The first episode of Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the New York Jets placed quarterback Aaron Rodgers in center stage, showing the impact he had on the team at the beginning of camp. In Episode 2, the cameras begin to pan more toward the supporting roles -- the players surrounding Rodgers who will help continue to shape the 2023 Jets' identity.
Quinnen Williams is one of the team's most impactful players on the defensive side of the ball and could be in for a big season. Referred to as "Q-Ball" by his teammates and coaches, the defensive tackle dominates training camp by ending up inside the pocket after each play. Toward the end of a joint practice with the Carolina Panthers, Rodgers holds up both index fingers toward the Hard Knocks cameras signifying he counted 11(!) sacks that Williams was able to generate against the Panthers' offensive line.
The defense as a whole has been impressive thus far in camp. However, the offense? Not so much. After a disappointing practice from that side of the ball, head coach Robert Saleh addresses the unit sternly and lets the entire room (and audience) know where the struggle lies.
"You can have a Hall of Fame quarterback, you can have two 10-plus million dollar receivers, you can have a reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year, you can have all kinds of skill in the running back room," Saleh exclaims. "None of it f------ matters until the big boys up front change who the f--- we are."
Calling out the offensive line isn't only a reality check for the group, but a challenge, as well. The team has invested heavily into its talented roster. In order to make sure the offense succeeds, some O-linemen will need to step up their performances or the team might have to seek help elsewhere.
More opportunity to turn things around arises during the Jets' second preseason game versus Carolina. QB Zach Wilson looks more comfortable with each rep, and Rodgers, who naturally blends in looking like a coach on the sideline with his black Jets shirt and headset, is ready to help his backup whenever necessary.
At one point, a play stops after a flag is thrown for a defensive neutral zone infraction, and the opportunity for Wilson and the Jets' offense to get a free play off is wiped away. Rodgers shows his frustration by yelling at longtime referee Carl Cheffers. "Let 'em go, Carl!" Rodgers exclaims while smiling.
2023 first-round draft pick Will McDonald IV also impresses as he gets his first sack as a pro. Highlight after highlight shows McDonald, along with the rest of the Jets' defensive line, dominating the Panthers' offensive line once again, leading to New York's 27-0 victory, which is the largest preseason shutout margin in team history.
The puzzle pieces are starting to fit together and the team's identity is beginning to shape itself.
Extra points ...
- I think it's becoming a Hard Knocks tradition to have a comedian or magician come to an NFL training camp meeting. I'm all for it, too, but not because I care for the magic. We all know the players are going to get baffled and tricked. It's more so for the reactions: the smiling, the laughter with each other, the running away from the trick after it ends (I need an explanation for this one). It's all too fun seeing a team bond over the supernatural, which we got in Tuesday's introductory scene featuring mentalist Oz Pearlman.
- Williams has come such a long way since his memorable rookie moment from four years ago, blessing himself on TV after sneezing mid-interview. From (snot) rags to riches. If you don't know Williams by now, you should.
- Rodgers talks to Wes Schweitzer, his new center, about getting his preference on snapping the ball. Rodgers insists on no spiraling during a snap, then says, "I'm in there a little bit deeper than some of the other guys." The quarterback-center connection is as important as ever.
- Another Rodgers tidbit includes his habit of picking grass from the football field. Rodgers reveals the habit developed in Green Bay, and that its purpose was to add extra dexterity to get a better grip on the football. It also provides the direction and speed of the wind when letting go of the grass. The more you know!
- If you are reading this and have not seen the episode yet, this is my gentle forewarning if you are squeamish to needles. In his own spotlight segment outside of the facility, McDonald goes on a trip to get his eyebrow and nose pierced. I was amazed at the amount of detail Hard Knocks was able to share during the process.
- Rodgers' reunion with former Packers offensive assistant (and current Panthers offensive line coach) James Campen is something you would experience at a family gathering when you haven't seen that favorite cousin in a long time. Rodgers greets Campen by saying, "What's up, little b---- … You look fat as s---." Campen responds, "Just leave me the f--- alone," and chuckles throughout the conversation. Seeing the two of them interact and hug right after, it's a sure sign of a strong friendship.
- Why haven't we seen the running back room get the spotlight yet? It's at least partially because the Jets and Dalvin Cook waited until the last minute to agree on a deal. It didn't make it into the cut this episode, so let's prepare to welcome Cook into the lineup next week.
- During the credits, Jets passing game coordinator Todd Downing introduces the quarterback room to, "Cinema Sunday: Educating an underprivileged generation in the art of moving pictures," featuring the late comedian Leslie Nielsen. As if someone was pulling a prank, Rodgers looks directly into cameras for a brief instance giving that sort of "Are you kidding me?" look before getting a quick laugh in.
- Another round of songs added to the Hard Knocks Spotify playlist!