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Hard Thoughts: Breaking Down The First Episode of HBO’s HARD KNOCKS

Scott Thomas and Tyler Williams take on Hard Knocks.

This image is in the public domain through Pexels

Hard Thoughts: Breaking Down The First Episode of HBO’s HARD KNOCKS

Estimated Reading Time: 5 Minutes


Let me be blunt. On a scale from one to Jon Gruden, I am Jon Gruden hyped for Hard Knocks. HBO’s NFL preseason docudrama has often played like a soap opera, capturing everything from Vonte Davis being traded to Bob Wylie ranting on a whim about D-Day. And in fact, Tyler? Let’s pause and watch that now.

Are you not entertained? Whether you like pro football or not, it’s impossible to call Knocks anything less than “so enthralling.” On any given episode, it can be an incisive portrait of fragile masculinity; it can also be MTV Cribs! And through ‘19-20 Oakland Raiders? It could just as easily be both. The Raiders were all drama always last season — and with their camera-savvy coach in charge of the both the program’s edits and questionable QB battle, it should be anything but boring.

But Tyler — what say you?


I have to say, I am entertained! The players and even the coaches are eating up the camera. It is a full blown show that now allows the players to make a brand of themselves. To be honest, I’m okay with this. Things are weird because they obviously know they are basically tv stars… but they aren’t actors… For instance, in this episode Derek Carr has a quick head coach to QB chat with Jon Gruden in practice, and Carr is so skiddish and aware of the camera that it makes him nervous. He then closes out the the chat with, “I love you” and Gruden kinda tosses his hands up on the walk away.

Also, the rookie date of all rookie dates, Jonathan Abram and Clellin Ferrel go horse back riding (while holding hands) and go grape picking (while tossing grapes into each others mouth). It’s been quite a romanticized camp to say the least. Look for a lot more stories on Jonathan Abram as he is a hard hitting character. Confrontational, aggressive and unapologetic, but somehow you really appreciate him.


If Jonathan Abram had only graced this episode with his pronunciation of “salmon,” I might’ve named my first born after him. As it stands, he actually gave us a glimpse behind the media curtain these Raiders are erecting. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said this squad is “eating the camera up” — they almost couldn’t be more media savvy. Which is why Abram’s exchange with Gruden around the thirty minute mark is so refreshing and unexpected. 

Honestly: when’s the last time you saw Jon “This Guy!” Gruden on his back foot? He genuinely doesn’t know how to deal with Abram in this instance. And the way the rookie safety gets him flustered feels telling. There was a lot of unrest on, and mismanagement of, this roster last year, and moments like this — coupled with Antonio Brown’s cold feet — don’t do much to shake the notion that the Raiders swagger might be a lot like that hot air balloon ride AB takes: inflated. 


Right. Something else that’s strange: we thought we had a storyline with Ronald Ollie, the Undrafted Free Agent out of East Mississippi Community College well known for the Netflix original series Last Chance U. Many know about Last Chance U and many know of Ronald Ollie, but few know if he will be a NFL player or not. It looks as though he doesn’t believe in himself either, showing signs of laziness and eventually bowing out of reps, claiming a foot injury. Only moments later, Ollie was cut and his locker was quickly cleaned out. The first Hard Knocks cut was given to us in the first episode.

That hardly happens until episode 2 or 3. Many early Hard Knock cuts tend to be due to off the field issues. It almost felt like this was planned. Like bring him in to set an example that the Raiders are serious. Or something like that.


I couldn’t agree more. There’s actually a lot in this episode that feels planned, nothing more so than an appearance by this legend right here:

Look, I get it. Not every team can count the Mayor of Flavortown as a fan, much less one who attends their practices. Jon Gruden gets that too. Fieri’s appearance is an endorsement of the culture change Gruden’s trying to make this year. Every season of Hard Knocks reveals what its spotlit team is selling — whether it’s “tough Jeff Fisher” or “all star Jameis Winston”— and, in the Raiders case, they’re hocking their present by pushing their legacy. They’re also making speeches. 


Coach Gruden’s opening speech to the rookies was phenomenal. I mean HO-LEE SHEET. He really set the tone for his expectations and how he feels about dreams of being in the NFL. “I’m really not into dreams anymore, okay? I’m into f****** nightmares! You guys with me on that? You gotta take their job. You gotta take their heart!” It seems as though the theme of this Hard Knocks is getting that real Raider mentality. “The Autumn Wind” type of mentality. If Gruden can instill that in his players the Oakland Raiders could be a nasty team. 


It begs the question — are the Raiders the team Gruden speaks of or the one we see through the cracks? Only time and lengthy horse rides will tell.

See y’all back here in seven!

Scott Thomas is a former AAU National Karate champion who now acts Off-Broadway. He can be seen in A24’s Skin this summer; as importantly, he’s a Bulls fan. Should you crave his Marvel Cinematic Universe takes, he co-hosts THE INFINITY PODCAST with Patrick Willems and Rachel “Quirky” Schenk. Should you wish to debate how clutch Russ is or Mitch Trubisky with him, you can do so on Twitter or Instagram at @OGScottieT. Current cast member of Ten Bones “Entirely From Memory” series at Littlefield, former ringer for the War Horse softball team. BEAR DOWN.

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