("Big down here, Big Dog. Big."), then slays Texans staffers with a joke about three women and three ice cream cones. (I'll leave it there.)
» O'Brien says Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett are "neck and neck" in Hard Knocks' first legitimate QB competition since the unforgettable Damon Huard-Brodie Croyle showdown at Chiefs camp in Season 3. Sample BOB reaction after watching film of a wretched Mallett pick: "What a stupid throw! Like ... I mean?"
» Turns out Watt isn't perfect. He gets drawn offsides in practice for the first time in the O'Brien era, leading to a humbling victory lap that draws wild cheers from fans. Earlier in the episode, Watt shows suspect flow while spitting a verse from the Fort Minor jock anthem "Remember the Name." Speaking of music, we'll cull the songs used this season into a Spotify playlist. You can listen to it while emergency workers attempt to lift a half-ton Michelin product off your sternum.
»Rookie defensive tackle Christian Covington showed up to camp with a stack of Game Of Thrones books. The man is a 290-pound spoiler alert.
"I'm gonna talk to Jay (Gruden) about maybe some music. I don't even know if they have speakers or anything like that. But maybe we can jack some music up. Some country. Some Rick Ross. Some Rick Ross. I f------ love Rick Ross, man."
I watched this interaction three times in a doomed attempt to make sense of it. Is Hopkins saying he's as good as Jerry Rice? Or does he simply believe no star receiver should work on special teams? And why would Cushing think a uniform number factors into this debate? Does Cushing believe every man in a No. 80 jersey becomes Jerry Rice? I NEED ANSWERS.