Chad Johnson just headbutted the final nail into the coffin of the single greatest premium cable television show since the enigmatic diner scene concluded The Sopranos in 2007. Hard Knocks was on feeble footing even before Johnson drew the ire of head coach Joe Philbin with his expletive-laden press conference, his open desire to dabble in the pornographic industry, and his recent arrest. Hard Knocks isn’t going to die because Chad Johnson will no longer play a starring role; its fate was decided long before this. You see, Hard Knocks is to television as Andy Dufresne was to Shawshank State Prison. As Red famously said, “…some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright.”
Hard Knocks is simply too damn much of a good thing. There is a central paradox when it comes to Hard Knocks. It is loved for the same reason as it is hated: accessibility. Fans love it because it gives us a clear glimpse behind doors that are generally closed tighter than Roger Goodell’s iron fist. Sports-talk radio types love it because it provides great fuel for the next day’s news cycle. We are a nation that devours football, but chalk talk and analysis become redundant, especially for the casual fan. But Hard Knocks shows us the undrafted free agent battling for a last roster spot, it gives us a seat at the table where we can hear coaches talk candidly about players whose names and faces we get to know. It opens up a world into which we have always been excluded.
But exclusion and secrecy are modus operandi when it comes to coaching staffs and front office executives. And justifiably so. Tim Tebow’s role in the New York Jet offense remains a mystery. Injury reports are routinely published with as little information as possible. No coach or general manager in his right mind is ever going to give out information that the other 31 teams could potentially use against his team.
So you have to wonder why Hard Knocks exists in the first place when apparently all it provides a football team with is exposure, something most teams seem happy to do without. (Just ask the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants who gladly go to work every day in relative anonymity in the largest sports media market in the world thanks to the Jets and their insatiable megalomania.) It certainly doesn’t provide success. The seven teams which have participated in Hard Knocks since its inception in 2001 are the Ravens, Cowboys twice, Jaguars, Chiefs, Bengals and Jets. In the seasons in which they participated in Hard Knocks these teams finished a combined 58-54 and only three of them even made the playoffs. Hard Knocks is hardly to blame for this mediocrity, but it does show that good teams rarely allow themselves to be studied by HBO’s high definition microscope.
Fans of the other 25 teams who have not opened their doors to Hard Knocks have surely asked themselves the burning question: Would I want my team to be on Hard Knocks?
As a lifelong fan and season ticket holder of the Buffalo Bills I can unequivocally say… maybe. I would love the unfiltered access that Hard Knocks provides. I’m glued to the show when it’s showcasing a team I utterly detest like the Jets or Dolphins. I’d be hanging on every twangy syllable Buddy Nix or Chan Gailey had to offer if Hard Knocks were camped out at St. John Fisher.
But I would be fearful all along about how toxic all the attention could become. The Bills thrive on a tremendous amount of apathy from football fans outside Upstate New York and seem to stumble when the national media starts paying attention. In 2008 the Bills were 5 – 1 when quarterback Trent Edwards was a guest on Pardon the Interruption. They proceeded to rattle off four straight losses. Last season the football world was buzzing with talk of the Amish Rifle and his high-powered offense, especially after home wins over the Patriots and Eagles. Then someone had the idea to “White-Out” Ralph Wilson Stadium against the Jets. That was the first of seven straight losses.
This year the Buffalo Bills welcome legendary general manager Bill Polian, key orchestrator of the long gone Super Bowl years, to the Wall of Fame. In this week’s Monday Morning Quarterback, the fabulous column written by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King (@SI_PeterKing is one of Twitter’s best follows), Polian said that he would never approve of the Colts participating in Hard Knocks while he was in charge due to the amount of negative publicity that was generated by the first episode alone. As we all know, the Bills haven’t been the same since Polian left, so I’ll take his word for it.
As for the Jets and Dolphins, I hope they continue to seek out the spotlight because it doesn’t always shine on success. The Jets will be a laughable fiasco the moment Mark Sanchez starts to struggle. (We won’t have to wait long – in Week One the Bills front four will take turns introducing his face to the turf at MetLife Stadium!) And the Dolphins will continue to do what the Dolphins do; make ridiculously bad decisions like signing an all-bark-no-bite wide receiver who was past his prime to be the number one option for a rookie quarterback who will now rely on a corps led by Legedu Naanee and Davone Bess. I’ll wait for your laughter to subside.
Ultimately Chad Johnson will not be to blame for the demise of Hard Knocks, which is only fitting because he was one of the reasons the Bengals’ season was so spectacular and he certainly stole the show in his two episodes this season with the Dolphins. The truth of the matter is that teams weren’t exactly falling over one another to get a shot at Hard Knocks this season, and the headaches it’s creating for Miami aren’t going to attract teams for signing up in the future.