The Case for Each Eligible NFL team for HBO’s 2020 Season of ‘Hard Knocks’:

The NFL off-season is in full force, between free agent signings, trades, draft coverage, team rosters starting to shape up. One of the best parts of the NFL training camp is HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks’ docu-series. Typically, the featured team is announce in May. But given last year they waited until June to announce the Oakland Raiders, and the COVID-19 situation, it may be a while before we know which team is selected. Regardless, there are a finite amount of teams that fit the guidelines for 2020. Honestly, I couldn’t resist diving in and making the case for each.

For those that may not know, the following are the stipulations to an NFL being eligible to be on ‘Hard-Knocks’. If you didn’t know – it’ll probably make a lot more sense why some teams have never been featured (*cough*cough* the Patriots *cough*cough*). The team featured must:

-Have not made the playoffs in either of the last 2 seasons.

-Not have a head coach in their 1st year.

-Have not been featured on ‘Hard Knocks’ in the last 10 years.

Not going to lie, at first glance, it seemed like a pretty weak list for 2020. But with a little digging, and a positive attitude I talked myself into (almost) each team being a viable option. Assuming the NFL season starts close to on-time, I imagine the ‘Hard Knocks’ train will roll on for their 15th season. 

@ HBO, if you’re reading this – the answer is yes – you have my full permission to use my ‘Hard Knocks’ graphics for whichever team you select for 2020.

In no particular order, let’s dive right in: 

Pittsburgh Steelers

A season filmed in Pittsburgh would likely revolve around 3 of their biggest on-field impacts. Ben Roethlisberger, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Mike Tomlin. Beyond those 3 are the inspiring stories of Ryan Shazier, and James Conner. Both Shazier and Conner have incredible medical-related battles worthy of significant coverage. They’d undoubtedly be huge components of the season, with major upside for HBO as human-interest pieces. 

Ben Roethlisberger is 38 years old, yet it was only 1 season ago that he threw for 5,000 yards. At this point, 2018 feels like an eternity ago. Is Big Ben done playing? It appears not. Should Big Ben be done playing? Only his body knows the answer to that question. 

JuJu Smith-Schuster makes for a much better star of the show, as one of the most entertaining young players in the league. He’s only 23 (turning 24 in November), but already has a bit to prove in his 2020 season. After a monster 2018, following the Steelers losing Antonio Brown and Le’veon Bell, (as well as Big Ben to injury) his 2019 can only be described by his fantasy football owners as nightmarish. 

His 2019 aside, his personality and on-camera presence is electric, making for an entertaining component of a theoretical Hard Knocks Steelers-edition. Is he a legit #1 option for an above average NFL-offense? Are he and AB still beefing? How many Fortnite dances does he really know? All questions we hope to find out in 2020.

Mike Tomlin. Speaking for non-Steelers fans, what do we really know about him? Not a whole lot by my estimation. He’s obviously a well-respected coach (minus this), but after a hot start to his tenure in Pittsburgh (won SB XLIII in year 2), he’s petered out in terms of postseason success. I’m probably not being fair in making that statement. But, the expectations heighten when you make 2 Super Bowls (going 1-1) in the first 4 seasons as an NFL head coach for an iconic NFL franchise synonymous with winning.

Was his lone SB victory a result of a roster Bill Cowher had already built? Should he have won more with the Killer B’s (Ben, Brown, and Bell)? Is it miraculous he won as much as he did with Bell and Brown’s recently revealed antics of extreme toxicity? None of those would likely be answered from a few episodes of Hard Knocks, just Tomlin-related questions I have. Regardless, Tomlin seems like he keeps things close to his chest. Understandably, he seems pretty disinterested in being on ‘Hard Knocks’. Because of those factors, and that he doesn’t appear to be in a hot-seat situation, I wouldn’t count on him for many notable sound bites.

The hypothetical graphic for the Steelers is inspired by the recent images of Big Ben while at home. Just an absolutely insane beard grown out by Ben Roethlisberger on display in his PSA to Steelers fans regarding COVID-19. That’s like legitimate hermit-level length. It actually makes me wonder if he’s been in quarantine since his last game played (September 15th 2019)…

I give the Pittsburgh Steelers 3.5 out of 5 HBO static stars:

Detroit Lions

For the 2nd straight year the Lions are eligible for ‘Hard Knocks’…. and for the 2nd straight year, they’re unlikely to be chosen by HBO. Detroit keeps trading for and signing former Patriots for more money than they’re actually worth. League-wide speculation seems to insinuate that current and former Lions do not enjoy playing for Matt Patricia. Needless to say, things aren’t looking great for Matty P. This season could be the final stand for the rocket scientist/former Patriots defensive coordinator to keep his job.

If you’ve seen how Matt Patricia handles his interactions with the media, you’ll know this seems like a disaster in the making. A disciple of Bill Belichick having to deal with the most-invasive form of media during training camp / preseason? It’s like a car-wreck happening within your sight. Surely something you know will end poorly, but our instincts tell us we have to watch it to see how it happens.

(Side note, Matt Patricia was the easiest last-minute Halloween costume for any bearded Pats. Throw on a Patriots hoodie, a backwards hat, pencil in the ear, grab a takeout menu or something to cover your mouth with, and top it all off with an Xbox headset. BOOM, you’re instantly Matty P without feeling like you are even in costume.)

A decent crop of stars to cover in Detroit, but none that seem like instant-stars for the show. Rumored free-agent signing Devonta Freeman was on the show as a rookie back in 2014 while on the Falcons. Between Kerryon Johnson, Bo Scarbrough, and Freeman, that backfield would be a fun position group to follow for an episode. Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay, and Danny Amendola would be another solid group, all proven receivers to push each other and mentor any incoming rookies. Defensively, Trey Flowers, Jamie Collins, Duron Harmon, and Danny Shelton make for a nice Patriots reunion. I imagine the New England connection would be mentioned quite a bit, and even could be a source of division among the defensive unit? Totally speculating but that’s what this is all about!

Matt Stafford? He’s solid, but eh – are we really wondering what his day-to-day training camp routine is at this point? That poor guy is going to be one of the first very good quarterbacks of this pass-happy generation that when eligible for the Hall of Fame, won’t get in. His passing stats will look the part, but he won’t be elected. For any of you doubting the strength of his stats, he’s 18th ALL-TIME in passing yards, and only 3,586 away from the 16th spot. Very-doable for a guy who’s thrown for that in every season since 2011 (excluding last year’s injury shortened campaign). Passing touchdowns are pretty much the same for Stafford, who’s currently 19th all-time, and only 19 TDs away from that 16th spot. Oh, and he’s heading into his age-32 season so he’s got time (maybe 2-3 years) to rise up the ranks even more. 

Don’t get me wrong, I believe Stafford is a good QB, and has had a very good career. BUT, that elite club in Canton isn’t called the Pro Football Hall of Very-Good. The issue of him being elected to the Hall of Fame is not that he doesn’t deserve it, but rather the dangerous precedent it sets. Think about it, this is an era where a third of the league’s QBs throw for over 4,000 yards in a season. Pls nearly every starting QB who plays in at least 14-15 games throws for 3,000 yards in their sleep! I’ve digressed a bit here. I don’t love him, but Stafford is a very good QB, who could only be an improvement to watch on the show from last year’s super corny performance by Derek Carr.

Detroit is probably the worst option of this bunch. But with some pretty solid players in the mix, and a whole lot of tension at play, the Lions are not as bad of an option as one might think. 

The hypothetical graphic for the Lions’ season is of Matt Patricia on a scooter due to an injured foot. The imagery here is an ode to ‘Hard Knocks’ fans, who would be ‘hurting’ for entertainment value if HBO’s filming crews head to Detroit.

I give the Detroit Lions 2 out of 5 HBO static stars:

Jacksonville Jaguars

Fun fact: I’ve never met a Jags fan. Not saying they’re not out there, but that’s pretty wild to me. If you’re reading this, and are a genuine Jaguars fan, please reach out to me via Twitter. I would love to connect, and absorb any and all thoughts you have. 

I’m on the record as a Gardner Minshew II believer, partially due to his play, but just as much due to his antics and mystique. He came onto the scene RED-HOT last year. Even after a tumultuous middle-stretch of the season, Minshew turned it back on to finish the year strong. That strong close to the year enabled the Jacksonville front office to commit to Minshew over their big 2019 signing of Nick Foles. The trading of Foles incurred a dead cap penalty of $18.75 mil… with a maneuver like that, it seems safe to say Jacksonville will be led by Minshew for the foreseeable future. 

With Minshew’s meteoric rise to popularity, his flair and unique personality are a perfect face for a Jacksonville season of ‘Hard Knocks’. If you don’t know much about Minshew right now – that ought to change. I would recommend this great piece by Phillip Heilman of The Athletic on Minshew from last fall:

https://theathletic.com/1207364/2019/09/13/some-people-are-naturals-how-jaguars-qb-gardner-minshew-has-overcome-doubters-to-earn-his-nfl-shot/?article_source=search&search_query=gardner%20minshew

Among the potential on-screen star-power of the rest of the roster, they really miss the presence of Jalen Ramsey. Ramsey and his planet-sized personality/swagger would’ve had all-timer potential as a star of ‘Hard Knocks’. Still, their defense has some household names who would be fun to watch more in depth. Joe Schobert, middle linebacker, the big free-agent acquisition from the Browns. Myles Jack, Yannick Ngakoue, and Josh Allen are awesome talents that have superstar potential. Darqueze Dennard (2nd cousin of former Patriot Alfonzo Dennard), another free-agent signing, just might be their top cornerback. Wild for a secondary less than 1 year removed from both having both Ramsey and AJ Bouye. Even without Ramsey/Bouye/Calais Campbell, this defense has enough interesting pieces to give airtime to.

The Jags are scheduled for 2 games in London this year which is an interesting dynamic for players and staff to take into consideration while they prep for 2020. Dare I suggest that if a team were to move to London, it would definitely be Jacksonville? Maybe we should proactively wait for their potential move across the pond for HBO to fully document their training camp/preseason. Imagine Gardner Minshew imitating a British accent  

With Jags head coach Doug Marrone, he only rivals Matt Patricia on this list of coaches with the hottest of seats. That in itself would make for a tension-filled filming process. Imagine having your employment be criticized publicly, THEN you’re voluntold to bring in a fleet of non-team employees to videograph every possible moment for over a month?! I’m cringing at the thought – but a little more interested in this as an option now.

The Doug Marrone-led Jags have disaster potential. BUT, for those Taylor Swift fans at home sitting, wondering about the destiny of the Marrone-led Jaguars, is it going to be forever? Or is it going to go down in flames? Let me be as clear as possible. It will NOT be forever, and when it goes down for Doug Marrone, it’s a lock to go down in flames:

 

I give the Jacksonville Jaguars 3 out of 5 HBO static stars: 

Arizona Cardinals

Kyler Murray is the most promising young quarterback among any of the 5 teams available as an option. That alone might be enticing enough for HBO to pick Arizona. It’s also a great opportunity for Kyler to build his brand as he builds upon a solid 2019 rookie campaign. Kyler’s already quieted many of his doubters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the former Oakland Athletics’ 1st round pick (# 9 overall!) takes a second-year leap and is drafted as a top 5 fantasy quarterback in 2020. 

Kliff Kingsbury on TV for extended periods of time? Dangerous. You might want to watch this season discreetly (as well as discretely) in the bathroom on your phone just to hide Kliff Kingsbury from your wives/significant-others. I mean just look at the dude. On top of his undeniable good looks, Kingsbury is an offensive-guru. He proved to be an elite offensive mind at the college level, and has the potential to build the next great high-powered NFL offense revolving around Kyler Murray. Adding DeAndre Hopkins (arguably the best wide-receiver in the league) into the fold certainly helps too. While McVay is falling a bit out of favor after a rough 2019, Kingsbury has the chance to take the crown as the NFL’s current wunderkind head coach (at least until Lincoln Riley takes the leap to the pros).

On top of their youthful leaders at QB and head coach, 36-year old Larry Fitzgerald is still an Airzona Cardinal, going into year 17, all with the same franchise… I think I need to repeat that – YEAR 17! That’s bonkers in itself – but Fitz has proven he’s not just a fan-favorite, he can still be super productive. He’s the epitome of consistency, and a consummate professional of the game. He owns essentially all Cardinals franchise receiving records. On top of all that, he’s a super intelligent guy, who I would love to watch work and learn from his process. With how humble he is, you wouldn’t know it, but Larry Fitzgerald has the most all-time career earnings among non-quarterbacks (per Spotrac).

The Cardinals have sneaky potential and have the makings to be super relevant in 2020. The NFC West is no cake-walk, but with Kingsbury/Kyler/Hopkins, this offense could make all 3 of them look like superheroes… 

I give the Arizona Cardinals 4 out of 5 HBO static stars:

Denver Broncos

I’ll admit a little bias here. I’m totally a Drew Lock guy, and have been since I saw him in-person at the 2018 Liberty Bowl in Memphis. Did I attend either Mizzou or Oklahoma State? No. Why was I there? Am I a free-lancing NFL scout in my free time? I’ll let you decide.

Bottom line, Drew Lock SLINGS the football. Lock’s the perfect fit for a team like the Broncos as they wade into the obscurity of being a decent to good football team. Let’s face the facts of their reality. The Broncos are in a division that Pat Mahomes will dominate for the better part of the next decade. But, Lock has shown us something already – with a 4-1 close to the 2019 regular season. He won the games he should have (Week 16 vs the Lions, and Week 17 vs Oakland). Won at least a couple of tough games (Week 13 against the Chargers, Week 14 @ Houston [!!!!]). Got slapped around on the road by the eventual Super Bowl Champs (Week 14 @ KC). I think I’ve made my point here – I want Drew Lock content!!! 

Enough about their awe-inspiring young QB – they just signed Melvin Gordon, to play with Phillip Lindsay (who is local to the area, and has an awesome story as an undrafted free agent). Gordon’s contract is not insanely lucrative (2 years, $16 million) but represents how the Denver front office elected to bring in another RB and pay him top 10 RB money, instead of working out a long-term deal with the criminally underpaid Lindsay. 

The resulting tension and backfield dynamic here could be very entertaining. Lindsay, the unheralded stud who just won the job as lead back, finds himself once again battling for touches. Melvin Gordon, fresh off of a totally back-firing holdout with the Chargers, signs (for way less than the Chargers’ final offer in 2019) to play for a divisional rival. 

I haven’t even mentioned Von Miller, still an elite defender, with an already proven to be great on-camera personality to boot. If that’s not enough for you they’ve got John freaking Elway as their GM / grand-poobah of football operations. BUT, 2nd year head coach Vic Fangio could be the sleeper here as a hilarious source of content: 

Maybe HBO follows him through the process as he cooks a meal for his family or better yet – the team? Let’s run with that idea for a moment: 

John Elway, a self-proclaimed pasta sauce expert, tries to help and picks out a sauce (Fangio probably calls it gravy). It’s good enough… but there just isn’t enough sauce to last very long (Peyton Manning). 

Lucky for us, Elway has a couple of new in-house sauce options (Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch) to give a chance. Nah, those didn’t taste right either. 

What about the sauce they let another person use for pasta (Brock Osweiler) without giving a fair chance to? Nope, didn’t work. 

Elway goes out to the store to buy an expensive, older/experienced sauce (Case Keenum), but it just doesn’t work either. 

WAIT – after so many sauces, they plant some tomatoes, and an entirely home-made sauce emerges (Drew Lock). It seems this works, and they finally commit to a young, flavorful, yet formidable sauce. 

Wow. The script to this Denver Broncos ‘Hard Knocks’ season is basically writing itself. 

Vic Fangio turns 62 in late August, which (NFL schedule permitting) could make it’s way as a fun subplot to a Broncos ‘Hard Knocks’ episode, and inspired their hypothetical ‘Hard Knocks’ graphic. 

I give the Denver Broncos 4 out of 5 HBO static stars:

 

All things considered, the Steelers seem most likely to be selected; but I find myself rooting for the Cardinals or Broncos to be HBO’s featured team in 2020.

Quick note: this is all based on an unconfirmed assumption that HBO will be able to proceed with a 2020 season of ‘Hard Knocks’. If the NFL has to shorten the preseason and training camp period as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it could be in jeopardy. 

Looking ahead for way-too-early 2021 ‘Hard Knocks’ options, some enticing teams that become eligible should they miss the 2020 playoffs (and not hire a new coach for 2021): Bears, Chargers, Colts, Cowboys(!), Giants, Jets. 

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-Mike Gilligan (@BigGilli, and @SmallStateTakes Podcast) – https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/small-state-big-takes/id1432138166

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