Every season of Hard Knocks is different ... but it's also kind of the same. There isn't Radiohead-level reinvention each August -- and that's perfectly fine. A Hard Knocks season should be comfortable and lived in, like that throwback jersey you pull over your head on the first Sunday of every season.
The teams and players change, but there's a formula in play, a blueprint. Seasons rise and fall on the ability to take those tried and true narrative arcs and marry them with the most compelling personalities available.
Last year's study of the Los Angeles Rams suffered because producers were unable to find that elusive mix. Sure, Jeff Fisher was intriguing in a car-crash-on-the-405-in-rush-hour kind of way and, yeah, William Hayes outing himself as a legitimate dino-truther was disturbingly humorous. But other storylines sagged (do something, Jared Goff!). The viewer could feel the strain.
Thankfully, those challenges have not carried over to the current season. The study of the Bucs has been a fun ride for three episodes and counting. Why has this season stacked up favorably in the Hard Knocks cannon? Simple: They found a way to make the formula work.
Here are four vital areas where Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has scored crucial victories:
THE YOUNG STAR
Winston has been a certified Charisma Machine for three weeks and counting. He loves football, he loves his teammates, and he loves the cameras. Everybody wins. Hard Knocks has also done a great job illustrating how far Winston still has to go from a development standpoint.
Winston is the center of the Bucs' universe, but he's also a genuine work in progress. It's been fascinating to see how those two realities play off each other.
THE COMIC RELIEF
But let's not sleep on journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick -- who went to Harvard, ya know -- possesses a dry sense of humor that stands out in a typical NFL locker room. We loved how Fitz served as an audience conduit after Winston's attempt at a rhyming chant with teammates fell flat.
"I loved the uh, I felt like your rhyme was a little long, maybe it ran a little bit over," Fitzpatrick says with David Spade-level condenscention. "I liked it."
He did not like it.
THE O.U.R. (OBLIGATORY UNDRAFTED ROOKIES)
Any Hard Knocks season worth its salt includes several player studies at the bottom of the roster who tug directly on the strings attached to our blackened hearts. Plenty of time has been invested in rookie linebacker Riley Bullough, who loves tackling things and hates being called Joe Dirt. He's an easy guy to root for.
Episode 3 put focus on cornerback Maurice Fleming, who gutted his way through the preseason win over the Jaguars despite suffering a knee injury that ended his hopes of making the team. Fleming's decision to play through pain may have exacerbated the injury, but getting hurt is not really an option for the hundreds of roster hopefuls like Fleming. "Can't make the club in the tub" and all that. It was tough to watch Fleming stay on the field in a compromised state, but it made perfect sense why he did it. Tough break, tough gig.
Not everyone in my office has been a fan of Dirk Koetter, but I've been generally impressed by the coach. He seems to strike a nice balance between being a hard-ass and a overly chummy player's coach. Unless you're Vince Lombardi or Pete Carroll, it's probably best to try to straddle the fence.
Koetter getting after Winston on the sideline following a grisly near-INT against the Jags gave some nice perspective on that (very important) coach/QB relationship.
"Jameis, you're f-----' playing a great game. You're playing a great game. And then your greed takes over. If this is real football that's so f-----' stupid. ... You're so much better than that. You're so much better."
You'd be mad too if your quarterback tried this crap:
- Running back Peyton Barber probably doesn't love the fact that his Hard Knocks star turn so far is getting reamed by his quarterback. "Hey ... Pey ... don't go in the hole on that soft s--- no more," Winston said during a scrimmage with the Jaguars. "No, no, no ... listen to me. Bring the noise, man. That's another team. Look me in my eye. Bring the noise. We're here to win not here to take it easy on nobody."
- Another familiar figure in Hard Knocks universe? The Gentle Giant Who Likes To Use His Off Day To Unwind By The Sea With A Guitar And His Thoughts. Ali Marpet hits Sensitive Jock Bingo in this scene: He's on a deserted beach ... he eats sushi ... he reads a book ... and he plays an ukelele. Is he playing "Imagine" on said beach? You bet your butt he is!
- It's never a good sign in a Hard Knocks episode when a previously unknown O.U.R. shows up in a scene that humanizes him on any level. That was Maurice Fleming learning how to swim in the opening minutes on Tuesday. From that moment on, Fleming was as doomed as the well-meaning campus security guard in a slasher movie.
- We wrote about this earlier today, but it's worth mentioning again here. As a Jets fan, there was something slightly sad about seeing Rex Ryan return to Hard Knocks as a second banana on Jon Gruden's TV crew. Ryan is a Hard Knocks legend -- true royalty thanks to his 2010 star turn on the program. Seeing him in such a marginalized state was like seeing the kid who ruled high school return to campus seven years later as a gym teacher.
- "If you got goats, you got money. I'm from Alabama. If you got some cattle, you rich." -- Jameis Winston