Don't be late. Don't be overweight. Don't disrespect your teammates or this game.
A simple ruleset from Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell begins this year's Hard Knocks, with the opening monologue setting the tone for the entire episode.
Campbell is a man trying to change a culture for a team that has struggled to find its identity. You can immediately feel his natural energy and his intense passion for the game of football when talking to his players. And when Campbell talks, his players listen. Not out of fear, but out of respect for him.
"There is no light at the end of the tunnel. There is no light," Campbell says, referencing the classic Metallica song No Leaf Clover. "If you're seeing a f------ light at the end of the tunnel, it's a freight train. Just put your head down and go to work. It's about to be fun, man."
And so the fun begins.
When the head coach is participating with you in training camp workouts, you know your coach means business. Campbell's serious about wanting to be close to this team. Heck, he even did 40 up-downs (almost a minute and a half of uninterrupted show time!) alongside his players, and I got a strong sense that he would've participated in the drill regardless of if the cameras were around or not. As I was watching, it felt like he wanted to be out there doing the drills. He's committed to being a coach players want to play for.
Later in the episode, a huge chunk of the Lions' coaching staff is introduced with a common background: a lengthy playing career in the NFL. Makes sense, considering Campbell himself spent a decade in the league as a tight end. The assistant coaches interviewed in the first episode -- Aaron Glenn (defensive coordinator), Kelvin Sheppard (linebackers coach), Antwaan Randle El (wide receivers coach), Hank Fraley (offensive line coach), Duce Staley (assistant head coach/running backs coach) and Mark Brunell (quarterbacks coach) -- boast a collective 72 years of NFL playing experience. On top of that, they have 103 years of training camp experience combined as either a player or coach.
"This city that we're in, they know us as former players," Staley says in reference to the coaching staff. "Our job is for them to know us as coaches that were former players before we leave here."
It gets to be an entirely different experience for the viewer to see how the interactions between the coaches and players unfold, especially when everyone is huddled up together.
Running back Jamaal Williams gives an extremely motivational speech at the end of a practice -- after hearing it, I would gladly run through a brick wall for him. It is about as raw and emotional as it gets, coming from a sixth-year veteran who has seen the highs and lows of the league.
"When you tired, think of last year and think of that f------ record," Williams screams. "Every time I get tired or I say, 'I can't go no more,' I think of that f------ record. That ain't us. We can make it. We gotta believe."
The Lions' record last season was a forgettable one (3-13-1), and the team is ready for a change. There is a strong sense of hope for the Lions this upcoming season, a feeling that was palpable in the first episode. Could it be just the Hard Knocks hype? I think it's a little too soon to tell. The Lions have been starved of sustained success for quite some time, but it seems to me they are headed in the right direction under the leadership of Campbell and the rest of the coaching staff.
If Hard Knocks was trying to sell me something, the show succeeded with its first offering. I'm all in on this journey.
Extra points ...
- Welcome to the 17th season of Hard Knocks. I will be taking over the .com duties from the legendary Dan Hanzus this year, sharing my thoughts and insight on every episode now up until the finale on Sept. 6. New episodes premiere on HBO and HBO Max every Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET. Alongside my recaps, Dan will be talking about the show with the rest of the heroes on Wednesday editions of the Around The NFL Podcast -- and with NFL Network's Colleen Wolfe on their newly launched Hard Knocks podcast.
- When describing what training camp is, there were a plethora of answers given from the players and coaches: building a brotherhood, very hard, a grind, challenging, a blessing, awesome ... because you get to hit people. And then of course, Duce Staley's answer: "a b----." Staley knows training camp isn't all fun and games.
- Aidan Hutchinson gave a slightly off-pitch rendition of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean during rookie introductions. He had to reset himself after croaking and forgetting the opening lyric, but by the time the chorus came in during his second attempt, the team was hyping him up like crazy. It was in that moment that I wanted to be in that room. Those are the fun football bonding scenes you don't see every day. Thank you, Hard Knocks.
- The love-hate relationship between Staley and Glenn is a joy to watch. In typical offensive and defensive fashion, the banter they have throughout practices is so genuine it's as if they're on the field doing the drills themselves. The trash talk between coaches is all love, though. I adore the realism it provides for how rooted and real their friendship is.
- Seeing the Lions' back-to-back first-round picks -- Penei Sewell (2021) and Hutchinson (2022) -- go at it in one-on-one drills was a special piece. Two young, talented players who could be superstars got me excited about Detroit's future. "Aidan benefits me a lot," Sewell says to reporters. "Iron sharpens iron. Everyone knows that."
- I was waiting all episode to see Jared Goff, but alas, he was nowhere to be found in the premiere other than some shots during meetings and a five-second clip of him meeting Hutchinson's father. I'm sure he'll turn up eventually, though.
- Mark Brunell gave us a quote that resonated with me and will be included in what will be my own personal touch this year with the "Quote of the Week" ...
- Quote of the Week: "To be a good player, you have to be surrounded by very good people," Brunell said. A very simple, yet strong message. Having a strong supporting cast around you, even just in life, is important in your own growth.
- Lastly, the Hard Knocks Spotify playlist tradition continues!
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