The season premiere of HBO’s documentary series Hard Knocks is as much of a key part of the build-up to the NFL season as the annual Hall Of Fame preseason game. The show, which follows a team through its training camp, serves as a reminder to fans hungry for football season what’s in store that season. In years past, teams volunteered to be the featured squad, but starting last season the process turned into a draft. The Texans — a team that hadn’t appeared on Hard Knocks in the past ten years, that didn’t have a first-year head coach, and that hadn’t made the playoffs in the last two seasons — were one of the nine teams eligible under the NFL’s draft guidelines.
Generally speaking, teams aren’t fond of appearing on Hard Knocks — it gives opponents a glimpse of their process, plays up drama for the cameras, and generally creates a distraction during crunch time. But if we’re going to get a five-episode inside look at the Houston Texans training camp, we might as well take advantage of it. Here are seven things we learned from Tuesday’s season premiere of Hard Knocks.
1. Bill O’Brien talks and acts like a second-year head coach
The Texans’ head coach, now in his second year with the team, opens the episode with a monologue about how the entire NFL thinks they’re a joke — if they’re talking about the team at all. And he’s sick of hearing about how the quarterbacks, unproven journeymen Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer, aren’t good enough. Playing the “nobody believes in us” game is a time-honored tradition for coaches looking to create an us-against-the-world mentality among the players and coaches, and O’Brien, whose first year in Houston was an improvement over the statistical outlier that was the pathetic 2013 season, hits it hard as he prepares to prove why he should return for year three.
O’Brien also appears to be fond of quizzing players on somewhat obscure facts about the team’s organizational structure before they get into the room (“Who is the COO of this organization?”). Young NFL coaches — especially from the Belichick coaching tree — are famous for using weird stunts to see which of their players will hang with them: former Broncos head coach Josh McDaniel made players arrive at 5:30 in the morning to practice comedy skits, and former Browns and Jets head coach Eric Mangini was known to demand rookies take a 10-hour bus ride to work at his football camp. O’Brien’s “name the front office staff” quiz is less extreme, for sure, but he certainly seems to be cut from the same cloth.
2. Vince Wilfork is smaller than an elephant
In an early scene, the team’s prized offseason acquisition, former New England Patriots run-stuffer Vince Wilfork, goes to the circus where he meets an elephant: “I’ve never been that close to an elephant, and those things are huge.” Wilfork is listed at 6’2″, 325 pounds, and the two-time Super Bowl champ is expected to be a major contributor to the Texans’ defensive line. Flanked by J.J. Watt and a hopefully healthy Jadeveon Clowney, Wilfork could be a missing piece that the team needs to make an already outstanding defense one of the league’s best. So if the Texans are looking to recruit an elephant, he’d probably be more useful on offense. (Maybe they could recruit one to play quarterback?)
3. J.J. Watt isn’t perfect
At one point, O’Brien orders the defensive linemen who jumped offsides during a drill to run sprints on the practice field — but not J.J. Watt, who explains to another player that “ever since O.B. got here, he’s been trying to get me to jump offsides, and I haven’t jumped offsides one time. Not one single time. He talks to me about it all the time.” O’Brien, for his part, giggles that, “I want his ass running.” Moments later, he gets him — Watt goes ahead and takes a lap around the field, as the training camp crowd erupts with laughter, prompting linebacker Brian Cushing to declare, “They’re gonna cheer when we mess up? This is gonna be a good year.” Although, to be fair, a Houston crowd will probably cheer for literally anything that J.J. Watt does.
He does make up for his minor error by staying late into the night to go after blocking dummies all by himself, then signs every last autograph for waiting fans — because he’s J.J. Watt.
4. Kevin Johnson’s sister is a former Baltimore Ravens cheerleader
The team’s first-round draft pick in 2015 hangs out with his sister early on in the episode, and she reveals that she once cheered for a fellow AFC team. Literally! A former high school and college cheerleader, Hillary Johnson spent three seasons on the Ravens’ cheer squad. But now the family, mercifully, won’t be split between rooting for their son on the field and their daughter on the sidelines should the two teams meet in the postseason.
5. Christian Covington is a nerd
The rookie defensive tackle brought a stack of every book in the Game Of Thrones series to his hotel room (cool brand synergy, HBO!), and announced his plan to read a bunch of C.S. Lewis during the weeks of camp. Maybe noted NFL fan George R.R. Martin can name a character after him if he has a good season? He also spends a fair bit of time freaking out over the bats at the Waugh Drive Bat Colony, which isn’t the hippest of pastimes. The former Rice Owl could turn out to be a breakout star on Hard Knocks even if, as a late-round rookie draft pick, his future on the Texans’ roster is uncertain.
6. Arian Foster’s groin injury was a subject of immediate gossip
In one brief scene, two men in Texans gear inside of the team’s facility discuss how they learned Foster, the team’s star running back, had a groin injury that required surgery: backup quarterback Tom Savage reported that he’d heard it from someone else. NFL teams may be full of world-class athletes singularly focused on winning football games, but when it comes to spreading rumors, they’re just like anybody else.
7. Nobody believes Bill O’Brien listens to Rick Ross
Following a joint practice with Washington, the head coach says that he’s going to try to get some music for the team to listen to during practice. He suggests “some country, some Rick Ross,” and the entire room cracks up at the thought of Bill O’Brien listening to Teflon Da Don. O’Brien comes off pretty well on Hard Knocks, but he doesn’t exactly come off as cool.
(Alexa Welch Edlund/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)