Review: HBO's 'Hard Knocks' makes NFL preseason fun to watch

With just one set of preseason games between viewers and the regular season, HBO’s “Hard Knocks” has given viewers a dramatic, gritty and, most importantly, real look into the Houston Texans’ training camp.

Part of the show’s success this season has to be the subject matter. The Houston Texans are one of those football teams that are tantalizingly close to being serious contenders, but have lacked the offensive ability to make it into the playoffs in years past.

One of the main sources of drama this season has been the battle for starting quarterback between Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer. HBO has gotten great access to meetings of the Texans inner circle, including the announcement that Hoyer would start over Mallett.

What HBO could not have counted on, however, is the tumultuous and unpredictable offseason that many teams have had this year. The loss of starting running back Arian Foster to a tweaked groin and the struggle to replace him in the first month of regular season play, makes for interesting viewing. 

Houston Texans quarterback Ryan Mallett (15) passes under pressure from New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha (45) in the first half of a preseason game in New Orleans, Sunday, Aug. 30, 2015. (Jonathan Bachman/AP) 

Then the New York Jets lost their starting quarterback, Geno Smith, to a sucker punch from then-teammate IK Enemkpali. While the players and head coach Bill O’Brien must focus on the team, you can see that the events of the offseason are on their minds. 

“Hard Knocks” has always walked a delicate line between a drama and a football game. The use of so much footage from preseason games might have made the show too much like walking a rerun of last weeks’ game. So far, the show has done a good job of staying focused on the players and their stories, rather than the outcome of the games and highlights from the Texans preseason matchups. Of course, including plenty of plays, from both games and training camp, is an easy way to throw in some action. 

Watching coaches and coordinators struggle with who to start and who to cut from the team is entertaining. But it is the stories of the players and the coaches, their personal lives and how they balance their stressful jobs with their families that make for really compelling moments. 

Watching JJ Watt and Vince Wilfork talk reverently about breakfast is an unexpectedly amusing novelty, but watching Bill O’Brien celebrate his son with several disabilities’ thirteenth birthday is heartbreaking. These glimpses inside the private lives of players and staff have given me a whole new appreciation for the job that they have to do, especially the head coaches. 

As with most HBO shows, “Hard Knocks” has crisp editing which, combined with the great footage, results in a highly polished product about a tough and dedicated group of men, many of them competing just to get a job. I suspect that many viewers did not expect the great stories that come from the rookie and backup players this year, given the overwhelming celebrity status of players like JJ Watt. 

While no one expected “Hard Knocks” to fall off in quality, viewers will be pleasantly surprised to see that there is more than just football strategy and training in the Houston Texans. Fans of football, whether hardcore or casual, will be not only entertained, but educated by watching “Hard Knocks.” 

Based on the first three of five episodes, this season of “Hard Knocks” promises to be an excellent look into the future of the Texans, not to mention the character of its players.


Edward Pankowski is life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.pankowski@uconn.edu.