After one of the most unique seasons of “Hard Knocks” ever put together, the Chargers and Rams closed the book on their five-week journey on September 8 and officially kicked off the NFL’s opening week in the process.
Despite a lack of preseason games to work with and a slow burn as it relates to on-field practices due to COVID-19 protocols, HBO and NFL Films managed to put together a solid product over the course of a month.
They were there to showcase what life is like as a football player or coach in a world impacted by the coronavirus, and got full access during a pivotal time in sports history as players and coaches discussed issues related to racial equality and social justice.
But, like anything, all good things must come to an end. In this case, that end came in the form of a riveting season finale, giving fans one last glimpse behind the scenes at key decisions for both the Chargers and Rams.
Miss out on the season’s final episode? Just looking for a refresher after the show’s final hour? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered with a full episode recap and review for the season finale of “Hard Knocks: Los Angeles.”
The focus of every final episode in a season of “Hard Knocks” is always on cuts, and, despite all of the other things going on in the world, this year’s theme was exactly the same.
The season finale opened with Chargers wide receivers coach Phil McGeoghan lecturing players in a meeting, explaining the importance of the team’s next few practices before those big roster decisions needed to be made.
“Here’s the truth: Cut day is coming faster than you ever could’ve imagined,” he said. “We have real things coming down the pike.”
“Use your talent that God gave you to make a number of plays today.”
After the last “Hard Knocks” intro of 2020, narrator Liev Schreiber sets the stage with the perfect analogy for this year’s setting in Los Angeles: “La La Land is America’s dream factory. Being this close to the marquee and not making the cast can be crushing.”
Fans get a rundown of some key cogs in both the Chargers’ and Rams’ machines, starting with Rams general manager Les Snead’s description of the “ageless wonder” Andrew Whitworth on his offensive line.
“Probably just going to have to prove he can’t do it anymore,” Snead said. “Probably why he’s been playing for 100 and probably play for 100 more.”
The rapid-fire round ensues, as viewers get highlights of Rams quarterback Jared Goff, Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey, and Rams defensive end Aaron Donald.
Back at Chargers’ camp, similar clips are shown for guys like star linebacker Melvin Ingram III, quarterbacks Tyrod Taylor and Justin Herbert, and offensive mainstays like wide receiver Keenan Allen and running back Austin Ekeler.
Emotions change from the stress of roster cuts to the reflection that comes with the end of training camp, with Chargers strength coach John Lott praising the team’s players for their work throughout the summer.
“All of y’all working your tails off,” Lott said. “Can’t ask you for much more than that.”
Throughout all of that work, coaches continue to watch in the distance will big decisions looming. In this case, Chargers Anthony Lynn literally peers through his office window as his players work on conditioning at practice.
Viewers then get a glimpse at players on the bubble at both facilities: Chargers running back Darius Bradwell and defensive tackle Breiden Fehoko, followed by Rams defensive backs Donte Deayon and JuJu Hughes, and Brett Favre’s favorite linebacker Clay Johnston.
The Rams have on more scrimmage at SoFi Stadium, which gives a preview of what their season opener on Sunday Night Football against the Cowboys may look like: no one in the crowd, and a moment of silence as players stand and kneel before the playing of the National Anthem.
“Can we get some fake noise or some s—?” Donald asks as play starts on the field.
A time lapse signifies the continuous work being put in throughout the scrimmage, while highlights showcase Goff’s offensive prowess with wide receivers Van Jefferson and Robert Woods as practice.
A fourth-down situation put forth by McVay leads to a Goff-to-Woods connection for a touchdown, much to the excitement of the Rams quarterback.
“Hey Woody, that was my first touchdown here,” Goff joked. “Thanks.”
“Just the little things in life that give you joy,” McVay said before sending his team to the locker room for halftime.
In the locker room, Johnston is unhappy with his performance in the first half, while linebackers coach Joe Barry tells his players to keep their heads up.
“Go out there, have fun,” Barry said after telling his players he’ll find out “if you f—ers can tackle.” “Don’t be a damn stress case. The mistakes that you made are on me.”
One mistake, however, lingers for Hughes defensively, as he barely misses out on an interception during a potentially pivotal play in the scrimmage. Shortly after, he pulls his hamstring, all as Schreiber explains that any snap could be your last.
While Hughes sits on the sideline, Deayon and Johnston show up on a few plays, even combining for a forced fumble and a scoop-and-score on the same play, respectively.
“I got a lot of work to do,” Johnston told Barry at the end of the scrimmage.
“We all do,” Barry replied.
McVay talks to media after the scrimmage, explaining that the team will take every opportunity they can to evaluate the full roster of players.
“I was pleased with some things, and there are things that I want to get cleaned up,” McVay said, before shifting gears to the upcoming cuts. “We don’t know what may happen.”
The “Hard Knocks” crew shows Deayon training with his girlfriend at their home, while Hughes gets his hamstring worked on with trainers back at the team’s facility.
Unfortunately for the Chargers, one of their stars will also be working his way back to full health this season, albeit as a result of a more serious injury.
About a week after the injury actually happened, footage shows the events that led up to Derwin James’ season-ending injury that occurred shortly before Episode 4 aired.
HBO heads back to the archives, as well, playing a clip from last season where James talks about the mental toll his injury from 2019 had on him, which limited him to just five games near the end of last season.
“I’ve been injured, bro,” James said during a game. “You don’t got no control over it.”
“Play every snap like it’s your last, bro.”
James gets plenty of praise from teammates and coaches alike, with Lynn explaining how special it is to have the star safety in the locker room.
“Just to be around DJ every day at practice and his enthusiasm, it’s contagious,” Lynn said. “Very rare for a player to be that young and the leader that he is.”
The team gets ready for a “dress rehearsal” as Allen struggles to get his pads on before practice. James encourages teammates to make plays on the football, and to “not have any f—ups today.”
“What you do speaks so much louder than what you say,” quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton said. “Earn a job.”
Coaches continue their praise of James’ play and his aggressiveness on the line of scrimmage, saying “when he’s down there, he’s down there for a reason.”
However, that aggressiveness leads to an unfortunate injury, as James winds up on the ground after an Allen catch during practice. While Ingram III and McGeoghan pray that the injury is simply a cramp, practice comes to a halt and James leaves the field in frustration.
With James away from the field, Lynn tells his second team to get on the field and tells them “this is how you make the team.”
At first, rookies Bradwell and Fehoko struggle on their respective sides of the ball, but they bounce back in big fashion later on to end on a positive note.
“We’ll watch the tape, we’ll make corrections, we’ll get better,” Lynn said as practice ends.
From there, the on-field action ends, and the nitty-gritty of cuts begins. It all starts with McVay and Snead at the Rams facility, all beginning with the release of JuJu Hughes.
“We’re gonna let you go today,” McVay told Hughes as he informs him about wanting to bring him back on the practice squad. “You have made such a good impression on people here. You’re all about the right stuff, and you can play.”
The tone is incredibly similar for the rest of the way, as McVay, Snead and Director of Pro Personnel Ray Agnew also inform Deayon about his release, as well.
“Donte Deayon is hard to come by,” Agnew said. “He’s a good guy to have on the team. It’s a tough call to make.”
Last, but certainly not least, is Johnston, who had left the facility thinking he was safe earlier in the day.
When he returns, he tells Snead that he was happy for the chance to try to make the team.
“Thanks for the opportunity, it was fun. Seriously, I enjoyed that,” Johnston said. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity, that meant the world to me.”
“The opportunity isn’t over, man,” McVay said as he expressed interest in bringing Johnston back on the practice squad. “Obviously, you’ve got a nice way about you. I can see how engaged and locked in you are.”
“Favre is going to be pissed at us,” Snead joked.
Back at Chargers camp, the losses keep coming for Lynn and company: James is out for the year, while cuts loom on the horizon.
“Our safety is down,” Lynn said on the phone. “Man, just non-contact. Second year in a row for that young man.”
For the Chargers, cuts include the familiar faces on their side of the ball, as well. Both Bradwell and Fehoko are informed of their releases, with both invited back to the practice squad if they clear waivers.
“Two worst days of the year for me,” Lynn said. “I remember when that happened to me.”
“Unfortunately with COVID and everything, and no preseason games and limited amount of practices, it’s understandable,” Fehoko explained, as he said how thankful he was for the opportunity.
The mood then shifts towards the future, with the realization that live football is only a week away.
“It’s go time now, baby,” McVay said in his office. “It’s going to be great, too.”
For the Rams, Hughes and Deayon return to the practice squad. Initially, it seems as if Johnston would return, too, but Snead gets news that the rookie would be heading to Carolina to join his former coaches from Baylor, and his father Kent, who is the Panthers’ Director of Player Wellness.
“Carolina enticed him to come,” Snead said. “It’s not just head coach, it’s dad and maybe mom. Disappointing for us.”
Viewers get a look at some family Zoom calls for Johnston and Fehoko, respectively, while coaches start to get their players in a regular season mindset.
“Good morning, guys,” McVay said in a meeting. “First thing I would say. “This is our football team, you guys are the best of the best.”
“I want a tough ass team,” Lynn told his players. “I want you to be at your best when you need to be at your best.”
“Trust each other, play for one another.”
Viewers get some last looks at familiar faces like Aaron Donald and Justin Herbert, before Jared Goff signs it off for HBO and NFL Films.
“See ya, Hard Knocks.”
Considering the circumstances, this season finale of “Hard Knocks” felt like the usual that fans have become accustomed to in recent years.
While there weren’t any true feel good stories of rookies making the 53-man roster and surviving cuts, the addition of four practice squad spots to each roster added a unique wrinkle to the whole process for the 2020 season.
Usually, viewers only get to see the negatives, with players dropped from the roster and left fending for themselves. With the added focus on the practice squad and the uncertainty regarding any main roster player due to COVID-19, there seemed to be more happiness and understanding from players, all grateful for the chance to compete throughout the rest of the year.
Add in the focus that was finally put on James’ season-ending injury, and the unique environment that an empty stadium creates as a result of COVID-19 protocols, and the season finished on a high note as far as compelling programming was concerned.
Yes, it was incredibly unique, and yes, fans would love to never have to see a season like that again. Two teams is a tough situation to handle, especially when a pandemic takes control of most of the storylines and takes away any preseason games from the docket.
But, HBO and NFL Films did a great job of turning a negative into a positive and getting fans back into a football mindset just a few days before the season officially kicks off.
The viewership and ratings may not have been there, but if you avoided watching this season of “Hard Knocks” for whatever reason, you missed out on some great television. The fact that we got anything was incredible in its own right, and kudos to HBO and NFL Films for turning that something into something special.