LOS ANGELES — When it was announced months ago the Miami Dolphins would be featured on this season of HBO’s fantastically produced preseason series “Hard Knocks” my reaction was a common one: not interested. The Dolphins are a .500 team at best with no real star power to carry a show like “Hard Knocks,” have a rookie head coach and play in a division – the AFC East – already loaded with personality and pedigree.
When teams like the Falcons, Buccaneers, Broncos and Texans all reportedly passed on being profiled this year, however, you take what you can get. And what we get is the Dolphins. But when Chad Johnson signed with Miami, the show got 10 times more interesting, even if he was invisible last year with the Patriots and his appeal has grown tired. Then Reggie Bush said he could win the rushing title, and Ryan Tannehill’s wife just happened to look like a bikini model and voila, you have compelling TV each week.
Tuesday, “Hard Knocks” debuted with an sunrise over Miami Beach two months before camp officially opened. Head coach Joe Philbin was addressing his other coaches. The b-roll while he spoke was a construction crew tearing down the existing locker room for new digs before narrator Liev Schreiber chimed in, saying, “the Miami Dolphins are in the process of an overhaul.”
An understatement, yes. And a natural transition as we go from the open to the Dolphins three quarterbacks fighting to become QB1: Matt Moore, David Garrard and Tannehill, in their homes. Moore, shown with his wife and child, played well above average in the final 9 games of last season, leading Miami to a 6-3 record while tossing 15 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions but was almost relegated immediately to third string after the signing of Garrard and the drafting of Tannehill. Garrard sat out of all of 2011 after he underwent back surgery and Tannehill, the gigantic rookie from Texas A&M only has 13 career collegiate starts under his belt and was once a wide receiver.
The biggest issue for the Dolphins as a football team entering this season is who’s going to start at quarterback. They’ve been searching the successor to Dan Marino since he retired in 1999. This offseason, Miami flirted with Matt Flynn before he signed with Seattle and were rumored to be in the Peyton Manning sweepstakes before he signed in Denver. So it’s hard not to feel for Moore when he bluntly states into the camera, “I understand there’s other guys in the running as well,” after he’s asked about the starting job. Clearly, he thinks he’s done enough to be the top guy entering camp. It’s hard to disagree with him.
Of course, the star of the first episode was Johnson, who makes his first appearance by sticking his head into a coaches only meeting and asking for a chair, saying he can’t go home until after training camp. He eventually leaves but it’s apparent he’s reverted back to the old Chad, the one who celebrated vibrantly and without abandon; not the one who failed to learn the Patriots playbook or mesh with, or learn from, the greatest quarterback of all-time. No surprising, his wife, Evelyn Lozada, was on hand for a practice and had on the biggest hoop earrings I’ve ever seen. She then proceeded to tell the story of how Chad and her met; on Twitter. Of course they did.
He did manage to drop a few good one-liners, not to mention show off his enormous pink watch he displayed while playing FIFA with Bush. On his terrible 2011 season: “last year I took a year off to give everybody a chance to catch up.” On how he knew Lozada was the one: “if you pause call of duty for someone, that’s the f—ing one.” On if he still has his once-fantastic speed: “I feel like a cheetah, I feel black.”
One of the coolest segments of any Hard Knocks season is the underdog, that player who really shouldn’t have any shot to make the team, but for one reason or another you root for. This season, that is tight end Les Brown, who hasn’t done anything athletic in two years and played basketball at Westminster College. He is this year’s Danny Woodhead, a finance guy who’s trying to play football. He’s basically Rudy. It’s clear he’s undersized and overmatched against even other rookies. He asks for another chance after getting blown up in drill. Later, in a coaches meeting, someone says Brown is a “complete liability in pass coverage and run blocking.” I’ll put his chances of making the team at 15%.
In addition to the crisp, majestic slo-mo b-roll shots that NFL Films is known for, my favorite aspect of the show are the personnel meetings. It’s that insider, backroom honesty that people love; talking about how’s rising, who’s falling and who flat out can’t play. Seeing the Dolphins meeting makes me wonder what the world class organization’s meetings – Patriots, Steelers, Giants – would be like. How amazing would a “Hard Knocks: Patriots” be?
Other things I noticed/liked from the premiere episode: the biggest fail is that it took 43 minutes to show the Dolphins cheerleaders and we only got one shot of Mrs. Tannehill … David Garrard looked pretty comfortable on water skis … Mike Pouncey getting his hair cut in the kitchen was awesome, though I could’ve done without the nose hairs close up. It was pretty cool, though, him defending Tim Tebow later during a massage … Joe Philbin towered over Chad during their sideline practice chat following Chad’s expletive-laced presser, he’s gotta be at least 6-foot-4. Also, does Philbin look a little like Joe Hagen’s (think “Godfather”) younger brother? … great framing on the shot of Tannehill signing his contract with the photo of Dan Marino in the background … Wiz Kahalifa on the soundtrack = nice.