Whichever team is featured on HBO's Hard Knocks this summer has a lot to live up to.
Shouts to Lions coach Dan Campbell for setting the tone for last year's season with his kneecap-biting style. The personalities, the culture of the city, the players' stories ... 2022's look at the Detroit Lions set the bar high for 2023.
Which team will be in the spotlight this year? Well, thanks to exemptions that have been in place since 2014, we know teams won't be required to appear on the show if they meet any of the following criteria:
- They have a first-year head coach.
- They have secured a playoff berth in the past two seasons.
- They have appeared on Hard Knocks within the past 10 years.
Now, teams can volunteer to be featured on the show, although they'd have to first reckon with the fact that no team has won the Super Bowl after being featured. So we can safely use those exemptions to whittle the pool of likely candidates down to four teams. (And maybe one of them can break the Hard Knocks Super Bowl curse.)
Here is how I'd rank the four candidates in order of potential entertainment value:
The Jets were very much in the playoff hunt for most of last season, even without stellar quarterback play. Running back Breece Hall suffered an ACL tear midway through an excellent rookie campaign, and the team started to crumble; New York lost its last six games, finishing 7-10 after a 5-2 start.
Now, though, four-time MVP Aaron Rodgers is set to take the reins clad in Gotham Green, surrounded by a healthy, youthful and talented squad, including both 2022 Rookies of the Year (Garrett Wilson on offense and Sauce Gardner on defense). Plus, new offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett will be a familiar face for Rodgers. There are plenty of personalities to go around here. Not to mention the setting, the "concrete jungle where dreams are made of," with each episode providing a chance to show off New York. Gosh, there's just so much to like if Gang Green makes it to the screen.
I will admit that before I started writing this, I had the Bears ranked lower. Then, general manager Ryan Poles traded the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft to the Panthers in exchange for a jaw-dropping haul, including two first-round picks and receiver D.J. Moore, who should help rising star quarterback Justin Fields. That was the first domino to fall -- the second was Poles signing Tremaine Edmunds, Nate Davis and T.J. Edwards. What a way for Poles to continue to make a name for himself in his second year on the job. He's orchestrated one of the best offseasons in the NFL so far, securing help for a Chicago team that needed fixing up and down the roster. It would be worth getting an intimate look at how this rebuild continues to unfold ahead of a pivotal season for Fields.
The Saints signed Derek Carr as a Mardi Gras splash, making him the best quarterback in the NFC South overnight -- unless, of course, Tom Brady unretires again. (JUST KIDDING; let's not do that.) I'd be shocked if Carr wasn't the major focus of a Hard Knocks season featuring the Saints. It would be interesting to see how he settles into his new home, with Dennis Allen, who was his first NFL head coach back in 2014, after his high-profile breakup with the Raiders. A receiving corps that includes Michael Thomas, Chris Olave and Juwan Johnson would be very fun to watch. (One complication: Running back Alvin Kamara is set to go to trial near the start of camp after pleading not guilty to conspiracy to commit battery and substantial bodily harm charges in Nevada.)
New Orleans is my personal favorite in terms of cities that I'd love to see on the Hard Knocks stage; New Orleans native Tyrann Mathieu would definitely need to show the audience a favorite grub spot or two. But I won't put those selfish desires above the other factors at play with this list.
Here's another rebuilding team that could end up being the most drama-producing (for you thrill-seekers), depending on how things play out this offseason. The Commanders are in a transition period, even beyond the fact that ownership might change hands. New offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy left a Super Bowl-winning, Patrick Mahomes-led team for a quarterback room that, at the time, was comprised of Sam Howell and Jake Fromm (and has since added Jacoby Brissett). Whether or not this eventually helps him land a head coaching job, he's got guts, and I respect him for that. I'd love to see his interactions with the players.
There are other feel-good stories to track here, from the continued journey of Brian Robinson, who made an inspiring return to the field last season despite suffering multiple gunshot wounds in an August incident, to Jeremy Reaves, whose emotional reaction to hearing from head coach Ron Rivera that he'd earned Pro Bowl made me want to follow his story more. The Commanders have question marks all over, but maybe Hard Knocks could answer them in 2023.
PREDICTION: The New York Jets
To me, this decision is cut and dried. The last time the Jets were chosen, in 2010, they made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game. Perhaps history repeats itself in 2023? Robert Saleh's been holding on to receipts long enough, and the hype surrounding this team is real. Can Rodgers' time in dark solitude translate to a Super Bowl? Will Gardner's cheesehead sacrifice pay off? HBO is going to have a field day with the sound bites generated by this team.