As “Hard Knocks” progresses, one thing is clear: This is the Aaron Rodgers show. And if HBO continues to follow the formula of the first two episodes, the remaining three will go something like this:
1. Feature Rodgers in practice, in meetings and on the sideline during preseason games.
2. Feature two other notable players.
3. Show Robert Saleh speaking to the team and enjoying himself on the sideline.
4. Show Jeff Ulbrich in meetings, passionately cussing when he makes a point.
There is more that happens around those funny moments that occur between teammates over a week of practice, but that’s largely the path the New York Jets season of “Hard Knocks” seems to be taking. Interestingly, there has been little focus on players fighting for roster spots, which used to be a staple of this show.
It’s still an entertaining experience, though, with impressive production value and cool moments we wouldn’t get to see otherwise. Tuesday night, that included some moments from last week’s joint practice with the Panthers.
Here are some takeaways from the second episode.
Episode 2, in summary
This week, the impact Rodgers is having on the team on the field and behind the scenes remained a focus, but much of the conversation centered on Saleh’s attempt to get the offense to believe in itself, and to get it going on the right track. This organization has struggled on that side of the ball for a long time.
The episode also showed the flip side of that: How the defense seems to be picking up right where it left off last year, when it was one of the best units in the NFL.
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Stars of the show
If we exclude Rodgers from this category — which I have to unless I want to feature him here every time — then the winners in Episode 2 aren’t hard to figure out: defensive tackle Quinnen Williams and rookie defensive end Will McDonald.
The show did a good job of showing off Williams’ personality and why he’s so beloved by his teammates — and how much Saleh and the coaching staff love him, too.
At one point, as owner Woody Johnson spoke to Saleh about Williams leading the defense, his $96 million contract (signed before training camp) came up. Johnson said: “It’s a lot of money.” Saleh responded by saying that Williams was worth it. During joint practices, Williams found Rodgers and declared, while laughing, that he’d gotten 10 sacks against the Panthers’ offensive line. Then he found Saleh and said the same thing.
McDonald was the other player HBO focused on this week. The cameras followed him to a tattoo and piercing shop, where he got a new piercing on his eyebrow, ear and nose. I thought the show could’ve gotten more into McDonald’s fascinating backstory, but his personality still shined through.
“You only get one life,” McDonald said after his piercings. “I don’t think about it too much. Do whatever you want and don’t think.”
Most surprising moment
The most surprising moment was seeing Saleh dress down the offensive line in front of the entire team after the joint practice with Carolina. The offensive line had a rough day against the Panthers defensive line, and Rodgers was visibly frustrated.
“Are we blocking anybody?” he asked at one point.
In that team meeting, Saleh made a speech that included him lauding the defense for playing well. Then things took a turn.
“Offense, guys it was our first f—ing opportunity to change the stink that’s been in this organization for a long time on the offensive side of the ball,” he said, adding that “none of it f—ing matters until the big boys up front (on the offensive line) change who the f— we are.”
Saleh said he was trying to find evidence that the offensive line was changing for the better and he couldn’t find any.
It’s hard to argue with his points — it’s been a rough training camp for the O-line — but it was still surprising to see Saleh spell it out like that.
Robert Saleh not hiding from the fact that the #Jets O-Line is a problem. That speech in Carolina to the team was interesting.
— Zack Rosenblatt (@ZackBlatt) August 16, 2023
There were a few fun Rodgers moments, including him teasing Panthers offensive line coach James Campen — a close friend — about his weight, playfully bantering with officials during the preseason game and offering words of wisdom to Carolina rookie quarterback Bryce Young.
But I thought the best moment involved Rodgers and grass.
There was a sequence that focused on Rodgers’ tendency to reach down, rip out pieces of grass from the field and throw them in the air. Some of his teammates were confused as to why he did it. So Rodgers explained:
“I started doing that when it got cold in Green Bay to get a little extra dexterity, rubbing dirt on your hands to get to grip the ball better,” Rodgers said. “It’s also a great way to see where the wind is blowing. … It’s just a little moment of meditation to get down there, get with the elements and take a breath.”
— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) August 16, 2023
One more bonus cool moment: When offensive tackle Mekhi Becton put his arms around Rodgers, the quarterback offered him words of encouragement and told him he wanted to meet up to chat over lunch.
It was interesting to see the dynamic Saleh has on the headset with Jets offensive coaches, including offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and passing game coordinator Todd Downing, on game day.
During the preseason game against the Panthers, there were a few moments when Saleh offered suggestions — like running the ball more — but he made sure to say the decision was up to the offensive coaches. An under-reported part of Saleh’s leadership style is that he really does act as a CEO and allows both Hackett (on offense) and Ulbrich (on defense) to run the show.
The visit from Oz the Mentalist at the beginning of show — pulling mind-blowing tricks on Michael Carter, Mecole Hardman and Rodgers — was fun, especially for Micheal Clemons’ reactions in the background.
But there were two moments I thought were the funniest. The first: When Ulbrich introduced Sauce Gardner to Panthers quarterbacks coach Josh McCown, who used to play for the Jets … and Gardner had no idea who McCown was.
The other funny moment came as the credits were rolling: Downing started something called “Cinema Sunday” in the quarterback meeting room to educate his young charges about movies — really, it’s an education for the 24-year-old Zach Wilson. The focus on this Cinema Sunday was on comedy legend Leslie Nielsen, who starred in “Airplane!” and the “Naked Gun” movies, among many others.
“We’re done being stressed! Football is fun!”
Wilson said this on the field before the Panthers game to quarterbacks coach Rob Calabrese. It seems clear that Wilson feels rejuvenated and has “found the fun in football” again, which is something he admitted he lost during last season’s disaster. It’s a good sign for what’s to come.
(Photo: Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)
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