The NFL season concluded in Atlanta almost two weeks ago, but we all know that football doesn't rest. The NFL, like the common shark, must keep moving to ensure its survival. The Super Bowl sets up the NFL Scouting Combine, which segues into free agency, which gives way to the draft, OTAs and minicamps -- and after a brief early-summer respite -- it's the arrival of training camp, the preseason and Week 1.
If you're a fan like me, "Hard Knocks" has a spot in the cycle, too. The enduring HBO docuseries shows up like clockwork every August, dishing out five hour-long installments showing us life behind the scenes of an NFL team.
Last year, we got the Cleveland Browns, who provided a wonderful peek into the inner workings of a once-proud franchise trying to reboot itself after the terror of an 0-16 season. It was great television, featuring fun personalities, NFL fans' first real exposure to Baker Mayfield, and familial in-fighting of the highest order. I will never forget Todd Haley's face as Hue Jackson self-consciously reminded his underlings that he gets to "drive this bus." Two months later, both men were asked to turn over their keys.
So, yes, the 2019 edition of "Hard Knocks," the 14th season of the groundbreaking series, has a tough act to follow. The most obvious question is the biggest one: Which team will serve as the focus? Let's start with the business of laying out how the field is narrowed for "Hard Knocks" inclusion.
Teams can avoid mandatory inclusion on "Hard Knocks" if they fall under any of three exemptions:
1) They have a first-year head coach.
2) They have a playoff berth in the past two seasons.
3) They have appeared on "Hard Knocks" in the past 10 years.
Three simple rules, but it knocks out most of the league. In fact, once you finish crossing off teams, you're left with just five options. Let's power rank these teams based on each one's fit for "Hard Knocks":
1) New York Giants: The Giants are one of the NFL's signature franchises, and as such, they've always seemed to be above the fray of -- gasp -- reality television. Then again, it's not like we're talking about a "Keeping Up with the Kardashians"-style production ambushing team employees in monocles and white gloves sipping out of diamond-encrusted flutes. Unless that is the scene, in which case, the Giants have to be the choice. In addition to the team's big-ticket appeal, there are some great stories to track, chief among them the looming end of the Eli era. We could have a young hotshot to push the old QB, which would be extra spicy. There's also reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Saquon Barkley plus that Odell guy everyone loves to talk about. Sign me up.
2) Oakland Raiders: Jon Gruden and "Hard Knocks" belong together. Not sure if the pitch needs to go too far beyond that, but I'll keep going anyway. This is a precarious time for the Raiders -- perhaps the darkest era in the franchise's rich history -- and it would be fascinating to watch Gruden and the Powers That Be fight battles on multiple fronts. This is a team in a deep and painful rebuild that -- as we currently stand -- doesn't even know where it's playing home games next year. That drama, along with the pending Vegas move and three first-round draft picks sets the stage for plenty of fireworks.
3) San Francisco 49ers: A year ago in this same look-ahead exercise, the Niners were my preferred choice for "Hard Knocks." I, like most of the football-following public, was swept up in the dreamy brown eyes of Jimmy Garoppolo and the accompanying hype train that rolled into the 2018 season with no awareness of the cliff just around the bend. Yes, it was a humbling season for all parties involved by the Bay, and there is a compelling redemptive arc to track here.
4) Washington Redskins: Speaking of cliffs, we fall off pretty hard after the top three options. Let's face it: The Redskins are not the most exciting team in the league right now, and Alex Smith's devastating leg injury could set the stage for the most depressing quarterback competition in Washington since John Beck and Rex Grossman traded errant haymakers back in 2011. If nothing else, that battle did give birth to my favorite quote in my nearly nine years at NFL Media. Mike Shanahan: "I believe in 'em. And I've been doing this for a long time. And I put my reputation on these guys that they can play." Whoops.
5) Detroit Lions: We are at a weird juncture in Lions history. Before the Browns took all the dysfunctional shine, it was the Lions who stood at the vanguard of bad football teams. They even beat Cleveland to 0-16! The Lions escaped the equivalent of football hell right around the time Matthew Stafford entered the picture in 2009, but what they've settled into in the years since is a sort of NFL purgatory. Not good enough to be a contender or bad enough to be a curiosity. In other words, Detroit is not fertile soil for premium cable right now.
We should find out in April or May who will step into the "Hard Knocks" spotlight. My feeling is that HBO and NFL Films will kick the tires on the Giants and Raiders, but will eventually settle for the 49ers. Total guesswork here. And yes, there's always the chance a team volunteers for the gig. The Jaguars have been sending late-night DMs to "Hard Knocks" for years. One day, guys.
We'll leave you with some intrigue: The New York Daily News reported this week that "Hard Knocks" makers are actively courting the Jets, though the interest is not mutual at this time. The Jets, of course, starred in the greatest "Hard Knocks" season ever way back in 2010. Given the unpredictable nature of the team's offseason to date, we hold out hope that Rex Ryan will make a return to hand out some more g--damn snacks this summer.