They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, but they probably never watched preseason football.
Exhibition football. August football. The games where you just pray your QB doesn't get rolled up on by a clumsy backup guard. The games where mezzanine seats get floated around your office by season ticket holders desperate to offload the redhead stepchild of their investment. "Hey man, wanna pay $100 to watch the first-team offense run the counter twice and throw a screen before taking off their shoulder pads?"
No, Chad. I do not want to do that.
Nobody could miss the preseason, right?
"I do miss the preseason," quarterback Jared Goff says during "halftime" of the Rams' full-squad scrimmage at shiny new SoFi Stadium, a moment caught in the third episode of Hard Knocks. "Getting some work in, watching the games, watching the young guys work."
We joked about the idea of an oncoming apocalypse for so long, we didn't know how to react when it actually kind of happened in 2020. Everything changed, and so much went away -- including the NFL's complete slate of preseason action. And as much as I'd love to mock Goff and Cooper Kupp (who was in full agreement with his QB), I really can't. I kind of miss the preseason, too. It used to feel like we were watching fake football games. But the preparation for this bizarre season feels almost naked without them.
There's one pocket of the universe where the preseason has always been loved and welcomed: the land of Hard Knocks. The show has an uncanny ability to shine light on the human drama buried in what -- on the surface, anyway -- feels like a mundane athletic affair with no apparent stakes. Hard Knocks squeezes fresh orange juice out of a cinderblock each summer, finding the Rudys on NFL rosters fighting to keep their dreams alive. These games have been a sturdy Hard Knocks storytelling pillar for years. Taking them away messes with the show's foundation.
Because, let's be honest: It's not easy to find intrigue and pathos in a controlled scrimmage where the quarterback can't even be tackled. The underdogs that dot the rosters of the Rams and Chargers are similarly hamstrung.
Imagine, for a moment, you're seventh-round rookie linebacker Clay Johnston. You're a sweet kid. You holler "Fudge!" when you get frustrated. You love football. Your dad's best friend is Brett Favre. You call him Papa Favre for some reason. Your raw ability is limited, but your genuine passion for the game could help secure a roster spot if you can open some eyes on the field.
But without a preseason schedule, the stage -- already postage-stamp tiny in this environment -- is that much smaller. Johnston might be someone who can make the Rams better ... will he run out of time before getting the chance to show it?
The preseason gave longshots like Johnston a real opportunity. On Tuesday's Hard Knocks, his big moment is a series during the "developmental period" of the scrimmage. Johnston sheds a blocker and makes a tackle. He's put something on tape for the coaches to think about.
Will it be enough? Has he really ever had a chance? We'll find out soon enough.
EXTRA POINTS ...
- There is no escaping Big Brother at a Hard Knocks camp. We feel for you, Dave.
- I have two young sons, ages 6 and 3. For the first time ever, they rolled into the living room and sat down next to me to watch an episode of Hard Knocks. (It was one of those Dad Moments when you act like it's not a big deal, but it totally is.) Unfortunately, the boys settled in right as wide receivers coach Phil McGeoghan broke Tony Soprano's HBO F-bomb record in about 47 seconds. Before I could make an executive decision, my wife yelled at me for being a bad parent and the children were sent away. Thanks, Phil.
- Clay Johnston really is a lovable guy ... and the random Papa Favre connection makes him a perfect focus point on the fringes of the roster. I'm not sure how NFL Films does it. He's like if you put a helmet and pads on Chris Pratt's Andy Dwyer character from Parks & Recreation. "I'm freaking stoked! This is unreal. Play my freakin' nuts off!"
- Well, it's happened again. Hard Knocks has sucked me into the Tyrod Taylor Hype Machine. The man commands respect from all corners of the locker room! His command of the offense is such that he can tweak plays in the middle of a team meeting! He only wants to help the first-round rookie who will take his job in approximately 37 days! Seriously though, Taylor might be the ideal glue guy to have in your quarterback room. Not necessarily the starter, but someone who will make the group better with his experience and leadership. Don't be surprised if he's still on a roster by the end of the decade.
- Speaking of experience and leadership, Melvin Ingram got some air time as the show delved into his brief contract "hold-in." We got a behind-the-scenes look at the veteran's limited participation in practice before the front office guaranteed his 2020 salary, a concession that put Ingram back to work in a full-time capacity. It was clear the Chargers had no issues with Ingram's calculated business decision. "Appreciate you being out here, boy," says head coach Anthony Lynn before the business was settled. The Chargers did nice work keeping this situation from becoming a distraction.
- Have we shown some love yet for venerable Hard Knocks narrator Liev Schreiber? I know he doesn't write the copy, but boy does the man make it sing. "Over the next two weeks, 27 Rams will lose their jobs. Time for longshots to take their best shot." You just told me everything I needed to know, Cotton Weary.
- Man, Keenan Allen had Chris Harris Jr. on skates in practice. Not sure if Chargers fans should be happy or worried about that one.
- The final word goes to a wired-for-sound Tyrod: "While they got me hot, go ahead and arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor. See if y'all post that one."