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Lieberman: ‘Hard Knocks’ hits viewers harder than they bargained for



On Tuesday morning word broke that the newest season of “Hard Knocks”@@http://www.hbo.com/hard-knocks/[email protected]@ would be focusing on the Miami Dolphins for the 2012 season. The show is a production of HBO that follows National Football League squads preparing for the upcoming year.

While the pitch may sound bland — jocks being jocks around other jocks — the program is anything but. Why? Because HBO takes the NFL’s most poignant characters and does what it does best: craft engaging storylines from the top (head coach and management) to the bottom (undrafted free agents). The program relies on a strong element of humanization while also delving into the intricacies of the game we love.

If you’ve never seen the show but have any interest in professional sports, you’re in for a treat. Sure, there are similar programs in other professional leagues (“The Association” for basketball,@@http://www.nba.com/the-association/@@ “24/7” for hockey,@@http://www.hbo.com/sports/24-7-penguins-capitals-road-to-the-nhl-winter-classic/video/the-buzz?autoplay=true&[email protected]@ “The Franchise” for baseball).@@http://sports.sho.com/#/baseball/specials/[email protected]@ But I think we all know when it comes to quality television production, especially in the context of documentaries, nobody does it like HBO. Simply collecting so much footage and editing it in a timely manner seems tasking, but they do all of that while giving it crisp transitions, clean-cut storylines and a well-developed flair for the dramatic. If you need proof, the program won an Emmy for Outstanding Edited Sports Series in 2010 after chronicling the training camp of the New York Jets.@@http://www.nfl.com/news/story?id=09000d5d817d3206&template=with-video-with-comments&[email protected]@

From Mark Sanchez to Emmitt Smith to Shannon Sharpe,@@names [email protected]@ the series has never lacked intimate moments with some of football’s most transcendent stars. But while these events are eye-catching and move the series along, they are by no means the main attraction for sports fans.

What made me fall in love with Hard Knocks was the humanizing element. As you follow every individual narrative, you’re likely to see how far-reaching events impact a multibillion-dollar sports franchise at every level. Take, for example, the 2010 season with the Jets I just mentioned. For that year, the running storyline throughout the summer was the contract holdout of All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis.@@[email protected]@ For much of the series, general manager Mike Tannenbaum@@[email protected]@ appears to be literally sweating out the implications of losing his go-to defender. But while Revis and his familiar high-wire act dominate headlines, HBO delves into the depths of the roster to find players who are dealing with drama more relatable.

As Revis feuded with management, the show trudged on. One great storyline was the battle for the starting fullback position between veteran Tony Richardson, journeyman Jason Davis and rookie John Conner. As skill players looked to get their touches in front of the coaches, Richardson, Davis and Conner continued to go head-to-head — both literally and figuratively. As the trio bludgeoned each other through each impending battle, a tentative bond formed between the three men who may possess the most barbaric role on a football field. As Richardson neared the end of 16 years of bloody service, Conner prepared to spark a career.

The contrast between the personalities, combined with commonalities they experienced every day, made their interactions a legitimate examination of workplace behavior. While the drama of Richardson (a gritty, underpaid veteran) and Revis (a ludicrously rich, spotlight-hungry superstar) didn’t seem to overlap, one key connection existed: To account for financial considerations related to the Revis dispute, the Jets released Richardson on Sept. 5, 2010, before re-signing him the next day (of course, only after reaching a deal with Revis). Other sights — such as seeing the players visit with their children and loved ones after weeks away at training camp, as well as rookie hazing at its finest — also aid the human element of the show.

But it’s the desperation at the bottom of the roster that really drives it. The dog-eat-dog nature that breed success in the NFL equates to top-notch drama.

Outside of gripping stories, the second strong quality that “Hard Knocks” brings to the table is a detailed look into the intricacies of football. Whether you’re interested in warm-up drills or what the players eat for nighttime snacks, you’re in the right place. The show goes out of its way to tell the stories of commonly overlooked team and stadium personnel. While such profiles are a stable of modern sports media, “Hard Knocks” possesses the access and expertise to take it to a new level. For example, the show followed former fifth-round selection Boomer Grigsby’s@@[email protected]@ transition from linebacker to fullback during its 2007 season with Kansas City. While such stories have less of an impact and seem relatively repetitive on a season-to-season basis, they are rich with details and create a strong relationship between the subject and the viewer.

If any of the above sounds intriguing, be sure to check out HBO this summer when the new season with Miami begins. August is a hot and boring month — and, as they say, it’s a hard knock(s) life.

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