Hard Knocks enters its 16th season feeling more entrenched than ever in the NFL landscape.
After all, if an unprecedented global pandemic that shut down team facilities, eliminated offseason programs and wiped away the preseason wasn’t enough to send Hard Knocks on its own version of a (completely understandable!) COVID-19 opt-out, what could move the acclaimed docuseries off its course now?
(Don’t answer that question. I don’t want to know what else could happen. I am not challenging anything or anybody. Leave us alone.)
And since Hard Knocks is unstoppable and time is a flat circle, we’ve reached that period of the football calendar when I share with you which teams are Hard Knocks eligible in 2021. Before we get to it, a quick reminder of how the sausage gets made here. Based on the agreed-upon terms between the clubs and league that went into effect in 2014, teams can avoid mandatory inclusion on Hard Knocks if they fall under any of three exemptions:
- They have a first-year head coach.
- They have a playoff berth in the past two seasons.
- They have appeared on Hard Knocks in the past 10 years.
When you plug those three conditions into the Official Hard Knocks Team Generator, it spits out five possibilities for 2021. I’ll rank them in order of entertainment potential, from most compelling to least. After that, I’ll share my pick for who’ll be the actual Hard Knocks team — a choice that surges past prediction territory and floats into the mystical realm of premonition.
Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re probably thinking: The Cowboys already get far too much shine in the national spotlight for a team that’s been absent from the Super Bowl for a quarter century and counting. But here’s a newsflash: The Cowboys sell. The consistent prime-time love and endless talk show segments dedicated to the various dramas unfolding at Jerrah World? They don’t exist out of sympathy to the fan base or a deep and abiding love for the underrated works of Jay Novacek . No, the Cowboys move the needle from a business standpoint and NFL Films and HBO want as many people to watch their show as possible. My guess is the Cowboys have a standing invite to be the subject of Hard Knocks. But as we saw with the Pittsburgh Steelers last year, we don’t always get the most appealing of the “mandated” candidates. If the Cowboys are indeed the team in August, it will likely be because the Jones family wants it.
And if the Cowboys are the team? Well, there’s no dearth of quality storylines to unpack. Dak Prescott looking for a new contract and coming back from an ankle injury, the suddenly unsure place of Ezekiel Elliott in the team’s future, an electric trio of wide receivers in Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb, and intrigue on the sidelines with Mike McCarthy in win-or-else mode after last year’s 5-11 campaign. Some people might complain if “America’s Team” is on premium cable come August, but they’ll be watching it anyway.
As an extension to the above point, don’t expect to see the Giants on Hard Knocks unless the Mara family chooses to be involved. Given that hasn’t happened in the first 15 seasons of the show’s existence, it seems unlikely at this time. Then again, maybe Big Blue management will jump at the opportunity to showcase a new era of Giants football now that the Eli Manning era has receded further into memory. The organization seems quite happy with second-year coach Joe Judge, and the return of Saquon Barkley from reconstructive knee surgery is a compelling subplot, as is the story around third-year passer Daniel Jones, who may have competition in the quarterback room come training camp. The Giants will always feel like a Hard Knocks longshot — perhaps that’s part of the reason I find them to be a compelling subject.
I’ve placed the Panthers in the middle of the pack for now, but they could rise all the way to the top based on how the next couple of months play out. Carolina has an intriguing figure at coach in second-year man Matt Rhule and — like the Giants — employ a generational running back looking to rebound after a lost season in Christian McCaffrey. We imagine owner David Tepper is eager to show off the plans and construction progress of the team’s new billion-dollar headquarters. Then there’s the subject of starting quarterback; armed with a top-10 pick, the Panthers could come out of the draft with a college hotshot. They also make sense as a serious suitor for Deshaun Watson if the Texans actually decide to move their disgruntled franchise star. This is an interesting team with a chance to move into must-see TV status.
For all the hype that surrounded the NFL arrival of Kliff Kingsbury, he still profiles as something of an unknowable figure — he’s Don Draper before the Kodak pitch proved he was a star. Kingsbury’s long-term stability with the Cardinals might hinge on the outcome of the 2021 season, his third on the sideline in Arizona. There’s a saucy storyline. There’s star wattage here as well with the likes of Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins, and we know management is comfortable with cameras in the building based on the team’s star turn in the maiden voyage of All or Nothing back in 2016. The Cards would be a perfectly respectable choice.
Here’s another team that could become more compelling based on how the events of the next few months play out. We have name brands on both sides of the ball, a curmudgeonly coach in Vic Fangio who could make for good #socialcontent and, of course, John Elway — who’s no longer the GM but still casts a long shadow over the organization in his top executive role. Incumbent starter Drew Lock might (or should) have competition for his job come training camp — QB battles are naturally fertile soil for Hard Knocks. We had the Broncos all the way up at No. 2 in this same exercise a year ago — it’d be no shame if they were the choice in 2021.
And now for my premonition, one that doesn’t lean on any behind-the-scenes awareness of the decision-making process but is instead heavily rooted in broad institutional knowledge and an understanding of the shifting league landscape:
The Jacksonville Jaguars will get the nod in 2021. We’ll start with background: The Jags are the only team that’s publicly stated a desire to be the focus of a Hard Knocks season. They’ve never been selected because — we surmise — there’s never been enough buzz around the team to merit serious consideration. That’s no longer the case. The arrival of Urban Meyer as head coach and (presumably) Trevor Lawrence at quarterback as the No. 1 overall pick gives the organization a level of juice it’s never had in its 25-year history. People are actually interested in the Jaguars, and it’s not just residents of Duuuuuuuvaaal.
Meyer will obviously have a loud voice in the organization going forward, and perhaps he wants nothing to do with 100 cameras chronicling his every move during his first NFL training camp. But if there aren’t any serious internal roadblocks? If the Jags still harbor desire for the HBO star treatment?
Then we have a match. And we will have a match. That’s how premonitions work.