It’s hard to believe that the 2021 season of “Hard Knocks” is almost over. Alas, fans only have to wait a few more days until the Dallas Cowboys start their season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday, September 9.
As “America’s Team” prepares for a highly-anticipated season opener against the reigning Super Bowl champions, the “Hard Knocks” crew was along for the ride for the fourth, and second-to-last, episode of the summer.
Fans got a behind-the-scenes look at the Cowboys’ last preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, a glimpse at how the franchise dealt with a COVID-19 scare, and a peek into some familiar faces’ pursuits of the team’s final roster spots.
Without further adieu, here’s the recap for Episode 4 of “Hard Knocks: The Dallas Cowboys.”
The episode started with the Cowboys dealing with the Texas heat, specifically focusing in on a commonly-featured player in defensive lineman Azur Kamara.
Through it all, defensive line coach Aden Durde preaches a message that would pop up frequently throughout the season’s fourth episode: it’s getting to the point in the year where all of the pressure is going to fall squarely on the players’ shoulders.
“It can’t come from me,” Durde said when explaining that it’s up to the players to perform at a high level on the field.
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, positive COVID-19 tests derailed the team’s hopes for in-person meetings ahead of the franchise’s preseason finale. Instead, after defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and wide receiver CeeDee Lamb went through the league’s protocols, players and coaches had to meet virtually.
“I would just be smart with the masks,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “Just play it safe here.”
Luckily, no new positive tests are reported 24 hours later, so those who are safe to return to the facility can operate in-person.
In Quinn’s absence, secondary coach Joe Whitt steps in to lead the defense, and utilizes Durde’s messaging from earlier in the episode.
“We only go as far as you guys go,” Whitt tells players. “You gotta f—in bring that juice, because the standard is here.”
At the time in the episode, the Cowboys had 81 players on their roster. The team would have to trim that down to 53 players for their final, regular-season roster, with another 16 players for the team’s practice squad.
Familiar faces in Isaac Alarcon, Azur Kamara, and JaQuan Hardy do their best to show out during practice, but the heat makes it difficult to get good reps in.
Hardy specifically struggles, as the episode showcases how he stepped in to fill Rico Dowdle’s shoes during the team’s third preseason game. At practice, Dowdle fractures his hip, and is later placed on injured reserve, ending his season.
Running backs coach Skip Peete lets Hardy know that it’s on him to step up in Dowdle’s place.
“You gotta prove that you deserve to be there,” Peete tells Hardy. “The guys that eventually make it and have success, they grab that opportunity and they never let it go.”
Shortly after, the phrase “Grasp the opportunity” is shown written in a notebook in the meeting room.
“Next man up,” Hardy says about his mindset as he eats with rookie Anthony Hines at a restaurant. “Be ready.”
Elsewhere, Micah Parsons’ mom Sherese makes food for her son’s teammates, a la the mentality throughout the Penn State alum’s time in high school and college.
Parsons bonds with fellow Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch through a game of “Connect 4,” almost accidentally comparing it to the game of football.
“You gotta think about your moves, my moves,” Parsons tells Vander Esch midway through a game.
Back at practice, wide receiver Amari Cooper and cornerback Treyon Diggs battle it out on the field, with quarterback Dak Prescott serving as the duo’s instigator.
After a bet about whether or not Cooper would catch a ball against Diggs at practice, the former catches two touchdowns, including an impressive grab in the corner of the end zone that ends practice on a high note.
“Dak got me riled up,” Cooper says when discussing his trash talk with Diggs. “I don’t usually talk to people like that.”
The attention turns to the quarterbacks, as Prescott asks his QB room counterparts about the origins of a pylon game, which is commonly played at the Cowboys’ practices.
After no one in the room takes credit for the concept, Prescott explains his idea to turn the game into a marketable tailgating activity: his own version of cornhole, with the jerseys for Cowboys receivers on the pylon to give it a Dallas-specific touch.
“‘Prescott’s Pylon Game,'” one person in the room called it.
“I was thinking more ‘Tailgate Touchdown,'” Prescott replied.
Transitioning back to real-life football, “Pylon Prescott” gets some reps as he returns to full strength following a shoulder injury that hindered him at the start of training camp.
On the other side of the ball, the defensive line gets some more shine, between DeMarcus Lawrence’s infinite wisdom, Tarell Basham’s first appearance as a stand-up comic, and Kamara’s mother’s first trip to the team’s Pro Shop.
Then, it’s time for the real kicker of the episode: the preseason finale against the Jaguars.
Alarcon is named a captain for what could be his final game with the team (if he doesn’t make the 53-man roster), and McCarthy tells the team to “stick together” and “fly around.”
The Cowboys’ backups begin the game against the Jaguars’ starters, with Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer trotting out rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence for the Clemson alum’s final preseason reps before his first NFL regular season.
Those reps lead to an early 14-0 lead for the Jaguars, and the Cowboys are forced to play from behind in a hurry.
“We’ve gotta get their energy going,” McCarthy says on the sidelines. “I don’t like the way they’re playing.”
Hardy gets loads of reps in the backfield, and ditches the “rec specs” in favor of contacts, much to the delight of starting running back Ezekiel Elliott on the bench.
As Hardy breaks out for an 11-yard run, Elliott exclaims that the Jaguars “can’t see” Hardy in the backfield.
The Cowboys score to cut the lead in half with less than five minutes to go in the half, but the Jaguars extend it back to a 17-7 lead heading into the break.
In the second half, the fringe crew of Alarcon, Hardy, Kamara, and quarterback Ben DiNucci take the spotlight, with Hardy getting a tackle on the half’s opening kick and Alarcon making the most of his opportunities on the offensive line.
Kamara struggles at first, but finds his way into a play and makes a nice stop.
DiNucci’s woes from the week prior continue, and the Jaguars make it a 34-7 game with just a few minutes to play.
DiNucci leads a touchdown drive with Alarcon and Hardy on the field, cutting the Jaguars’ lead to 20 with 1:22 to go and ending the game on a high(er) note.
From there, all that’s left to do is hope that your name isn’t called when cuts are announced a few days later.
“We obviously know what’s right in front of us,” McCarthy tells players in the locker room, before explaining that there could be opportunities elsewhere if they don’t present themselves in Dallas specifically.
“I’m sure we’ll be playing against you.”
As each of the league’s 32 teams inched closer to the toughest day of the summer, it was interesting to follow some of the Cowboys’ fan-favorite fringe players throughout what could’ve been their last week and game with the franchise.
Alarcon’s personality is contagious, which makes him an easy player to root for and follow from a television perspective.
Kamara’s underdog story is a fun story, though his lack of a presence on the field makes it tougher to showcase him during the team’s preseason games.
DiNucci has the familiarity factor from his starts in 2020, but his struggles under center make it tough to care specifically about his pursuit of a spot in the Cowboys’ QB room.
Hardy’s story is, by far, the most interesting of the bunch, especially when factoring in the injury to Dowdle before the preseason finale. His personality makes it that much more fun to watch, and he will likely take center stage in the “Hard Knocks” finale ahead of the Cowboys’ regular season opener.
Adding in the mini COVID-19-related scare at the beginning helped, as well, though it was short-lived as a result of the team being able to return to in-person meetings a day later.
All in all, it was a decent episode, but the lack of any true cut-related drama made it a lackluster installment in comparison to recent weeks.
With so much attention on the cuts to come, it seemed a little like autopilot mode for the fourth episode of the season, knowing that the good content would be coming a week later.
Nonetheless, any episode of “Hard Knocks” is going to provide for some interesting and entertaining content, so it can’t be considered a true disappointment in the grand scheme of things.