The season premier of HBO’s Hard Knocks is in the books, and it was a fascinating look inside a professional training camp, particularly that of the Raiders who are in the midst of trying to turn around a franchise that’s been in the dumps of late.
As you might imagine, the episode featured a lot of Oakland’s biggest personalities- Jon Gruden, defensive line coach Brentson Buckner, Derek Carr and Antonio Brown. Gruden led off the episode with an impassioned speech about turning the dreams of others into nightmares. It was very clear from the start that Gruden is not putting up with any nonsense this year and Raider football is serious business. He hammered that point home with the sudden release of DT Ronald Ollie, whom the HBO crew surely wanted to feature. Ollie hurt his Achilles early on and missed appointments with the training staff, and so he was gone and replaced in short order.
The star of the episode, however, was rookie safety Johnathan Abram. The first time we see Abram, he’s getting a bag of candy out of a very expensive Mercedes. On the practice field, Abram made his presence felt with his highly aggressive style. The problem was this was a shirts-and-shells practice, with collisions highly discouraged. Abram took out Luke Willson trying to get to a ball-carrier, earning the ire of both Willson who had some words in his Canadian accent for Abram, and Gruden himself who had something of a standoff with Abram as he convinced him not to hit his own teammates. Abram’s attitude will be of great use on game day, but bringing the pain here shows a touch of immaturity on his part.
Abram showed up a few more times in the episode, joining Clelin Ferrell on a horseback trail ride through the Napa wine country. Abram is an accomplished horseman and horse trainer, but Ferrell was a total newbie. There was some good-natured ribbing as Ferrell did his best to stay on the horse, and the two sang together as they rode along.
Later, Abram and the rest of the rookie class were taken out to lunch by Derek Carr, and Abram had some questions about how to pronounce salmon. He also discussed Carr making so much money that neither he nor his kids ever had to work again, making one wonder what Abram will do once he truly gets paid. However, as Abram has one of the few jobs in the world where he can get paid to hit people as hard as he can, I have no doubt he will continue to give full effort no matter what.
Much of the episode showed the odyssey of new Raider star receiver Antonio Brown, who arrived to camp in a hot-air balloon, but with feet which were sore for a reason unspecified in the episode. We saw him training several times on his own and with a personal trainer, and also with the team for the one day that he’s done a full practice, It doesn’t appear that Brown’s feet aren’t healing, but rather that Brown steadfastly refuses to practice at less than full speed or half-ass his workouts, and the coaches felt it was better to hold him out until he’s fully healed. Hopefully he will be appearing on future episodes of Hard Knocks at full speed.
The episode concluded with an alumni party featuring many former Raiders, and the team honored the memory of the recently departed Cliff Branch. The show will be featuring the Raiders and Rams joint practices next week.
Watching this show was a neat experience for me. As someone who covers the Raiders both professionally and obsessively, there was little here that I hadn’t already seen (except the horse scenes), but HBO did a tremendous job showing both the history of the Raiders franchise and what Gruden is doing to bring the team back to glory. I have a feeling the show will get even more compelling in the coming weeks.