Despite the question marks throughout the offseason about the state of the 2020 NFL season, “Hard Knocks” has officially returned to football fans’ television screens to start the series’ most unique summer to date.
For the first time in HBO’s history, two NFL teams, the Los Angeles Chargers and Los Angeles Rams will be featured at once as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, thus creating a season simply entitled “Hard Knocks: Los Angeles.”
The Chargers get their first crack at the “Hard Knocks” spotlight, while the Rams wind up on the show for the second time since 2016, since HBO was forced to stray away from its usual selection process due to the pandemic.
As both teams ramped up preparations for the regular season with a strict training camp schedule and a lack of preseason games, “Hard Knocks: Los Angeles” premiered on HBO on August 11, complete with clips that no one could have ever imagined seeing even six months prior.
As was the case after each installment of the Raiders’ season last year, if you missed the last episode of “Hard Knocks,” here’s a full recap and review of the season premiere to get you up to speed.
In typical 2020 fashion, the episode starts with the sound of a laptop notification as Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn gets set to join a team meeting over Zoom.
“What’s up, fellas?” Lynn asks his team. “Good to see y’all’s faces.”
Viewers get glimpses of some familiar faces like Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa and wide receiver Keenan Allen, before Lynn opens the call up for players to ask questions about the league’s COVID-19 protocols.
Multiple players rattle off questions about the frequency of testing, the return time for results, and things they can expect when they step onto the practice field for training camp.
“Be patient, man,” Lynn says. “This year is not like any other we’ve had in the National Football League.”
“The goals, the objectives will not change,” he says as he warns his roster about the potential for exposure to COVID-19. “Be ready for chaos. Embrace it.”
After the show’s intro, viewers get a glimpse of the Chargers’ facilities being set up ahead of training camp, as narrator Liev Schreiber explains the situation to those watching at home.
“At a distance, it looks like any other training camp,” Schreiber says. “But, look closer. In 2020, nothing is normal.”
“Somehow, the Rams and Chargers have to negotiate a world with no maps.”
Fans get their first look at Rams head coach Sean McVay in a Hard Knocks setting, as he lays out the team’s tented practice set-up with the team’s Director of Football Operations.
“Lot of moving pieces and it’s cool to finally see it all come together,” Rams Vice President of Sports Medicine and Performance Reggie Scott said.
While some wondered what footage would look like during the unique “Hard Knocks” season, camera crews still made it out to Lynn and McVay’s respective homes in California for a look at life away from football. Lynn smokes meat with his wife, while McVay plays basketball in his pool with his dog as his fiancee looks on, comparing his pet’s focus and concentration to his players.
“We’ve gotten more time than we would’ve ever gotten otherwise,” McVay explained with his fiancee. “We’re planning a wedding and those are the things I appreciate.”
“Anybody knows me knows I need some football,” McVay said.
Fans still get a typical, flashy training camp entrance, as well, as Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram III shows up in style in a three-wheeler while rapping for the cameras.
“All purpose right here,” Ingram says.
Other players like Chargers linebacker Denzel Perryman and safety Derwin James show up on camera, showcasing the impacts of COVID-19 as they sanitize their hands and get their temperature checked upon arrival at the team facility.
Chargers rookie quarterback Justin Herbert enters the fray, along with wide receiver Keenan Allen and tight end Hunter Henry, who undergo COVID-19 tests.
Chargers cornerback Casey Hayward tops the group as far as his test reaction goes, explaining how nervous he was and how he had to “get prepared” before a swab was taken.
Across town, the Rams go through the same every-day testing, as quarterback Jared Goff shows up for his second go-around in the “Hard Knocks” scene. As he gets his temperature checked in his car, something else is on his mind as the team prepares for a new look and new stadium in 2020.
“Got the new merch, huh?” Goff asks a team staff member in the parking lot.
Rookie running back Cam Akers and McVay get their own COVID-19 tests, as linebacker Samson Ebukam has the reaction of the night on the Rams’ side of the state.
“That’s a big-ass needle,” he tells the doctor.
Returning to the Chargers facility, coaches lay out the rules for in-person team meetings, including a lack of players in the first four rows of the room to allow coaches to project without masks so that they can be heard clearly.
Running backs coach Mark Ridgley asks about the requirements for masks on the field, and someone tells him that Lynn prefers that everyone wear a mask during walkthroughs, despite them technically being optional.
For McVay, he found a different solution to help players and coaches see his face better when he speaks in meetings: a Splash Shield.
“This is what we’re doing, I’m telling you,” McVay says as he dons the face shield. “I don’t give a s— if I look like a total tool who should have a blow torch over my shoulder.”
“I’ll carry Windex with me,” he says as he mimics drawing out plays on the visor.
McVay talks to his players about the severity of the solution, explaining the predicament the Miami Marlins found themselves in as MLB play resumed.
“I hate to see that, I love sports,” McVay said. “We’ve gotta keep this ecosystem right.”
With no preseason games to work with and strict guidelines to follow, both teams are forced to make decisions through walkthroughs. Herbert shines in drills despite his rookie status in the Chargers depth chart, while Goff deals with the temptation to throw the ball whenever he sees an opportunity.
“I want to snap that s—,” he said. “I thought about it.”
Viewers then get a weight room montage as players work out and staff members sanitize equipment, and Rams cornerback Dont’e Deayon shows off his sculpted stature to teammates, including Rams defensive star Aaron Donald.
“I do full body everyday,” Deayon says. “I’ve been working out, too.”
Deayon emerges as the most vocal personality from the season premiere, similar to Raiders safety Johnathan Abram from the 2019 season of “Hard Knocks.” He jokes about wanting a new locker and the layout of the facility, and even offers to race or fight somebody for better positioning in the locker room.
Meanwhile, Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey shows off his seat at his locker, before Schreiber narrates about his history in the league and his current status as a player on a rookie deal.
Ramsey speaks to media members through Zoom, but things get testy as questions start to flow in about his contract situation heading into the 2020 season.
“My agent and the front office, they’ll handle all that,” he says as an answer to multiple questions. “Gotta take the answer I give you!”
As questions keep coming in, he decides to walk out of the press conference, and reporters wait around to see if he’ll return. After some pleading from Rams communications staff members, Ramsey returns and is blunt about the situation.
“I’m trying to do my job as a football player,” Ramsey says. “I’m not going to do every Zoom session or however we’ll be doing them this year talking about my contract.”
“When I give y’all an answer, that’s the answer.”
In an opposite situation, the HBO crew transitions from Ramsey to a young Chargers star in Bosa, who is in fact getting a “big-money” deal in the words of his teammates.
Cameras are on the scene as he signs a $135 million deal for the next five years, making him the highest-paid defensive player in the league.
“I knew something big was coming,” Bosa explains. “For them to see the body of work I put in and the sacrifices I’ve made. Just to have that security for my family, it’s still surreal.”
Bosa gets emotional as he discussed his father’s happiness when he heard the news.
“It was a really cool moment,” Bosa says. “I’m never going to forget it.”
Another youngster in the Chargers system is hoping to have a similar impact: Justin Herbert.
The Oregon alum is working to supplant Tyrod Taylor in the team’s quarterback depth chart, and looks good in practice as he works alongside quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton.
Back to the main issues at hand from the previous five months, the HBO crews highlight the varying topics that arose from March through August: COVID-19 and social justice.
The Chargers team physician peppers Lynn with questions about the latter’s experience after testing positive for the coronavirus during the offseason, and the attention then turns to Lynn’s perspective on the team’s efforts as it relates to social justice.
“There are things going on in our country right now that we cannot ignore,” Lynn says. “Respect each other in how we’re going to go about this.”
Chargers long snapper Cole Mazza, alongside other members of the Chargers organization and Ted Bunch, Chief Development Officer of A Call to Men, have a candid discussion about the variety of elements at hand as it relates to the discussion around kneeling during the National Anthem and protesting.
Throughout the talk, it’s evident how supportive and cooperative everyone involved is in order to do right by their teammates.
“You fight for freedom,” Chargers defensive tackle Cortez Broughton says his father, a former Army Ranger, once told him. “That’s the one thing you’re fighting for, you have the freedom to do what you want.”
Back at Rams camp, the focus turns to rookie Terrell Lewis, who became the first and only Rams player to test positive for COVID-19. He’s forced to quarantine for 10 days, meaning he can’t practice with the team and can’t be in the facility.
“He’s gotta follow the protocols,” McVay explains to media members. “We’ll anxiously await his return.”
McVay explains to his team that even he has to follow protocols in a more efficient way himself, and says he expects his team to do the same as preparations ramp up for the upcoming season.
“I have to do a better job, as well,” McVay says. “Let’s all keep one another accountable.”
Viewers also get their first cuts of the new season, as well, as Lynn speaks on the phone with numerous players like Roderic Teamer, Koda Martin, Jared Rice and P.J. Johnson to let them know about their new roster status.
The lone in-person meeting shown? A discussion with tight end Andrew Vollert, who isn’t pleased with the move.
“I appreciate the fact that you’re pissed off because you worked your ass off,” Lynn explains. “Right now, it’s a numbers game.”
While Lynn respects the fire that Vollert shows, Lynn tells general manager Tom Telesco that Vollert “ain’t no Antonio Gates, now,’ explaining the reality of the business at hand.
Wrapping the episode up, football fans get a blooper reel of sorts, as coaches and players on both the Chargers and Rams struggle with all that comes with Zoom meetings as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. One thing is for certain: If you think you’re alone in your troubles with remote meetings while staying at home, think again.
While this season will undoubtedly have less drama than the Raiders brought to the table in 2019, the Chargers and Rams should be able to provide some serious entertainment as long as things progress smoothly over the next few weeks.
Sure, “Hard Knocks” won’t have Antonio Brown’s helmet or feet issues to highlight, or the endless Jon Gruden-isms that the Raiders head coach threw out there on a weekly basis last season. But, they get the next best thing in McVay, a Gruden protege, and the flip-side of that pillow in Lynn for the Chargers.
The COVID-19 protocols are already intriguing enough, and seeing how the players react to every little detail was incredibly interesting throughout the season premiere. Chargers and Rams alike were confused, nervous and wondering about what’s next, and that raw and real emotion is what will make this season more unique than any other in “Hard Knocks” history.
If things keep up at this pace, the HBO crews should be just fine as far as content is concerned over the next month, even without preseason games to film. As pads get added to practices and contact starts to pick up, everything will just get that much more intriguing to watch, and that’s what makes “Hard Knocks” so special every year.