The time has finally come: the 2021 season of “Hard Knocks” with the Dallas Cowboys is here.
After a summer following the Los Angeles Chargers and Los Angeles Rams in 2020, the crews at HBO and NFL Films started a five-episode journey that will run until the start of the 2021 regular season.
“America’s Team” took center stage for the season premiere of “Hard Knocks” on Tuesday, August 10, giving viewers a glimpse at life in the NFL amid new COVID-19 protocols for vaccinated and unvaccinated team members.
With what was undoubtedly a large audience of NFL fans watching, here’s how the season premiere of “Hard Knocks: The Dallas Cowboys” played out.
Fittingly, the season premiere starts with Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott talking about a whirlwind of a year, beginning with his brother’s suicide in April of 2020 and ending with his season-ending injury in October of 2020.
“Getting into the football season, something that’s always just given my peace, been my safe haven away from whatever’s going on in the real world,” Prescott said. “October 11 come…”
Prescott’s leg famously bent the wrong way, and the Cowboys star tried his best to make it so he could get back to playing right away.
“I just wanted to fix it, at the moment I just wanted to snap it back,” he explained. “Once I realized I couldn’t, I just remember waving for help.”
It wasn’t until I jumped on the cart and one of my teammates came over and patted me and told me it was going to be okay that the emotions really just started,” Prescott said. “At that moment I knew that, yeah, my season was done. I just couldn’t imagine at that point that the next few months I wasn’t going to be able to do the thing I love first.”
Prescott revealed he had two surgeries on his leg, and discussed the emotions that came with his return to the field in 2021.
“Coming to camp was a feeling I can’t explain,” Prescott said. “Knowing I’m completely healthy. There was a season of adversity, now I’m in a season of triumph.”
Viewers then got to experience the first “Hard Knocks” intro of the year, followed by a welcome sight: fans flowing into the team’s practice field in Oxnard, Texas.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott, rookie linebacker Micah Parsons, and second-year wide receiver CeeDee Lamb were among the first few faces shown, which was fitting when looking back at how the rest of the episode played out.
Fans watched as the Cowboys worked through the kinks of their first training camp practice of the year, which saw Elliott scoring touchdowns, Parsons getting his first look at the fans, and Lamb getting caught in a sensitive area midway through a rep.
“Gotta protect the McNuggets,” Lamb said.
While the team worked through some mistakes, head coach Mike McCarthy looked on.
“A lot to clean up, that’s for sure,” McCarthy said. “That’s how practice one usually goes.”
From there, the footage shifted to a press conference for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who laid out his expectations and hopes for the new year.
“We’re back. Here we are,” Jones said. “We’re back to business.”
“I would right now, if I could, and I knew had a good chance to do it, I’d do anything known to man to get in a Super Bowl,” Jones explained. “That’s a fact. I feel as driven as I was when we first bought the team. I was scared to death then, I’m scared to death now.”
Jones gets a bit emotional discussing his thoughts heading into the season, explaining that he lives in “a beautiful world.”
“It’s a better world to be naive than to be skeptical and be negative all the time,” Jones said.
Narrator Liev Schreiber takes over, explaining that, “Everyone in America has felt the strain of the last 18 months, including the man who runs ‘America’s Team.'”
Setting the stage, Schreiber lays out that it’s been 26 years since the Cowboys’ last Super Bowl win, and the team enters the 2021 season with loads of questions. Mainly, the attention is on Prescott as he works his way back from his injury.
Right on cue, the “Hard Knocks” crew throws out a montage centered around Prescott, where the Cowboys star is telling his teammates to “be aggressive.”
Fittingly, the lyrics, “Back in the game, back in the saddle” can be heard in the background music.
McCarthy tells coaches in a team meeting that they need to limit Prescott’s playing time, a theme that would become prevalent with a few other stars, as well.
Unfortunately for McCarthy, Prescott doesn’t listen, and instead forces his way back into the huddle for another rep.
“I sat last year enough,” Prescott said. ““I’ll let you know if I’m f—ing sore, if something’s bothering me.”
Transitioning to Prescott’s running mate in the backfield, Elliott gets some shine and describes his friendship with his fellow 2016 NFL Draft class member.
“We’ve been best friends since [the draft],” Elliott explained. “We’ve been through it all together since we’ve gotten here.”
In a hilarious clip, Elliott does his best to wrap up a gift for Prescott’s birthday, complete with a YouTube tutorial that moved “too fast” for him.
Once he wings it and wraps the gift himself, Prescott knocks on the door and asks what his friend is doing.
“You’re trying to ruin the surprise,” Elliott said.
Similar to Prescott, McCarthy also expressed a desire to limit Elliott’s carries in practice, citing the fact that the running back is already in better shape than the previous season.
But, Elliott wants to use his reps to work on ball security after an underwhelming 2020 campaign.
“When you’re carrying the ball, you’re kind of carrying the whole team, the whole organization, the whole fanbase,” Elliott told reporters. “It’s my job to make sure I don’t fumble it.”
While Elliott feels the pressure, the team as a whole is in a lighthearted mood.
Elliott is stealing Prescott’s unattended bicycle. Quarterback Ben DiNucci is making shadow puppets during meetings. Defensive lineman Neville Gallimore is being made fun of for his sneezing. Even coach John “Bones” Fassel is talking about his…well…vasectomy.
The mood quickly shifts when it comes time for the team’s first full-pads practice.
“Calm before the storm: the individual drills on padded drills,” McCarthy said at practice. “Everything changes when you put the pads on.”
Prescott’s excited to get his first reps in full pads since his injury back in October. Unfortunately, he suffers a shoulder strain early on, and his day is quickly finished.
Meanwhile, Parsons takes advantage of his first fully-padded reps in the NFL, showcasing his speed, his headbutts, and his trash-talking skills all around the field.
When things calm down, Parsons works with new Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, formerly the head coach for the Atlanta Falcons. The two’s relationship seems to be something that will be showcased frequently throughout the five-episode season.
Back to the head coach, McCarthy asks the trainer what the benefit of keeping Prescott on the field at practice is, rather than getting treatment for his shoulder strain.
Jones has his own questions about his franchise quarterback, asking the trainer when Prescott will be able to throw again and trusting the team’s “overprotective” approach.
Going back to the lighter mood, McCarthy shows a clip from the movie Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and introduces the “Mojo Moment” concept.
DiNucci explains that the “Mojo Moment” could happen at any point in practice, and pits the offense and the defense against each other for a random, game-esque scenario.
In the episode, McCarthy calls out for a situation where the offense is down eight with under two minutes to go, which ultimately leads to a highlight catch from Lamb in the corner of the end zone.
“Just another way of emphasizing the momentum changes in a game,” McCarthy said. “Momentum is such a big part of the game of football. Anytime you got a chance to use an Austin Powers film clip, you should take advantage of it.”
Unfortunately for the team, Prescott’s injury limits him for the entirety of the team’s second week of camp. He doesn’t miss practice, but doesn’t get any reps throwing the ball.
Meanwhile, fans serenade him while he celebrates his 28th birthday, complete with Elliott and company shoving a cake in his face after practice.
During all of the madness, Cowboys offensive lineman Isaac Alarcón just expressed his desire to quench his sweet tooth.
“I want to try the cake,” he repeated as his gas tank caught up with him.
Prescott finally gets to open his gift, a travel bag from Elliott, in a meeting room. But, he doesn’t get to use it as he stays in Oxnard while the team travels to Canton, Ohio for the Hall of Fame Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In a shortened preseason due to the league’s 17-game regular-season schedule, the Cowboys and Steelers still get to play four preseason games, compared to the other 30 teams’ three-game preseason slate.
For McCarthy, the added game allows him the chance to square off against the franchise he rooted for growing up.
“Family and football,” McCarthy told the team during a speech before the game. “This is something I believe so strongly in. There’s nothing I’m more proud of than my family.”
McCarthy uses the speech as a moment to explain what goes into a championship team, which he knows firsthand from his Super Bowl win with the Green Bay Packers against the same Steelers squad.
While a montage highlighting McCarthy’s time with the Lombardi Trophy, Schreiber says that “there’s a weight to expectations.”
With Prescott, Elliott, Lamb and more starters out of the equation for the Hall of Fame Game, the focus is put on Parsons and the team’s defense, led by Quinn in the booth.
Parsons shows up across the field on almost every play, competing in the hardest way possible through a strong first few reps.
“You’re trying to make every play,” Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch told Parsons on the sidelines.
“I’m still young, I keep thinking all plays are mine,” Parsons replied.
Parsons ends up recovering a fumble on a bad exchange in the Steelers backfield, and his night ends before he can get more opportunities on the field.
“Can I get one more?” Parsons asked Quinn on the sideline phone.
“Nope, that’s it for tonight,” Quinn replied.
Not getting playing time is a hot topic for multiple members of the Cowboys roster, and Parsons explains his displeasure to Vander Esch while laying out how much time he would have to sit around now that his night was done.
Elsewhere in the stadium, Parsons’ mother was happy with her son’s performance.
“I’m very proud of him, he had an excellent game,” Sherese Parsons said. “I think he’s going to get Rookie of the Year at this rate.”
After heading into halftime with a 3-0 lead, the Cowboys would go on to lose 16-3 in their first preseason game of 2021.
But, the episode ends on a high note with a great quote from Schreiber about the beauty of the team’s return to the field.
“Beyond the stats and the score is something beautiful and lasting,” Schreiber said. “A reminder of the surprising graces of football unfettered. Of blocking and tackling, running and passing, sweating and straining. A promise of better times ahead. And the hope that this year, the boys are back.”
This year’s season premiere of “Hard Knocks” was a welcome sight after last year’s COVID-19-centered season with the Chargers and Rams, even if the cast of featured characters was small.
The show got right to the point by showcasing Prescott’s story at the beginning, and touched on the team’s central pieces by highlighting Elliott, Parsons, and Lamb.
Viewers still got to see Jones in both public and private settings, and got a glimpse into McCarthy’s career and on-the-field approach, as well.
And, after such a heavy season with important discussions last summer, it was fun to see “Hard Knocks” return to more of a lighthearted approach on so many different levels.
Add in the fact that the overall camera quality looked better for this year’s season premiere in comparison to 2020, and the added personality that the Cowboys bring to the table, and this feels like a picture-perfect moment for HBO and NFL Films.
If the rest of the season can match the pace set by the season premiere, Cowboys fans and viewers around the country will be in for an entertaining ride throughout the 2021 season of “Hard Knocks.”