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.

An Early Top Five NFL Coaches on the Hot Seat

Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan
Photo Credit: Bill Wippert/Associated Press

It’s hard to believe, but NFL training camps kick off next week.  32 teams will report to camp with their roster and head coach; however, not all of them will make it through the whole season with the same man in charge.

Let me say this before we start: I don’t like seeing coaches, or any human beings, get fired.  It’s not fun and a shame to see people in any walk of life suddenly lose their jobs, especially if the collective failure is not all their fault.

With that being said, though, here are my top five NFL coaches on the hot seat for this upcoming season.  Hope you enjoy!

5. John Harbaugh/Baltimore Ravens

This is one that probably won’t happen but can if the Ravens disappoint this season.  The Ravens finished under .500 last year for the first time under Harbaugh’s reign; more importantly, though, it’s clear that the Steelers and Bengals have surpassed them, both in performance and relevance, in the stacked AFC North.

However, I don’t see this one coming to fruition.  Harbaugh and General Manager Ozzie Newsome have formed one of the most successful GM/head coach bonds in the NFL since Harbaugh arrived in Baltimore in 2008.  While the team is not what it once was and is still struggling to replace the talent that has departed since they won the Super Bowl, there isn’t a very realistic chance that Harbaugh gets fired.

But that chance does exist, and for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll put Harbaugh on the list.

4. Gus Bradley/Jacksonville Jaguars

This offseason was one of goodwill for the Jacksonville Jaguars, from the signings of Chris Ivory, Tashaun Gipson, and Prince Amukamara to the drafting of linebacker Myles Jack and safety Jalen Ramsey. Ramsey was widely regarded as the best player in the draft and Jacksonville was lucky to snag him with the fifth overall pick.  Most look at this as steady improvement for a franchise that has struggled for the better part of the last decade.  For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll look at this as the team’s front office setting up head coach Gus Bradley to fail.

Hear me out on this one: if the Jaguars are indeed a disappointment this season, Bradley has absolutely nothing to fall back on to keep his job.  Yes, the future of the team will still be very bright, but it is much more significant that Bradley has won a grand total of 12 games in three seasons in Jacksonville.  It stands to reason that if the Jags don’t make a significant improvement in 2016, Bradley would be the first head to roll.

I think the Jaguars will be successful this season.  I also think that Bradley is gone if they aren’t.

3. Marvin Lewis/Cincinnati Bengals

Speaking of being set up to fail, Marvin Lewis carves out his niche at number three on our list.  You probably know that Lewis is the second-longest tenured head coach in the league, behind only Bill Belichick.  The difference is that Belichick has won 23 playoff games in his career: 22 with the Patriots and one with the Cleveland Browns. Lewis, in his 13 seasons with the Bengals, has won exactly zero playoff games.  That’s a problem, especially when you consider the fact that Lewis-coached teams have made the playoffs seven times. Lewis’ 0-7 career playoff record is compounded even further by the fact that four of those games were at home.

This year, there really aren’t any excuses for the Bengals.  Virtually everyone returns healthy from the team that started last season 8-0. The biggest difference from the end of last season is that quarterback Andy Dalton returns after breaking his wrist in a week 14 game against the Steelers last season.  But even with backup quarterback A.J. McCarron, Cincinnati led Pittsburgh 16-15 with under 30 seconds to play in their playoff matchup last season.  Instead of ending in a victory, the 18-16 loss became one of the worst meltdowns we’ve ever seen from a single team in the history of football.

Let’s hope that the Bengals, at the very least, can keep their composure if they make the playoffs again this year.  And then let’s hope Marvin Lewis isn’t out of a job if they do.

2. Mike McCoy/San Diego Chargers

It’s pretty clear that any initial romance that existed between Mike McCoy and the Chargers is gone.  After making the playoffs in his first season in Southern California, McCoy’s Chargers have missed the postseason in the last two years.  Even worse, the team plummeted from 9-7 finishes in 2013 and 2014 to a 4-12 record in 2015.

The real reason to panic, though, if you’re a Charger fan, is that quarterback Philip Rivers is locked under contract until 2020.  Rivers set a career high in passing yards last season (4792) and would likely have a say on McCoy’s future if the team falters again this season. There’s also the overwhelming probability that the team will move from San Diego to Los Angeles after this season.  This move would precipitate a shift in expectation on behalf of both the new fanbase and ownership.  Would the Chargers follow in the Rams’ footsteps and retain their exceedingly mediocre head coach in a move to L.A.?

My bet is that they won’t, and if the Chargers underperform in 2016, McCoy’s future is simple: to live or die in L.A.

1. Rex Ryan/Buffalo Bills

This one is easy.

Ryan made many promises upon being named the Bills’ coach, but the one thing many reasonably expected was an improved defense.  After all, Ryan is a defensive mind, one who coached the Ravens’ defense into the league’s elite for much of the 2000s.  The problem is that in the one year of Ryan’s leadership, the Bills’ defense actually regressed.

To demonstrate this, I’ve put together this chart that shows the differences between the 2014 Bills and the ’15 team:


2014 2015
Total Yards (per game) 4995 (312.2) 5702 (356.4)
Passing yards (per game) 3292 (205.8) 3972 (248.3)
Rushing yards (per game) 1703 (106.4) 1730 (108.1
Points allowed (per game) 289 (18.1) 359 (22.4)

That’s pretty unbelievable stuff; the Bills were worse in every significant defensive category under Ryan than they were under Doug Marrone in 2014.  If that regression continues this season, the Bills front office will have no choice but to cut him loose.  Reports are that the front office has given Ryan a playoff ultimatum for this season; making the playoffs would require significant improvement on the defensive side of the ball.

I don’t know if Ryan is capable of delivering that improvement, and it’s more likely than not that he’ll be out of a job after this season.