Do HBO ‘Hard Knocks’ appearances actually help NFL teams? Detroit Lions are next test case

Detroit Free Press

Weeks of an unprecedented look into Detroit Lions training camp in Allen Park thanks to NFL Films’ “Hard Knocks” on HBO has led to, well, almost unprecedented hype. The lure of the familiar has boosted the Lions to the No. 2 favorite to win the NFC North at some casinos. (Which, yeah, is faint praise, but still surprising considering the Lions went 3-13-1 last season.)

But should we buy into what HBO is actually showing us? Is there really a “Hard Knocks bounce,” in which teams thrive the season they’re featured?

The answer: Maybe?

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Of the 16 previous teams featured in the preseason since 2001 — no midseason teams; sorry, Indianapolis Colts — 10 have picked up at least one win in the standings, including the past five (2018-21). The Kansas City Chiefs had the biggest negative change, going from 9-7 in 2006 to 4-12 in 2007 (though maybe we can blame Chiefs superfan Paul Rudd replacing Liev Schreiber as narrator for a single summer). Going the other way, the Cleveland Browns gained 7½ wins in 2018; they were coming off the NFL’s second-ever 0-16 season (you and Dan Campbell remember who had the first), so they had nowhere to go but up.

Of course, as “Hard Knocks” has shown us, there’s more to football than just numbers, so we took a look back at some of the more notable preseason narratives captured on the show, and how they played out once the regular season began.

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2001: Baltimore Ravens

Before Hard Knocks: 12-4. After: 10-6. Win change: -2.

The buzz: The first squad featured was coming off a Super Bowl victory led by QB Trent Dilfer — who then left for the Seattle Seahawks. And so preseason featured a QB battle between 31-year-old Elvis Grbac and 38-year-old Randall Cunningham. Grbac, a Michigan Man, won the job and posted a 114.2 QB rating in Week 1 — then failed to top 94 in 13 other starts en route to a year-end 71.1 rating.

2002: Dallas Cowboys

Before Hard Knocks: 5-11. After: 5-11. Win change: 0.

The buzz: The ’01 Cowboys featured Quincy Carter, Anthony Wright, Clint Stoerner and yes, even Ryan Leaf starting games at QB. And so season 2 of “Hard Knocks” featured a heated QB competition between Carter, who had started eight games, and former Stanford QB Chad Hutchinson, who was 6 feet 5 and had spent the previous four years playing baseball. Carter won the job, but only started the first seven games. Hutchinson went 2-7 as a starter and completed just 50.8% of his pass attempts.

2007: Kansas City Chiefs

Before Hard Knocks: 9-7. After: 4-12. Win change: -5.

The buzz: After five years off, “Hard Knocks” was back. Don’t worry, there was still a quarterback competition — Damon Huard and Brodie Croyle vying to replace the traded Trent Green. Huard won the job and lasted nine weeks as the starter, going 4-5 while throwing eight TD passes and 11 interceptions. The Chiefs lost their final nine games of the season, including all six started by Croyle, who finished with a 69.9 rating.

2008: Cowboys

Before Hard Knocks: 13-3. After: 9-7. Win change: -4.

The buzz: No QB battle here; Tony Romo was well-established. Instead, a pair of underdog wideouts on either end of the size spectrum fought for spots on the squad: 6-3 New Jersey native Todd Lowber and 5-11 Texan Danny Amendola. Both missed the final cut and landed on practice squads. Lowber went to Miami, but never appeared in an NFL game; Amendola stuck in Dallas, though he didn’t make his debut until the next season with St. Louis. He ended up playing 13 seasons, including two with the Lions (2019-20).

2009: Cincinnati Bengals

Before Hard Knocks: 4-11-1. After: 10-6. Win change: +5.5.

The buzz: Oh, the preseason of “Ochocinco” — wide receiver Chad Johnson, who legally went by “Chad Ochocinco” in honor of his No. 85 jersey, had a starring role on offense and comic relief. He also nailed an extra point to beat the New England Patriots, 7-6, on Aug. 20. “Everyone has to remember, I’ve always said that soccer is my No. 1 sport,” Ochocinco told reporters afterward. “I think Ronaldinho would be proud of me right now.” Once the regular season hit, Ochocinco returned to wideout, where he caught 72 passes for 1,047 yards en route to his final Pro Bowl.

2010: New York Jets

Before Hard Knocks: 9-7. After: 11-5. Win change: +2.

The buzz: Few “Hard Knocks” moments have gone viral like the attempt by All-Pro cornerback Antonio Cromartie (who was joining the Jets after four seasons with the Chargers) to name his eight children. (He’s up to 14 now.) Cromartie didn’t let the baby-daddy work get in the way of his play on the field, with 42 tackles, 17 pass breakups and three interceptions during the regular season.

2012: Miami Dolphins

Before Hard Knocks: 6-10. After: 7-9. Win change: +1

The buzz: After a year off, “Hard Knocks” made its return in South Florida and featured … another quarterback competition. This time, it came down to Matt Moore (the previous year’s starter), David Garrard (the former Jaguar attempting to come back from back surgery) and Ryan Tannehill (the Dolphins’ first-round pick). Tannehill won the job after the second preseason game and started all 16 regular-season games, despite throwing more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (12).

2013: Bengals

Before Hard Knocks: 10-6. After: 11-5. Win change: +1

The buzz: Linebacker James Harrison wasn’t always the easiest player to get along with, as a “Hard Knocks” camera crew found out when he jumped into a stranger’s car to escape their gaze. Still, Harrison was a champion in his lone preseason with Cincy — an arm-wrestling champion who took down all challengers. (Harrison’s on-the-field efforts were less impressive: 31 tackles and two sacks over 15 games.)

2014: Atlanta Falcons

Before Hard Knocks: 4-12. After: 6-10. Win change: +2.

The buzz: In the ninth season of “Hard Knocks” covering teams, we finally got a reality-show crossover — sort of — as seventh-year linebacker Kroy Biermann was married to Kim Zolciak, a star of Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Atlanta” from 2008-12. Biermann had arguably his best season in 2014, putting up 75 tackles and 4½ sacks over 16 games. (He retired after the 2015 season.)

2015: Houston Texans

Before Hard Knocks: 9-7. After: 9-7. Win change: 0.

The buzz: When all else fails, there’s always a QB competition. And so we got 30-year-old Brian Hoyer, a Michigan State alumnus, battling 27-year-old Ryan Mallett, a Michigan alumnus. Hoyer won the starting job — for all of 3½ quarters, as he was benched in the season-opening loss to the Chiefs. Mallett started the next four games before injury struck, handing Hoyer the job again for eight of the Texans’ final 11 games. The Texans made the playoffs, but Hoyer threw four picks in the first-round game, a 30-0 loss to the Chiefs.

2016: Los Angeles Rams

Before Hard Knocks: 7-9. After: 4-12. Win change: -3.

The buzz: No QB controversy here — Nick Foles, the Rams’ starter in 11 games in 2015, was released bu future Michigan Panthers coach Jeff Fisher by phone, giving the job to Case Keenum, while No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff adjusted to the NFL. (That plan lasted nine weeks, when the Rams pivoted to Goff in Week 10; he was sacked 26 times while throwing five touchdowns and seven interceptions as the Rams went 0-7 in his starts.)

2017: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Before Hard Knocks: 9-7. After: 5-11. Win change: -4.

The buzz: Former Michigan State star linebacker Riley Bullough got some screen time in the finale, as he went head-to-head with third-year veteran Cameron Lynch for a roster spot. The undrafted Bullough didn’t win that fight, but he did end up on the Bucs’ practice squad, followed by appearances in three games (with two tackles) during the regular season. (He played in nine games with the Bucs the following year.)

2018: Cleveland Browns

Before Hard Knocks: 0-16. After: 7-8-1. Win change: +7.5.

The buzz: No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield was expected to be the star, but third-year defensive end Carl Nassib stepped into the spotlight with his lecture extolling the virtues of compound interest in Week 1 of the show: “We got a lot of money now, right? This is the easiest equation to make you rich.” Nassib was eventually cut, he landed with Tampa and had 29 tackles and 6½ sacks; he become notable again a couple seasons later when he became the NFL’s first openly gay player in 2020 with the Raiders.

2019: Oakland Raiders

Before Hard Knocks: 4-12. After: 7-9. Win change: +3.

The buzz: Yes, there was a QB competition — between Mike Glennon and Nathan Peterman to back up Derek Carr — but this preseason was all about offseason acquisition Antonio Brown. The former Central Michigan star had so many, uh, incidents in his month in black and silver — frostbite on his toes, a fight over his preferred helmet, an altercation with GM Mike Mayock — that the Raiders released him before his contract became guaranteed. He signed with the New England Patriots two days later, and caught four passes for 56 yards and a touchdown in one game before he was cut again.

2020: Rams & L.A. Chargers

Rams before Hard Knocks: 9-7. After: 10-6. Win change: +1.

Chargers before Hard Knocks: 5-11. After: 7-9. Win change: +2.

The buzz: The coronavirus pandemic, which led to the cancellation of all preseason games, and the shooting death of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, created a tense environment as the Chargers and Rams moved into SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. One on-field narrative of note: No. 6 overall pick Justin Herbert’s adjustment to the NFL. This time, the rookie DIDN’T win the starting QB job, as veteran Tyrod Taylor was all set to start … only to have his lung punctured by a shot from a trainer in Week 2. Herbert started on extremely short notice and passed for 311 yards en route to winning the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award.

2021: Cowboys

Before Hard Knocks: 6-10. After: 12-5. Win change: +6.

The buzz: Fittingly a member of the Diggs family stole the show as Aaiden Diggs, the son of Cowboys corner Trevon Diggs (and nephew of former Lions DB Quandre Diggs), couldn’t decide whether his favorite QB was K.C.’s Patrick Mahomes or his dad’s teammate, Dak Prescott. And then got a little confused when he finally met Prescott. Trevon, however, wasn’t confused often last season; he picked off a pass in each of the season’s first six games and led the NFL with 11 picks to earn an All-Pro nod.

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.

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