I can't help it -- I always wind up liking whatever team is on HBO"s "Hard Knocks."
Happened the first season with the Ravens and has continued all the way through to the Bengals last year. HBO just knows how to pull the strings. They have a template set and it works. Mix in an established veteran or two, give us lots of rookies on the bubble stuff, plenty of behind the scenes player personnel developments (one of the best subplots of last years "Hard Knocks" was the slow realization by the Bengals brass that they probably whiffed by taking Andre Smith with the sixth pick.) and go heavy on the coaches. The formula to date has been a can't miss.
(Aside, sort of: When Mike Zimmer's wife died last year it was than just another story for a lot of people because he came across as so real and likable on "Hard Knocks." Of course it's a tragedy with or without some dopey reality show, but the point is that you felt like you actually knew the guy.)
And so I have to say that I felt my heart sink just a little when I learned that the Jets would be the subject this season. I wasn't worried about my streak of liking teams ending, I was worried it was going to continue. Is it possible that HBO is this good? Can they get me to warm up to Rex Ryan? Will I bury the hatchet with LaDainian Tomlinson, the most passive-aggressive athlete alive today? After six weeks will I believe that Mark Sanchez is more than Trent Dilfer with a stubble?
Here's one man's running diary of the episode ...
10:00 p.m: HBO montage of great sports moments -- Miracle on Ice, Jackie Robinson and Bryant Gumbel looking up from his desk with a "Did Bernard Goldberg just fart again?" look on his face.
10:01: One minute in, three F-bombs from Rex. Someone's trying too hard in front of the cameras. It's 50/50 he'll be crying in the confessional room and throwing something at his ex-girlfriend by episode three.
10:02: Just showed Jason Taylor and his wife. I know you'll be stunned to read this, but she looks nothing like the two women that are always working at the Dunkin' Donuts in downtown Woburn.
10:04: First Liev Schreiber voice-over of the season. It's weird, my Liev Schreiber doll from X-Men: Wolverine sounds nothing like the Liev Schreiber voice on my GPS.
10:05: They just showed Rex actually signing his two-year contract extension. Reason No. 42,444 why we'd see "Hard Knocks: Team Al Qaeda" before Belichick ever let the Pats go on.
10:06: Jumping right into the Revis angle. I'm hoping he doesn't sign until the end of camp because A) it'll hurt the Jets, clearly, and B) it'll lead to some great stuff on the show.
10:07: Ryan: "Does it matter that Revis isn't here? Goddamn, he's pretty f-king good."
10:08: "If we are playing our best, we will beat every team in the league playing at their f--king best."
10:08:This is the first time I can write this: John Wooden is rolling over in his grave. Mel Gibson isn't comfortable with the F-bombs from Rex.
10:10: Just sat through two minutes of Rex and his Chuck Taylor shoes. I think we might already have our Jump the Shark moment on "Hard Knocks." They might as well cast Ted McGinley as the new special teams coach and be done with it.
10:11: Just showed Rex in a kind of tight shirt. The last time I saw boobs that big on HBO it was 1993 and I had the sound turned down so my parents wouldn't know I was watching "Dream On."
10:14: Here's LT, playing the same "I only care about winning" angle that no one ever really bought in San Diego. Not for nothing that Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates took shots at LT. A total phony. Here's all you need to know about LT and how much he "cares" about winning: His best chance to win a Super Bowl was in 2006, with that 13-3 Chargers team. They lose a heart-breaker to the Pats, a Level 1 ball-crusher. And what does LT do? Complain that the Pats stole Shawn Merriman's dance. All you need to know.
10:16: Here come the undrafted rookies. Always a bunch of guys sharing a dorm room, texting and playing video games. Usually HBO picks a rookie and plays out the "will he or won't he make the team" drama for the entirety of the season. But all three guys here are injured early. I'm thinking we are about 35 minutes away from bags being packed, playbooks handed over and promises of phone calls to UFL teams being made.
10:20: Liev Schreiber is in Salt. Other than Angelina Jolie, there is no one in the cast of Salt that you've ever heard of. And Liev Schreiber is someone that is a really, really good guy for most of the movie. A movie that has a massive twist at the end, where an American CIA agent is exposed as a Russian spy. Hey, doesn't Liev Schreiber kinda look Russian?
10:22: Watching Ryan tell jokes, I'm thinking he might trade a 12-win season for a guest spot on "Entourage." Speaking of which, did you know that E is short, Johnny Drama is a has-been, Turtle has no ambition and Lloyd is gay? I just wish the writers would remind us sometimes.
10:23: Just a quick montage of Rex stuffing his face. Keep in mind, the man had lap band surgery in April.
10:24: Ryan: "We won't be bullied by anybody. Not in our DNA." At least that's what I think he said, he did have nine Ring Dings in his mouth.
10:26: When the guy that told Will Hunting that he'll be making his fries grows up he is going to be Jets owner Woody Johnson.
10:28: Wow, a Mark Brunell sighting! He just skipped a pass about five feet in front of LT. In fairness, he's 62 years old, but it's never good when your backup QB does a passable Johnny Damon impression when throwing the ball.
10:31: Joe Namath and his daughter (with a "I'm not leaving without Mark Sanchez's phone number" look going) arrive at camp. Joe Willie has a polo short underneath his Jets shirt (collar up on the polo) and his shorts are a good two feet above his knees. He looks like a 25-year veteran of the LPGA Tour mixed with Ralph Furley. Please tell me this won't be Tom Brady in 2046.
10:32: I don't think Joe Namath and Laurence Fishburne will ever work together, but I'm not ready to rule that out for their daughters.
10:34: It wouldn't be a "Hard Knocks" episode without a veteran defensive player going Mel Gibson on the rest of his group. Kris Jenkins takes over the role originated by Ray Lewis.
(And yes, that's two Mel Gibson jokes. You don't like it? Too bad. You know why? Because I have plenty of energy to drive over there. You understand me? AND I WILL! SO JUST F------ LISTEN TO ME. LISTEN TO MY F------ RANTING. LISTEN TO WHAT YOU DO TO ME.)
10:35: Namath in room with Sanchez. Brunell, who has now backed up both, takes notes furiously. Namath breaks down the proper way to take a snap and the best time to hit Toot Shor's.
10:36: I'll say this: If the Jets go 6-10 next season it probably won't be so funny to Woody Johnson if Rex is still playing practical jokes and taking snaps as QB in practice. He's like an R-rated, 600-pound Pete Carroll.
10:37: Tony Richardson is the starting fullback, but after 16 years he might be on his way out. This is the the annual "starter getting pushed by hotshot rookie" angle. John Conner is the upstart. "This kid's been rocking people," said Ryan with the kind of glee usually reserved for when he finds half a Devil Dog behind the couch.
10:39: Fifty guesses as to what the clever Jets crew gave John Conner for a nickname?
10:40: Bart Scott just gave a nuanced yet accessible breakdown of Inception.
10:41: This is what makes "Hard Knocks" great: Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum driving to a diner in Sullivan County, NY to meet with Revis' agent. Three hours later he's driving back to camp, exhausted and nowhere in the process.
Tannenbaum: “They haven’t said one thing that I agree with ... We’re so freakin’ far apart that I feel like a failure right now. Six months later, we haven’t moved the needle. I just don’t get it. I tried everything.
I just wish I had another card to play here. A one-year deal. A four-year deal. A 10-year deal. In good conscience, we can move on. Maybe we’ll go trade for a corner. In good conscience, why don’t we move on and we’ll try again next year.”
You never get that kind of stuff without "Hard Knocks."
10:43: When do you think the last Duran Duran song was played in an NFL locker room? 1986?
10:46: The highlight clips of the Jets intra-squad scrimmage make the offense look like the Rams circa 2000. I'm not convinced yet.
10:48: A bunch of Jets O-lineman hit a local bar. Probably not Roger Goodell's favorite part of the episode.
10:48: Always rough to watch the first group of cuts. Kevin Basped was just told that he will never be an NFL player. And Aaron Kia gets the inevitable UFL pep talk.
10:50: Kia clears out his room and episode one is a wrap. I'd give it a B-. The Ryan act was just too forced. Hope HBO moves away from Rex and focuses more on stuff like the fullback battle and the Revis negotiations. But I think it's going to be a Rex-heavy season.
10:52: Next episode preview: Last words of the episode? "Super Bowl!"