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Hard Knocks: The Realest Reality TV

Inside the production of the show’s eighth season, where the sweat, blood and sacrifice of training camp is broadcast for the world’s enjoyment

By
Richard Deitsch
· More from Richard·

CINCINNATI — In the middle of a chaotic production office on the ground floor of Paul Brown Stadium, past a fleet of Panasonic HPX-3100 cameras, lavalier microphones and sound mixing equipment, you can’t miss the Big Board. It’s a rolling easel with cork on both sides, and it contains the name, jersey number and a photograph of every player on the training camp roster of the Cincinnati Bengals. Players are broken down by position and by where they stand on the depth chart. There’s even a section for the football staff and key off-field personnel. The Big Board is intended to mimic what the coaches have in much plusher offices one floor above, though it is unlikely that head coach Marvin Lewis is keeping tabs on Garey Faulkner, a Bengals fan who competes in facial hair competitions across the country and had his picture taken at practice last month with starting quarterback Andy Dalton.

But Lewis isn’t making a television show, and this group is. Overlooking the production office is a framed photo of the late Steve Sabol, the beloved leader of NFL Films who died last September at the age of 69 after an 18-month battle with brain cancer. As Sabol once famously said, “Hard Knocks is like building an airplane in flight,” and the construction of the show begins in this room.

It is the morning of August 1, just past 9:30, and the Hard Knocks production office is buzzing with its usual vigor, an army of more than two dozen men and women wearing white T-shirts with NFL FILMS on the front and HARD KNOCKS CREW on the back. Already this morning the crew has interviewed defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, tight end Tyler Eifert and running backs coach Hue Jackson. Next up is a 10:00 a.m. walkthrough practice during which Zimmer, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, linebackers coach Paul Guenther and defensive line coach Jay Hayes will all be wired for sound. Later in the day the Bengals will embark on practice No. 14 of training camp, the first live contact in camp during a session open to the public.

About 30 Hard Knocks staffers work onsite during the filming, and a half-dozen in the crew, including director Rob Gehring will spend seven weeks in total with the Bengals. Staffers work 12-to-14-hour days, and often clock 100 hours per week. The crew typically shoots 300 hours of film for each 55-minute program. (The debut episode of Hard Knocks last week ran exactly 56:18.) There will be 60 players wired for sound during the course of filming.

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A worm’s eye view of Bengals practice. (Richard Deitsch/SI)

Gehring said a small group of staffers arrived in town on July 15—10 days before the start of training camp—to scout the stadium; set up office space; determine where to install robotic cameras; and to set up pre-camp features for shooting. For instance, rookie running back Giovani Bernard had an NFL Films camera crew meet him at the airport on July 20 as he arrived in Cincinnati. The crew also learned of a running backs-only dinner on July 23, where Jackson made an impassioned speech that described the struggles and strife of training camp. That speech appeared in the opening scene of the first episode.

This is the eighth season for Hard Knocks, which launched with the Baltimore Ravens in 2001 and followed with the Dallas Cowboys in ’02. The show took a hiatus between 2003 and 2006 and resumed in 2007 with the Chiefs and then the Cowboys (2008), Bengals (2009), Jets (2010), and Dolphins (2012). There was no season in 2011, due to the condensed training camp resulting from the league’s work stoppage. Last summer marked the first time the series, jointly produced by NFL Films and HBO, premiered on Tuesday nights, and the move was a success. HBO said the 2012 edition of the series averaged 4.1 million viewers per episode, the second most-watched Hard Knocks in a decade.

The first couple of days of training camp, everyone admits, are always the hardest for teams, as players adapt to the cameras and the hive of NFL Films people around them. “You always had to watch what you were saying and what you were doing because you don’t know whether the camera is around,” says NFL Network analyst LaDainian Tomlinson, who appeared on the show in 2010 as a member of the Jets. “There is a bit of hesitation at times to say or do certain things. It was a bit weird. At that point in training camp you are trying to do build camaraderie and the chemistry of your team, so it was weird to have cameras around to capture such moments.”

The advantage for this shoot is the familiarity many of the participants have with the Hard Knocks experience. Zimmer is making his third appearance on the show—in addition to the ’09 Bengals-centric season, he was featured on the 2002 edition as a member of the Dallas staff—and has become a favorite of the crew for his unfiltered (and sometimes expletive-filled) passion. “I am miked for every meeting and every practice,” says Zimmer. “I try to be myself, and hopefully it will be portrayed the correct way. In 2002 I felt like I was portrayed as a little more of a raving lunatic than I was in 2009.”

The coaches live with the cameras more than the players do, including two robotic cameras and four pressure zone microphones (PZMs) in Zimmer’s office. “Sometimes if I want to talk to another coach about something and I want to make sure it does not get on the air, I will go out to the hallway or we will find a place to go,” Zimmer says. “I don’t want to say it is disruptive, because they do a great, great job, but you do notice it.”

The mantra among NFL Films staffers is to avoid being intrusive at all costs, and it helps immensely that the Bengals’ coaches, led by Lewis, have bought into the documentary experience. It’s also a franchise that wants to continue reshaping its image from its wild-child days of the mid-2000s. “I don’t think it is disruptive at all as far as practice goes,” says Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who has played for Cincinnati since 2006 and was a Pro Bowler last season. “They do listen to everything, though, and if you are in a meeting discussing game plans, and specifically for us something like how we are blocking rushers, you just ask them to step out of the room. But for the most part they do a great job of disappearing. You even often catch yourself going, ‘Dang it, I forget they were here.’ “

I try to be myself, and hopefully it will be portrayed the correct way,” says Zimmer. “In 2002 I felt like I was portrayed as a little more of a raving lunatic than I was in 2009. 
When The MMQB visited in August, it was remarkable how seamlessly the NFL Films crew embedded themselves during a pair of practices. Hard Knocks director of photography Kevin Simkins calls the process of filming “getting stolen moments.” The goal of the camera crews is to capture the authenticity of training camp for viewers without being invasive or making extra demands on the players.

“It doesn’t disrupt you at all unless you allow it to,” says Lewis. “My only thing with our guys was I told them your time off is your time off. You don’t need to include any others in whatever you are doing. If it’s resting, if it’s spending time with your family or wife, if you don’t want them involved, don’t have them involved.”

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The Bengals are trying to promote a sunnier side of a team that was known for its bad-boy behavior in the mid-2000s. (Courtesy of NFL Films)

NFL Films sound mixer Mark Ricci has worked on every edition of Hard Knocks, and as a sound mixer, he wires up coaches and players for every practice. (For coaches, the lavalier mics are affixed inside the collar and a transmitter is attached to the belt; players have mics affixed to their shoulder pads.) Gehring assigns camera crews (a camera person, sound mixer and a production assistant) to film groups of players or certain coaches wearing a mic. That same crew also monitors a different group of coaches or players via audio. That gives the Hard Knocks crews flexibility if something happens quickly. (Crews are often assigned to the same position group or coaches to foster relationships.) “You know a sound bite when you hear it,” says Ricci. “You start to know who the characters are on a team and if, say, a coach is screaming at a player or trying to coach that player up, you start to gravitate toward that scene.”

Do coaches use the Hard Knocks cameras for professional advancement? It depends whom you ask. Tomlinson said he found the Jets coaches ramped it up far more in front of the cameras than the players did. “They talked a little louder and enthusiastic, getting on guys a little more,” Tomlinson said, laughing.

Hard Knocks is not going to use the entire hour to show a whole meeting, and if a guy was a good teacher and coach, it could be a benefit to him if they showed the entire thing,” says Zimmer. “I do think it could help coaches in some ways but, listen, I’m not a TV star. I want to be a football coach.”

You start to know who the characters are on a team and if, say, a coach is screaming at a player or trying to coach that player up, you start to gravitate toward that scene. —Mark Ricci, sound mixer

Players, on the other hand, can see their marketability rise with a memorable appearance. Agents often reach out to HBO and NFL Films staffers in an attempt to get their players airtime. (For instance, the Hard Knocks crew was contacted by the agent for Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, letting them know they were happy to help out anyway they could.) “You have some players who play up for the cameras and some players who act natural,” says Simkins, who has logged seven years on the show. “I think for the most part coaches are very natural with the cameras, and the players vary. We had Chad Johnson in 2009, and he played up to the cameras. It depends on the player. If someone puts a camera on you, it changes the way you act.”

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20 comments
drudown
drudown like.author.displayName 1 Like

Hard Knocks is unequivocally the best NFL show...with the sole exception of Inside the NFL.

Keep up the great work.

Mike26
Mike26 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@drudown Inside the NFL is becoming more farcical as Simms wastes more and more time each season vamping for the cameras instead of breaking down the games/matchups.

drudown
drudown

@Mike26 @drudown 

Besides. 

I happen to like Simms. He is just 'sick and tired', that's all. Collinsworth too. Who's a better NFL analyst than those two- Aikman, maybe? Fouts is up there. I like Irvin too on the NFL network. 

But everything is to be judged according to what else is available. 

drudown
drudown like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Mike26 @drudown 

At least Sapp is gone....the only one worse than Sapp is that goober Hodge-  and Schlereth. Then again....

KristianColasacco
KristianColasacco

I do enjoy Hard Knocks, it's just a shame that they can't get better teams to participate. 

WCoastPro
WCoastPro like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@KristianColasacco Nah. It's fine. 

Bengals made the playoffs 3 of last 4 years they qualify as a good team. 

KristianColasacco
KristianColasacco

@WCoastPro @KristianColasacco The Bengals made it to the playoffs, which is something that around 35 percent of the league does and have promptly lost in the first round every time.  I'm sorry, the Cincinnati fans may be accustomed to mediocrity and consider losing in the playoffs as "good" but no, the Bengals suck.

mallowmania
mallowmania like.author.displayName 1 Like

@KristianColasacco @mallowmania @WCoastPro Wow are you serious, 12 of 32 teams make it?? Who knew?! Do you know what consecutively means? See it is funny that you try to act like you know half of what you are talking about. The past is gone, gtf over it. I am not from cinci, nor do i care about the reds or anything else.  so good burn i guess? Seriously, if you were to ask any football mind with knowledge about how the Bengals have built this team now, you would get nothing but positive reviews. And about every NFL network and espn nfl guy says it is the Bengals time now and the AFC N is theirs. But i am sure you know more than all those former players and stuff as well. Right now you are showing how little you know about the game to not even admit the Bengals are a top 5 team. I am not saying they are winning the super bowl this year, they just aren't half as bad as you are trying to make them. You didn't hurt my feelings, it is the internet sweetie, you hurt my brain with your incredible ignorance tho. 

KristianColasacco
KristianColasacco

@mallowmania @KristianColasacco @WCoastPro Your team sucks, has always sucked and will probably continue to suck.  It's comical that you think being average is somehow awesome.  Just goes to show how low the standard actually is in Cincinnatti.  You haven't even won a playoff game.  

Here's some math for you.  12 of 32 teams make the playoffs every year.  That's 37.5 percent or more than a third of the league.  If you make average the teams in the middle, I'd say that it's entirely possible to eek into the playoffs, lose in the first round and still be an average team.  That's the best you're gonna do.  Sorry if that hurts your feelings.  I don't care.  

mallowmania
mallowmania

@KristianColasacco @WCoastPro - We have sucked like crazy in the past years, but that is no indication of where this team is at right now. And if you knew anything about anything you would realize that. Also that is a cute made up stat about the 35 percent, being as only about 4 teams make the playoffs consecutively in a year. You would think someone like you would understand this whole sucking thing better. Maybe you should get to the kitchen before you hurt yourself.

Wisconsin Death Trip
Wisconsin Death Trip

The "Dumbing Down of America" continues....

drudown
drudown like.author.displayName 1 Like

@Wisconsin Death Trip 

I don't follow you. In what respect is this show a harbinger of our collective demise?

The documentary 'Gasland' on the other hand...

(gulp.)

"After the event, even the fool is wise." - Viscount Symonds

cdawg
cdawg

I'd love to see some more Dre on Hard Knocks! Roll Tide!

Ciscos
Ciscos like.author.displayName 1 Like

I'd like to see NFL teams embrace "Hard Knocks" instead of treating them like an invading army.  It's the greatest marketing tool the NFL has outside of it's normal channels.  The show is insightful and the best "reality" show on TV. 

James Harrison, notwithstanding, is just being James Harrison. Love him or hate him, at least you know he's consistent.  If Santa Claus showed up, Harrison would probably chase him off as well.

Mike26
Mike26 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@Ciscos How about some some Hard Knocks-type shows around the NFL Combine process - maybe not focusing on one team but starting at the NFL offices and working around the league?  Heck, I'll betcha Belichick would invite them in an discuss his whole draft board with them; of course, it would be a complete farce of a board and meant to give the Patriots another competitive advantage by misleading the rest of the league!

If not the Combine, how about hitting a few teams during OTA's?  I mean, there's enough going on in the offseason to create a few weeks of viewing for NFL fans and would further cement the NFL as the clear #1 sport in this country.

Ciscos
Ciscos

@Mike26 @Ciscos ~ Yup! Those are all good. I especially like the combine idea.  You should forward that to the commish and tell him you'll give him the idea for midway 50 yard line Superbowl seats for life!  lol.  That's a great idea.

The thing that kills me on this is they're treating Hard Knocks like they're the enemy.  Hopefully with the big viewing they got they stick with it.

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