The NFL’s Hard Knocks Problem

David Kohl/USA Today

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are currently being featured on HBO’s annual Hard Knocks series. The show takes a look at a different team’s training camp exploits each year and has aired intermittently since 2001, when the then-defending-champion Baltimore Ravens starred on the show. The series provides access you can’t find almost anywhere else, from meetings with players and coaches to the day-to-day minutiae of being on and running an NFL team.

Hard Knocks is a good show and almost always an entertaining watch. The high point in the history of the series was undoubtedly in 2010 when the New York Jets, led by head coach Rex Ryan, were on the show. The most legendary scene in that year was this speech from Ryan in which he called out his team’s lack of leadership, said, “I’m not a great leader”, and ended his diatribe with “let’s go get ourselves a g–d—- snack”. The speech is, simply put, one of the funniest things I have ever seen. And that’s not the only hilarious/ridiculous moment the show has spawned; Hard Knocks has given us Ryan Mallett blaming his alarm clock for his lateness, Vince Wilfork’s overalls, Chad Ochocinco, and, possibly most unforgettable of all, Antonio Cromartie floundering to the finish line of barely naming all of his children (at the time). In 2010, he had eight kids and he’s had another five since then. Antonio Cromartie now has thirteen children. More importantly, Antonio Cromartie is just 33 years old.

You would figure that with all this, Hard Knocks is the occasionally serious laugh factory that keeps on giving. Unfortunately, though, that’s not all there is to the show; in fact, it sometimes shows the dark side of football training camp. This was never more evident than in this past week’s episode.

Some background: in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Bucs traded their third and fourth-round picks to the Kansas City Chiefs to jump to the 59th pick in the draft and select Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round, making him the earliest-selected kicker in the draft since 2005. The team, clearly not following the fantasy football precept of waiting until the last round to take your kicker, likely based their decision on his college career, one in which he made nearly 90% of his field goal attempts over three seasons. That success, however, didn’t quite translate to the pros.

Last season, Aguayo ranked dead last in the league in field goal percentage as he went just 22-of-31 with no made field goals past 43 yards; he also missed two extra points. To make matters more interesting, Tampa Bay signed former Jets kicker Nick Folk in the offseason to challenge Aguayo after his disastrous 2016 campaign. Folk is a ten-year pro who has made at least 80% of his kicks in each of the last four seasons. Folk is a better kicker than Aguayo and he was clearly brought in to push Aguayo and ultimately steal his job, assuming the latter’s fortunes didn’t change in a hurry. And after Aguayo missed an extra point and a field goal attempt in the team’s first preseason game against the Bengals, the outcome became clear for all parties; Aguayo was going to be released.

And, because of the presence of HBO’s cameras, one of the worst days of his life was about to be watched by millions of Americans.

On Tuesday’s episode of Hard Knocks, Aguayo learned his fate in a heartbreaking moment between player, coach, and general manager. The team’s GM, Jason Licht, explained to Aguayo that he needed to make more of his kicks to be of service to his team. No, really.

The good news for Aguayo is that he was acquired by the Chicago Bears after Tampa Bay cut ties with him. And, to be fair, Aguayo was likely compensated for his being featured on the show; NFL Films, the production arm of Hard Knocks, has paid certain players who appear on the show dating all the way back to 2001. But still, the only people who didn’t watch Aguayo get fired either weren’t interested or didn’t have basic cable.

And even those people may have had the chance to see it because the NFL’s Twitter account proudly trumpeted the video of his release to only, let’s see, 23.9 million Twitter followers.

In fairness to the league, the NFL is not necessarily in the real world and has never pretended to be. After all, this is the same league that suspended Josh Brown for one game after he admitted to abusing his wife but banned Josh Gordon indefinitely for substance abuse violations. That’s not to defend Gordon’s actions, but it’s not like the league operates like any other company would in this type of situation.

But let’s say we were dealing with a real-world enterprise here. Let’s say that a McDonald’s employee was fired for inconsistent performance and cameras caught everything on tape. Let’s then say that in addition to a TV show airing the employee’s ouster, the McDonald’s Twitter account proudly tweets a video showing the same scene as the show. That would be pretty embarrassing for the employee, right? It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, but it’s not necessarily unlike what happened with Aguayo and many other members of the team who have been cut in the first two episodes of the show.

And yet, scenes like Aguayo’s demise make me want to watch Hard Knocks. Think about it: two men are signed to the active roster and you absolutely know that one of them is not going to make it to the end of camp with his job. The other will win the starting job but is not guaranteed success and will face continued scrutiny from the media and his team. If the Oscars were like that, I’d watch.

Here’s the problem, though: getting fired is a humiliating, degrading experience and having cameras around to capture it and display that to people around the world can’t help, either. Getting traded is a similar ordeal; one of the most memorable moments in the history of Hard Knocks came courtesy of the Miami Dolphins in 2012. Near the end of camp, the team traded cornerback Vontae Davis to the Indianapolis Colts for two draft picks. The seminal moment of the show’s seventh season was general manager Jeff Ireland telling a dazed, confused, and possibly blindsided Davis about what had just transpired. Davis has since turned in five excellent seasons with the Colts, but the scene was completely cringe-worthy and difficult to watch.

This is also a discussion that goes beyond Hard Knocks; Amazon’s original series All or Nothing is a behind-the-scenes look at an NFL team during the regular season. Season 2 of the show was filmed last season with the Los Angeles Rams and it showed Jeff Fisher’s firing on December 12 of last year. Like the Aguayo and Davis clips, watching Fisher explain to his assistants that he’s just been canned is awkward. And, like they did with Aguayo, the NFL’s Twitter account used a grown man losing his job as an opportunity to plug a TV show. Lovely.

Just so we’re on the same page here, I’m not telling you not to watch Hard Knocks or, for that matter, All or Nothing. Frankly, I watch the former because it’s good television and it gives us a look at the inner workings of a team that we would not otherwise receive. I’m not even suggesting that HBO and NFL Films shouldn’t have shown Aguayo getting released; while you know what the outcome is going to be, the tension and drama surrounding the occasion plainly cannot be replicated.

But when you watch the show next week and beyond, think of the players as human beings instead of numbers that will be quickly removed from the Buccaneers’ training camp roster.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *