The idea was broached over dinner in March. Steve Sabol, head of NFL Films, sat across from an old friend, Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, and threw out what he figured was a crazy idea: What if we taped your training camp and made it into an hourlong weekly TV show? To Sabol's surprise, Billick liked the idea. "I warned him that we'd need total access," Sabol says. "I said, 'Brian, we'll have cameras right up your ass. We'll mike players; we'll have robot cameras in your office. We'll be everywhere.' "
Five months later HBO's Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Baltimore Ravens, which debuted on Aug. 1, has become a unique—if not consistently engrossing—experiment in sports television. Viewers of the four Wednesday-night installments that had aired through last week (there were two more to come) saw players getting cut from the team, playing pranks and being evaluated, often negatively, during closed-door coaches' meetings. "What these guys are seeing from the coaches' meetings is stuff they wouldn't usually be privy to," says Rick Bernstein, executive producer of HBO Sports. "For some players, it may be too honest."
NFL Films' 23-member crew has been blessed with unexpected drama during the shooting, including a season-ending injury (torn left ACL) to star running back Jamal Lewis, and the on-field discussions and fan backlash surrounding the cancellation of last week's Ravens-Philadelphia Eagles exhibition game. Even so, and not discounting the comedy stylings of defensive tackle Tony Siragusa and tight end Shannon Sharpe, Hard Knocks remains more a curiosity for sports fans than compelling TV. Though the production is impressively done and the behind-the-scenes access must be nirvana for Baltimore faithful, the show lacks the tension and character development needed to hold the attention of general viewers. It also lacks an edge. Then again, how probing can HBO be when the show is produced by a league entity ( NFL Films) and is censored by the Ravens' coach, who gets to watch each episode before it airs and make cuts? (Billick has asked that one snip, of a three-second throat-cutting gesture, be removed.)
So, while Hard Knocks is worth taking a peek at now, this sort of training camp diary would get old the second season around. In other words, here's hoping next fall doesn't bring us Soft Pass Rush: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals.