Plenty of people will tell you cut day is the worst day on the NFL calendar. And the way Lions coach Dan Campbell is captured by the “Hard Knocks” cameras in his office, silently staring at the wall with an adjustable depth chart he and general manager Brad Holmes set earlier in the episode, subtly captures the agonizing decisions the team had to make to get its roster down to the mandatory 53 players.
The final cuts, bringing the roster from 80 to the 53-man limit, was the undercurrent of the fourth episode of HBO’s documentary series as Holmes explained the process and Campbell openly discussed the pending decisions with his roster in team meetings and in the locker room following the preseason finale.
Holmes, featured for the first time by the “Hard Knocks” crew, offered some insight into the organization’s collaborative process, which plays a significant role in shaping the roster.
It starts in staff meetings where Holmes asks the position coaches to rank the players in their groups. Then come the team’s senior personnel executives, such as John Dorsey and Ray Agnew, who offer their opinions on those players. The final word from those meetings goes to the offensive and defensive coordinators, before Holmes and Campbell privately come together for the final assessment.
“You’re digesting a lot of different information from a lot of different people,” Holmes said. “All of our evaluators, they are artists and their art work is on display. I’ve always said that the beauty of scouting is you have to encourage independent thought and encourage the artistry of evaluation.”
In a team meeting, Campbell tells the roster the players fighting for the final few spots fall into two groups. There are the guys who might not have the most talent, but they do everything right and are dependable. Then there are the guys with a wealth of talent who haven’t earned the trust of the coaching staff and their teammates.
It’s clear the coach wants the talent to win out, but he makes it clear he isn’t afraid to go with the dependable option if the former doesn’t consistently show up when called upon to make a play in practice or, more importantly, in a game situation.
There’s continuation in which players the “Hard Knocks” cameras gravitate toward, although the show’s narratives have become a bit forced. Running back Craig Reynolds and wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton are both presented to the audience as on the bubble, but in reality Reynolds has had a firm grasp on a job most of camp, while Pimpleton has always been on the outside looking in.
Conveniently, what those players did in the preseason finale neatly put a bow on their stories. Reynolds was productive and efficient in the contest — despite comically revealing he got Icy Hot on his genitals during halftime — while Pimpleton dropped a touchdown in the closing minutes.
“All you can do is give them a chance to make a play and either they do or they don’t,” Campbell said from the sidelines. “At least we know now.”
Beyond the roster bubble, the episode did a nice job highlighting two of Detroit’s top players, rookie defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and quarterback Jared Goff.
Hutchinson has been a star on the series since the first episode, following his viral rendition of “Billie Jean” performed in front of teammates before it was broadcast to the world. But what has stood out as the show has progressed is the rookie’s emerging confidence and personality after initially attempting to keep his nose down and not say much.
While we’re only given carefully selected glimpses, Hutchinson already appears to be emerging as a vocal leader, allowing his energy to spill over and fuel his teammates.
As for Goff, who is a “Hard Knocks” veteran having experienced being on the show twice earlier in his career, his strong camp performance is acknowledged best through the words of his position coach.
“I’m excited about Jared, real excited about Jared,” Mark Brunell said in a coaching meeting. “He’s doing some good things and it’s so important to him. He likes what we’re doing and he likes who he’s doing it with, which is great for a quarterback.”
We also get a glimpse of Goff’s efforts in the community, where he has partnered with a nonprofit working with high school students to design shirts for his clothing line that will go toward funding college scholarships.
One final aspect of the episode that merits mention is the behind-the-scenes competition between coordinators Aaron Glenn and Ben Johnson.
Glenn, infuriated by his defense’s performance throughout camp and particularly last week’s player-run practice, passionately challenges his coaches and players to be better. Johnson, the more laid-back of the two, can’t help but chuckle at his counterpart’s demeanor while stoically welcoming increased intensity from the defense.
“All I’m going to say is this, (expletive) buckle up,” Johnson warns the offensive players. “Know this, they’re going to be out for blood today. Not a problem, not a problem, we’re ready to go. We’ve got enough ammunition in here.”
That led into Detroit’s evening practice from last week, the longest and most intense of training camp. HBO does a nice job capturing the mood of session and the successes of both the offense and defense in that event.
Plus, it bears mention that Glenn’s group had a great night against the Steelers later in that week. That was particularly true of the starters, who kept the opponent out of the end zone in the first half, at least until the backups came in and ceded a touchdown in the closing seconds of the second quarter.
Needless to say, Campbell was pleased.
“Good s—,” the coach said from the sidelines. “I think we’ve got a defense, gentlemen.”
The final episode of this season of “Hard Knocks” will air next Tuesday and will focus on the previous week’s cut-day decisions.