Five episodes later, the 2021 season of “Hard Knocks” is all over.
With just a few days to go until the start of the regular season, HBO wrapped up its journey with the Dallas Cowboys in its usual fashion, highlighting the culmination of a stressful journey for players on the cusp of making an NFL roster.
As a result of an unprecedented training camp schedule ahead of a 17-game regular season, the episode had a different flavor than season finales of years past.
This installment focused on the franchise’s final practices of training camp, younger players’ pursuits of spots on the team, and the preparations for the season opener against the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With a lot to unpack, here’s the recap and review for the season finale of “Hard Knocks with the Dallas Cowboys.”
The episode starts with a recap of the season’s first four episodes, highlighting familiar faces like quarterback Dak Prescott, cornerback Trevon Diggs, and bubble players like offensive lineman Isaac Alarcon, defensive lineman Azur Kamara, and running back JaQuan Hardy.
After the intro, viewers get a look at a unique film session, as the Cowboys’ special teams unit watched footage on a massive projector on the team’s indoor practice field.
Special teams coordinator John Fassel explains why he believes “running is a reward,” and how he thinks that the act shouldn’t be used as a punishment.
“Running is a good thing,” Fassel explains.
As he talks through his thought process, he walks through some of the good things he saw on film, specifically focusing on Kamara.
While other players worry about their main roster status, linebacker Micah Parsons, the Cowboys’ first-round pick from the 2021 NFL Draft, continues his progression ahead of his first season in the league.
Parsons works with former Cowboys defensive star DeMarcus Ware, and explains that he’s still an unfinished product as he works towards his regular season debut.
“I’m just raw,” Parsons told Ware, before explaining his excitement for the Cowboys’ game against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.
“I can’t wait for next Thursday,” Parsons said. “There’s going to be a lot of things I can learn from this game.”
Parsons tells Ware about his desire to put pressure on Brady in primetime, a feeling that is shared by defensive line coach Aden Durde.
“Make 12 feel uncomfortable every f—ing snap,” Durde tells pass rushers in a meeting room. “It starts with us, and the team goes as we go.”
“How we rush is how we affect this team.”
Shifting back towards those on the bubble, it’s time for “Final Roster Evaluation Time” with head coach Mike McCarthy, Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and Will McClay.
McCarthy describes Hardy as a “work in progress,” while Jerry Jones says that he has “a level of burst and a level of quickness. Mobility, which is what you want.”
McCarthy explains that Kamara’s “got a tremendous upside,” before getting more blunt about backup quarterback Ben DiNucci.
“This is a philosophical issue: I don’t want to give up on a guy in his second year,” McCarthy told those in the room. “If Ben DiNucci is gonna make it, he’s gotta get it going between his ears.”
“He’s a young guy,” McCarthy said. “We might have something there.”
Flashing back six weeks to the start of the Cowboys’ journey in California, HBO showcases older footage of a popular “Hard Knocks” story in Isaac Alarcon.
“I don’t want the same thing to happen to me that happened last season,” Alarcon told cameras, referencing his time on the practice squad. “This season, I want to play.”
At practice, those on the bubble work through some struggles. Alarcon can’t get things going on the offensive line, Kamara jumps on the defensive line, and DiNucci throws a bad ball on offense.
The focus shifts to Hardy, who’s working through his own issues at practice.
“In order to make it in this league, you gotta be precise,” running backs coach Skip Peete says. “You guys, you gotta do everything flawless.”
“You have no room for error.”
Continuing a trend from recent episodes, starting running back Ezekiel Elliott works with Hardy at practice, telling him to be more patient and let things develop in the backfield.
After using his words to teach, Elliott decides to let his actions do the talking. Before hitting a hole perfectly, he tells Hardy to “watch this.”
Hardy learns from the five-year NFL veteran, and atones for his mistakes on his next rep.
Following up on a popular storyline from the week prior, cameras follow cornerback Trevon Diggs as he looks for revenge on Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper.
Diggs makes up for a poor performance from the fourth episode of “Hard Knocks,” and almost picks off Prescott twice throughout the highlights HBO shows.
A defensive pass interference call leaves a sour taste in Diggs’ mouth, but the trio agrees that the practice was full of good battles.
One of the true stars of this season was Diggs’ son Aaiden, who happens to love Prescott himself.
As the Diggs family gets ice cream at the team facility, Aaiden expresses the desire to meet Prescott.
“I hope we can call him so he can know me,” Aaiden says. “I want his phone number.”
Prescott invades the Diggs family’s ice cream date, but Aaiden unfortunately calls him “Patrick Mahomes” for the second time this summer.
Prescott surprises Aaiden with a signed jersey, and explains that he’ll write “Not Patrick Mahomes” so Aaiden would remember him. The duo then plays catch outside as Aaiden shows off his touchdown celebration.
Transitioning from children as receivers to real NFL stars, Prescott’s priorities shift to the start of the 2021 regular season, specifically focusing on the Buccaneers.
A highlight montage showcases Prescott’s progress, as he explains to McCarthy that watching the Buccaneers’ 2020 games on film is tough because “they do completely different s—.”
“Let’s put in the work, Prescott tells his teammates as he directs them through sprints on the practice field.
“We’re building something special,” he says. “This is going to be a special year.”
Unfortunately for some, it won’t be as special, specifically because they’ll land on the team’s 16-person practice squad following cut day.
McClay gathers players, including notable names like Alarcon, DiNucci, and Hardy, in the team’s meeting room, letting them all know at the same time that they had been cut from the team. Fortunately, each of the players in the room is wanted for the team’s practice squad.
“I didn’t play as well as I wanted to in the preseason,” DiNucci explains before saying the “practice squad can be a blessing in disguise.”
McCarthy makes his point again about second-year players, saying how those who were drafted in 2020 played their first year in a pandemic. He meets with players one-on-one, highlighted by his meeting with Alarcon.
“We still feel like you have a lot of upside,” McCarthy tells the fan-favorite. “This has been really cool to watch you develop.”
Peete has similar sentiments for Hardy in their own private meeting, saying that there’s still room for Hardy to make an impact as a member of the practice squad.
“You can still showcase your ability and improve on it,” Peete says. “The most important thing is to have a spot on the team.”
“I saw myself get better week by week, and sometimes day by day,” Hardy says, before turning his attention to the practice squad.
“Just an opportunity to have fun,” he continues. “We’ll see where it takes me.”
Not all of the news is bad in the season finale of “Hard Knocks,” however, as McCarthy and Durde have the pleasure of telling Kamara that he made the 53-man roster.
“Do we want to play a joke on him or just get right to the congratulations?” McCarthy asks Durde.
McCarthy calls Kamara, leading to one of the better conversations in “Hard Knocks” history.
“We wanted to just call and see how your day is going,” McCarthy jokes before breaking the news. “Congratulations, you’ve made the 53. Obviously this is an exciting time for you and your family.”
“Grateful to be a part of this team, coach,” Kamara says. “I can’t even talk right now.”
“Just enjoy today, enjoy this moment,” Durde says. “Make sure you enjoy today with your family.”
After the call ends, Kamara has a natural next move to celebrate his achievement.
“You already know who I’m going to call,” Kamara tells the cameras before FaceTiming his mother.
After cut day, the “Hard Knocks” crew shines some light on the more clear-cut 53-man roster candidates, like Elliott and wide receiver CeeDee Lamb.
Elliott delivers shoes and shirts to students in the area, while Lamb celebrates his recovery after a bout with COVID-19.
“The closer the game gets, the more anxious I get,” Lamb says. “Especially coming off COVID. That week, probably the worst week of my life.”
“I’m definitely going to come in with some aggression,” Lamb continues. “I’m hungry, bro. I’m hungry, I’m ready to go.”
Back at the facility, McCarthy congratulates the players that are still around in Dallas, including players like Alarcon, DiNucci, and Hardy, who all stayed on through the practice squad.
“I tip my hat to you guys,” McCarthy says. “Congratulations for this opportunity.”
“We need everybody in the room is the message,” McCarthy says. “That’s who we are, that’s how we’re wired, that’s why we’re here.”
“We’re all about Tampa now. This is where it starts.”
Jerry Jones then takes center stage, explaining how this is an “upstart Dallas Cowboy team” with an offense that the franchise thought they’d have in 2020, and a defense that’s better than the year prior.
Through it all, he praises many of the team’s players, specifically highlighting Prescott’s “heart,” “personality,” and “aura.”
After all of the focus on the talent side of things, Jones hones in on the team’s mentality for the 2021 season.
“There’s a lot of other things I do that second and third place is great. That’s not what works here,” Jones says. “We’re a bottom line activity. Win.”
Similar to the 2020 season of “Hard Knocks,” this year’s five-episode journey with the Cowboys took on a different format than those that came before it.
Some of that is probably attributed to a different preseason schedule ahead of the league’s first 17-game regular season. Some of that is a result of the focus that was put on COVID-19 throughout the summer with the Los Angeles Chargers and Los Angeles Rams in 2020.
But, some of that can also be pinned on the difference in storylines that the Cowboys possessed.
There wasn’t any true quarterback drama to worry about. It was Dak Prescott’s job all summer, and it was more just wondering about the health of his leg and shoulder.
No offensive starters had their jobs in jeopardy, and the players that HBO focused on almost all wound up on the practice squad at the end of training camp.
Instead, this summer was used to shine a light on an important summer for “America’s Team” ahead of a pivotal 2021 season.
Like Jones said at the end of the episode, winning is all that matters to this team. The talent seems to be there, and the mentality is evident based on the organization’s meetings.
Now, it’s all about execution.
The entire season of “Hard Knocks” followed that trend, focusing a lot on the product that was put forth on the field, and leaning towards a player’s progression and development as a storyline in any times of need.
For some longtime “Hard Knocks” fans, that might not have been all that entertaining, considering the focus that’s usually put on roster battles.
For fans of the behind-the-scenes action for one of the sport’s biggest franchises, it might’ve been a welcome change of pace.
No matter where you fall on the scale, this season had its up’s and down’s from a content perspective.
At the very least, one thing can be universally agreed upon by football fans around the world.
As sad as the season finale of “Hard Knocks” can be, it’s ultimately the sign of the greatest positive possible.
Football, more specifically regular-season football, is officially back.