Ladies and gentlemen, your 2017 Hard Knocks MVP is ... (drum roll) ... Jameis Winston.
Five weeks ago, we began our episode recaps in this space by raving about the magnetic quality of the Buccaneers' third-year quarterback. Calling Winston charismatic over five episodes is selling the man short. He's been more than that. There is a special sort of je ne sais quoi at play here.
Winston goes beyond simply standing out in this documentary format. He bursts through the screen and joins you in the living room. And he has been welcome company this summer.
In a vacuum, it was peculiar to watch general manager Jason Licht explain last week how he sobbed in an empty room when Tampa Bay selected Winston first overall in the 2014 NFL Draft. But you get it after watching this season of Hard Knocks -- easily the best offering from the venerable franchise since the New York Jets season of 2010.
And Winston is the main reason why.
"I feel like it's more like, I want it more than them," Winston says with typical zeal during an impromptu explanation why players born and raised in the "Dirty South" are more viable than their northern counterparts. "To them, this is just a sport. When I think about football, I think about my love, my passion, what has football done for me as far as discipline, as far as learning how to lead. It taught me a lot about life.
"When some people play football, they think of it as just a sport. To me, it's everything."
I ran through a wall and ended up in my kitchen after this impassioned hot take. For some reason I don't feel like JAMEIS WINSTON'S CERTAIN UNDENIABLE SOMETHING is going to cut it for my landlord.
Winston is both the present and the future for the Bucs. For teammates at the bottom of the roster, the final game of the preseason represents a final fight for survival. Hard Knocks likes to pick out a handful of undrafted players and low draft picks to follow every year. And since this is a documentary made up of weekly installments, there's no way to get ahead of who the feel-good stories will ultimately be.
This season, Hard Knocks closely followed five fringe guys: Running back Jeremy "Coach Snoop" McNichols, linebacker Riley "Joe Dirt" Bullough, wide receiver Bobo "That S--- Don't Hurt Me" Wilson, wide receiver Donteea "Mr. Eclipse" Dye and quarterback Sefo "The Other Other Quarterback" Liufau. Every one of them got extensive screen time this season ... and in Tuesday's finale each of them ended up on the losing end of a phone call from Bucs director of football operations Shelton Quarles, aka, "The Turk."
This is terrible, but Wilson is the first player I've actively rooted to get cut on this show. That dude made me super mad. But I was most compelled by the saga of McNichols, a fifth-round pick whose pass protection deficiencies and overall tentativeness led to his surprise exclusion from the final 53. When he spurns a practice squad invite for the same opportunity with the 49ers, Bucs officials are peeved.
Wilson exits the Bucs' facility without speaking with Licht, a show of disrespect by a guy who felt disrespected. Earlier in training camp, Licht had to swallow his pride and admit his mistake with Roberto Aguayo. Now we see the GM real-time process the reality that another recent draft pick has been wiped away on ignominious terms. It is not a good look.
"He did?" a dumbfounded Licht responds when told McNichols has pulled an Irish Goodbye. "Alright. ... F---."
Every day there are victories and defeats inside the buildings of NFL teams. Hard Knocks shows us that daily grind. For the Bucs, the work has just begun.
» For the record, this is Winston's map of the Dirty South: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, some parts of Texas, Tennessee and northern Florida. "Southern Florida ain't even Florida for real. It's like New York, Chicago, the beaches."
» I'm sure I'm not the only one who was unaware of the harrowing details of Mike Evans' childhood. The star pass-catcher had an abusive father who suffered a grisly death at the hands of a family member. Evans' story is one of perseverance in the face of unthinkable tragedy.
» The quarterback room of Winston, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Griffin and Liufau is my favorite in Hard Knocks history. I didn't sob in an empty room or anything, but I was genuinely touched by the manner in which Winston and Fitz supported Liufau ahead of the preseason finale. "Just don't come out of this game with a regret," Fitzpatrick says to a 22-year-old kid who could take his job. The group often interacted like sitcom characters, but there was a real sense of brotherhood. These guys care about each other.
» Winston may have won MVP, but Licht gets the honors of Quote Of The Season. On his dislike for final cutdowns: "I hate today. I would rather drive across the country with Skip Bayless, and no radio working, and the heater stuck on, and a windshield wiper gets stuck on, and it's got the metal hitting the glass, and Skip Bayless."
Love how Bayless gets mentioned twice. A fate worse than death.» And now, this week's top three turns of phrase from Hard Knocks narrator Liev Schreiber:
3. "Building an NFL roster isn't a geography test, but finding the right combination of 53 players is a puzzle." DIRTY SOUTH CALLBACK!
2. "This is the fourth quarter of the fourth preseason game. If you want to make the Bucs, now is the time to go for broke." EXCELLENT MONEY SLANG REF!
1. "It seems Bobo has gone bye-bye." SEE, LIEV CAN'T STAND BOBO, EITHER!
» I got a kick out of the sideline interaction between Winston and DeSean Jackson, two men clearly still feeling each other out. It also gave a fun peek into the power dynamic of being QB1 as D-Jax jokes -- well, kind of jokes -- about wanting the relationship with Winston that the quarterback has with Evans, the team's leading receiver. "You know I love Mike," Winston responds. "Mike gave me a reason to love him. Now go ahead and give me a reason to love you, too!" I imagine Taylor Swift has conversations like this with various members of her squad.
» D-Jax's request to Winston: "Just f--- with me. That's all I need. Just f--- with me." I'm uncomfortable just typing this.
» This thought crosses my mind every year with this show: Being the dude responsible for calling people to tell them their NFL dreams have been dashed -- perhaps permanently -- is the worst gig in the business. I rather be the guy who hoses out the puke can on a daily basis. With Skip Bayless.
» And that's it for another year of Hard Knocks recaps. Thanks to everyone who followed along. I hope my enthusiasm for the show comes through, because this show remains must-see TV for the committed NFL fan. Lastly, I present the complete 2017 Hard Knocks Spotify playlist. Relatedly, HBO Sports and NFL Films released Hard Knocks Volume Four on iTunes this week, so check that out if you want to feel inspired at your cubicle. 'Til next year!