HARD KNOCKS: DALLAS COWBOYS (2021)
“This is about winning. This is about winning the world championship. Period.”
Like many Americans, I find football to be a great pastime tying together cultural and geographical ribbons. HBO Sports has returned August 10 with the premiere of this year’s iteration of Hard Knocks, a show that follows one National Football League team throughout its training camp and preseason as they carve out a map to tackle the new year of pigskin. The cameras don’t just stay on the field, they enter into the private intimate spaces of the coaches and players. This year, the Dallas Cowboys are the subject of Hard Knocks. This season marks the third year Dallas’ team has been the focal point of the show. While I am not a fan of the Cowboys, I am a fan of football and more importantly, a fan of storytelling. There is a lot of storytelling to be told here on and off the field, making Hard Knocks so compelling.
The good thing about Hard Knocks is that it doesn’t ask its viewers to be either a total fan or an expert on the game itself. The show’s storytelling is interesting because it whittles character pieces out of celebrity athletes, their staff and their families, making them relatable and familiar. The season opener - the first of five episodes - begins with the star Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott coming off his injury he sustained in the middle of the 2020 season. A nasty injury leaving his foot twisted and Prescott bound for surgeries, leaving his NFL career in jeopardy. It’s an emotional hurdle that the cameras make us go through, in doing so highlighting Prescott’s perseverance and drive. I may not be a fan of this team, as I said, but I respect this man.
Prescott navigates training camp precariously as the staff monitors his productivity for safety concerns. His close friendship with the star running back for the Cowboys, Ezekiel Elliot, is tantamount to bromance. You can tell how deeply they care and respect one another. Each Hard Knocks episode chooses X amount of players to cover and talk about, as the 50 minute run time can be limiting. The other key player the cameras follow is the new hot young draft pick the Cowboys picked up in the first round of this year’s draft - Linebacker Micah Parsons from Penn State. He was selected 12th overall and his value as a player is evident in his work ethic. It was fun watching him develop plays and learn schemes, figuring out his own piece of the puzzle as a young man in the big boy league.
A strong chunk of the episode that I really enjoyed was the focus on 2nd year Head Coach Mike McCarthy. He had a rough go last season, and he is determined to steer this franchise to success this year. There is a pretty funny scene where McCarthy uses Austin Powers, specifically his “mojo”, as motivation for his players. This team, owned by Jerry Jones, has not won a Super Bowl in 26 years. McCarthy, who last won a Super Bowl in 2011 while coaching the Packers, has a brilliant scene in the team meeting room. He makes his intentions clear.
“Going to the playoffs ain’t good enough. Having a winning season, not good enough Getting into the championship game, not good enough. It takes all of us to win.”
For any head coach, there is a lot of pressure on staying above a .500 ballgame season, going to the playoffs and making it to the promised land of Super Bowl success. You can hear it in McCarthy’s voice. The cutaway shots during his speech land on players' faces, both veteran and rookie, and they understand he means business. The season opener ends like most Hard Knocks episodes end, with the featured team playing in a preseason game. The 2021 NFL year, all teams will only play 3 preseason games, with the exception of two teams, the Cowboys and Steelers. These two both play at the NFL Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio which serves as the unofficial season opener (it's still preseason after all). The episode closes with the Cowboys losing to the Steelers 16-3, mapping out more work for McCarthy and his team. What was missing from this episode, but will probably be featured heavily in the episodes to come, are the player cuts. These are definitely uncomfortable and tender moments, though they must happen.
If you like either football, documentaries or character driven stories, Hard Knocks is worth a shot at least once. It understands that not everyone may know the ins and outs of the game and deftly explains enough of it without being too overboard or too patronizing. The incredible narrator Liev Schreiber carries the thread of the show wonderfully, I could listen to this man narrate stereo instructions. Hard Knocks isn’t about football, but the people within it. That’s why it is so magnetic.
Hard Knocks airs new episodes Tuesdays at 10p. ET on HBO and HBO Max