When Hard Knocks returns to HBO later this summer, it will mark the 15th season of the acclaimed docuseries.
The show, which takes viewers behind the scenes of an NFL training camp, is a groundbreaker. It's become an institution. You can use the word "venerable" to describe it. It's the sports television equivalent of Saturday Night Live: People love to complain about it, or say it was better back in the day, or say it should be cancelled ... but those same critics still watch it anyway. SNL is in its 45th season; if we're lucky, we'll be watching rookie QB Patrick Mahomes III on a veteran snacks run at Costco on the 2050 season of Hard Knocks.
For now, let's stay in the present. The Raiders, of course, served as the Hard Knocks focus in 2019. Who will get the call this August? As a reminder, let's lay out the ground rules ...
Teams can avoid mandatory inclusion on the show 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.
Those exemptions wipe out all but five teams in the league. I'll rank those five in order, counting down from least to most compelling. And remember, any team has the right to volunteer to be the focus of the program. One day, this has to happen. Imagine Bill Belichick pulling off his hoodie in the middle of his NFL Scouting Combine press conference to reveal a HARD KNOCKS: TRAINING CAMP WITH THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS T-shirt underneath. "We're on to premium cable." Twitter would explode.
I digress. Let's rank 'em up:
5) Detroit Lions: This is the second straight year the Lions are eligible. Hard Knocks producers went in a different direction in 2019, and we're not seeing what has changed to sway opinions in 2020. Simply put, the Lions lack juice. This is a 3-12-1 team that will likely put its offseason focus on improving a dreadful defense. Barring the highly unlikely possibility of a Matthew Stafford trade, it's hard to find an easy hook for this team. You'll still get that Thanksgiving game, though, Lions fans.
4) Jacksonville Jaguars: The big get here would be Gardner Minshew, the charismatic fan favorite who would undoubtedly flourish in the Hard Knocks spotlight. We don't know if Minshew will be Jacksonville's Week 1 starter at quarterback (Minshew Maniacs tend to overlook that their leader was only a tick or two above OK as a rookie), but show producers know the mustachioed second-year man will be in the building. Doug Marrone could also serve as an interesting subject: The head coach will be sitting on the NFL's hottest seat as the 2020 season opens. The perfect time to bring in 128 cameras!
3) Arizona Cardinals: We could have a match here. The Cardinals allowed NFL Films to document them over the course of the entire 2015 season for All Or Nothing, essentially a Knocks spin-off series. I covered the show's red-carpet premiere that summer, and it was obvious that team brass and many of the players in attendance enjoyed the spotlight. Then there's the recent comments from team president Michael Bidwill: "We're always going to listen to everything. We'll see what comes up." Bidwill added that the Cardinals had "done a good job of being available and volunteering to do things." It feels like Bidwill sees these shows as a way to promote and elevate the Cardinals brand. There are much worse fates for Hard Knocks than documenting the life and times of Kyler Murray on the precipice of a potentially Lamarian Year 2 leap.
2) Denver Broncos: The Broncos are compelling because of the man in charge. Few individuals in the sport carry the cachet and name-brand pop of one John Albert Elway Jr., the Hall of Fame quarterback turned front office wunderkind turned fan base scapegoat. The Broncos have missed the playoffs in four straight seasons since their conquest in Super Bowl 50, and Elway -- in his role as general manager and czar of football operations -- will be under immense pressure to get the organization back on track. Other savory subplots: the rap stylings of quarterback Drew Lock and the always entertaining Von Miller. One final note here: It's fair to wonder if the Broncos' unsettled ownership situation would prompt NFL Films to take Denver out of the mix for the time being.
1) Pittsburgh Steelers: They're the heavy Vegas favorite for a reason. The Steelers are NFL blue blood royalty and come fully loaded with one of the most passionate fan bases in the sport. Let's face it: Franchises of the Steelers' quality don't show up very often on Hard Knocks. If you apply the current inclusion rules to the entire run of the show (which dates back to 2001), Pittsburgh would have been an option for mandatory inclusion just once before 2020. So NFL Films and HBO have a window here, and it might not stay open long. Throw in Ben Roethlisberger's return from a major elbow injury, engrossing human interest stories around guys like Ryan Shazier and James Conner, and the completely inevitable Wiz Khalifa camp visit, and Pittsburgh is a slam dunk No. 1 choice.
What say you, Coach Tomlin?
Don't ask, Hard Knocks. Just show up.