Tales from the Vault: Birth of the Knocks

Dallas Cowboys, Hard Knocks, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Steve Seidman, Tales from the Vault, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

With the seventh season of HARD KNOCKS premiering tonight, The Vault Keeper undertakes an expedition into the darker recesses of the NFL Films vault in search of the possible origins of the popular HBO training camp series. He unearths BIRTH OF THE BUCS, a film that provided the first all-access pass to one team’s summer camp – a team that turned out to be the worst in NFL history.     

 Easy to Be HARD

 When HARD KNOCKS kicks off its seventh season tonight on HBO, the popular award-winning series will present NFL training camp life using the same creative flourishes that have made the show so successful, especially the gorgeous cinematography, the tightly-edited practice montages accompanied by original music, and the live sound from drills, players’ off-field activities, and coaches’ meetings.  Although the series was inspired by reality TV shows such as SURVIVOR and THE GREAT RACE, HARD KNOCKS has managed to be more compelling and suspenseful than most of the reality series that permeate today’s TV landscape.  It’s definitely more gripping than, say, CUPCAKE WARS.

Season #7 will follow the Miami Dolphins. Previous Hard Knockin’ teams were the Baltimore Ravens (2000), the Dallas Cowboys (2002, 2006), Kansas City Chiefs (2007), Cincinnati Bengals (2009) and New York Jets (2010)*.  Like NCIS and CSI, HK has been able to “spin off” into different locations and introduce a new cast of characters while maintaining the same narrative conventions from season to season:  two quarterbacks fighting for the starting job, contract holdouts, rookies getting punked, the wives/girlfriends who pull for their men, etc.  Perhaps the most anticipated recurring element centers on the players who are long shots to make the team.  The series introduces them in the first or second episode, and then follows their progress to the final episode, when we finally learn what players – if any –are going to stick with the team or get chopped.

HARD KNOCKS provides unparalleled access to an NFL summer camp, and in sports programming today, “access” is the coin of the realm.  Fans see the games, and then they see the highlights of the game.  But what they really seem to want most of all is a privileged look behind the scenes – what’s being said on the sidelines, in the huddles and in the locker room. In the NFL, access is something that isn’t easy to come by. Owners and coaches have always been reluctant to reveal how decisions are made, but as the NFL has evolved into a brand that is as much about entertainment as it is about athletics, the Cold War “Top Secret” mentality has melted to a considerable degree.  Certainly, that mindset still exists, and it remains a difficult process to cajole a team into allowing camera crews to record every aspect of summer camp life.  This line of thinking would lead you to believe that no team would ever approach NFL Films and actually ask them to invade its summer camp.  No team would willingly allow the company’s camera crews and creative personnel to peel back the cover to reveal the sacrosanct inner-workings of the front office.  No team would ever want fans to see the demystification of NFL decision-making “wizardry.” But 36 years ago, one team did…

The Bucs Start Here

In 1976, the NFL expanded to 28 teams, adding the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse was a Jacksonville businessman with the voice and demeanor of a courtly southern gentleman.  Culverhouse became friends with NFL Films founder Ed Sabol, and Culverhouse proposed the production of a promotional film that would focus on the first year of his new team’s existence, beginning with summer camp.  Ed Sabol didn’t have to do any arm-twisting — Culverhouse volunteered unlimited access to players and coaches during practices, meetings, pre-season games and off-the-field activities.  Selected players, General Manager Ron Wolf, and the entire coaching staff would wear wireless microphones and also sit for interviews.  Steve Sabol and three other cameramen shot the footage, which was eventually edited into a 22 minute film entitled BIRTH OF THE BUCS.

BIRTH Pangs

 While BIRTH OF THE BUCS deals exclusively with the Buccaneers’ summer camp, the first thing that strikes you about the film is that it perfectly captures a disaster-in-the-making.  The Bucs’ inaugural season would be historic, in the Hindenburg sense.  Their 0-14 record established a new standard for pro football futility. The team was shut out 5 times and averaged 9 points a game.  No team in NFL history has ever been as bad as those Bucs, and you can see how the seeds of their impending troubles were sown during training camp.  Yet, another striking aspect of BIRTH OF THE BUCS is how stylish it is – awfulness never looked or sounded so good.

Certainly, it’s easy to see the film’s stylistic similarities to HARD KNOCKS: the dazzling cinematography, the use of field microphones, the behind-closed-doors evaluation meetings, the practice segments that alternate between live sound and slow-motion shots set to music…

how players spend time off-the-field…

and of course, the cutting of a player who just doesn’t have the right stuff .

Like HARD KNOCKS, BIRTH OF THE BUCS perfectly captures the sweat-soaked drudgery of summer camp, the extreme heat and humidity beating down on a team desperately trying to prepare for the season ahead, and the painstaking mental preparation and physical exertion required to succeed in the National Football League.

The off-the-field sequence features veterans Mike Current and Dave Reavis, who were typical of the players available in the expansion draft, which is to say they were undistinguished.**  But these roommates were standouts when it came to hotel room conversation.  Reavis’ desire to meet a local “blonde chick” points to what has probably been the main topic of conversation at NFL summer camps since Red Grange first put on a leather helmet.  While we never learn the outcome of Reavis’ pursuit, it’s reasonable to assume that it was one of the few times in 1976 that a Buccaneer managed to score.

While the banter between Reavis and Current seems somewhat staged, the sequence still works because of the creative intercutting between Reavis/Current and what’s happening in the hotel room shared by free agent roomies Alan Pitman and John Wilson.  Both running backs are trying hard to learn the Bucs’ playbook and grab a roster spot.  The interplay between the serious and the trivial reinforces the human element of BIRTH OF THE BUCS.

Ultimately, Wilson isn’t able to grasp the plays as well as expected.  As Facenda – at his “voice of God” best – informs us, “For those who don’t master the playbook, the consequences are quick and final.”  It is Wilson who becomes the first player ever to get cut on camera.  It’s true that Wilson isn’t on screen long enough for us to get to “know” him in the same way that the players become familiar to us during the course of the well-developed weekly story arcs of HARD KNOCKS.  But in BIRTH OF THE BUCS, the build-up is economical and effective, so that when Wilson gets the axe, it’s shocking.  It’s just as effective as any of the cut scenes that would appear in HARD KNOCKS.  And until BIRTH OF THE BUCS, it’s a harsh slice of pro football life that we’ve never gotten to see before.

Separated at BIRTH

 Each season of HARD KNOCKS has featured a dominant personality with genuine star power, and it has usually been the head coach. The obvious exception is Chad Johnson from the ‘07 Bengals. But otherwise, these coaches have arguably been the stars of their respective seasons: the Ravens’ Brian Billick and the Jets Rex Ryan, who was “larger than life” in more ways than one.  In BIRTH OF THE BUCS, John McKay established the convention of coach-as-star.  McKay was used to being all-powerful when he coached at football factory USC.  While there, McKay won 75% of his games and posted three undefeated seasons. But in Tampa, Hugh Culverhouse called the shots, and while McKay was initially unreceptive to the idea of wearing a wireless microphone and having NFL Films camera crews filming every aspect of his fledgling team’s daily routine, he had no choice but to go along with the program.

In retrospect, it seems odd that McKay would have been so camera-shy, because the man’s droll, caustic wit made him a natural born entertainer.  During McKay’s first meeting with his team, he deftly delivers one-liners worthy of a Letterman/Leno/Kimmel opening monologue.  Although McKay was funny, he never resorted to schtick.  Unlike say, Hank Stram, McKay was more curmudgeon than cuddly.  He didn’t want to be loved, or even liked.  The highlight of BIRTH OF THE BUCS is the Bucs’ first preseason game where McKay patrols the sideline wearing a wireless microphone (the only time the coach consented to be mic’ed during his nine year NFL career).  The Buccaneers, to put it politely, are getting their butts kicked by the Rams, and McKay is understandably peeved about his team’s performance. He chews out players and assistants alike, with scathing zingers…

that have become classics in the NFL FILMS canon of coaches wirings.  My own favorite: “These guys are almost gutless, and the ones that aren’t are brainless.” During halftime, McKay tells his team that “some of the Rams must run the 100 in 27 minutes and we can’t tackle them.” A post-game conference after a 26-3 pasting finds McKay surrounded by reporters and still cheerfully dropping one-liners about his hapless team, including, “We didn’t block, but we made up for it by not tackling.”

After the McKay wiring, BIRTH OF THE BUCS sort of drops off the table in terms of its narrative.  Footage of the team’s next pre-season game, against the Dolphins, seems like an afterthought, and is shown under the closing credits.  A lot of material was obviously left on the cutting room floor and in 2001, some of this footage was included in the LOST TREASURES OF NFL FILMS series that ran on ESPN Classic.  Among the unused material:  interviews with then General Manager Ron Wolf (just 37 years old the year the BUCS film was shot) and the team equipment manager, who explains the difficulty in finding shorts to fit jumbo assistant coach Abe Gibron.

Other footage that never made its way into BIRTH OF THE BUCS: “behind the scenes” glimpses of rookie quarterback Parnell Dickinson and journeyman signal-caller Steve Spurrier.  All of this unused material  — the “insider info” provided by Wolf, the comic overtones of the equipment manager’s job duties, and the personalized storylines about Dickinson and Spurrier – would immediately resonate with anyone who has watched even a single episode of HARD KNOCKS.

The film’s exit line as delivered by John Facenda is:  “Winning may take a while, but the birth of the Bucs is a smashing success.”  Indeed, it took “awhile” before the Bucs won a game, as their losing ways continued well into the following season.  Their 26 straight losses is still an NFL record.  In 1979, McKay led the Bucs to their first winning season and the NFC Championship game, where they lost to the Rams, 9-0. Still, McKay is best remembered more today for his comic timing than his coaching acumen.  In Tampa, he was a long way from USC, and while he never coached another team, his NFL career record is 44-88-1.

It’s a HARD KNOCKS Life

 While BIRTH OF THE BUCS established the template for how to cover an NFL training camp, the differences between BIRTH and HARD KNOCKS are in many ways more striking than the similarities.  For one thing, BIRTH OF THE BUCS was shot on 16mm film, while HARD KNOCKS is shot on HiDef Video.  HARD KNOCKS draws on digital technology for virtually every aspect of its production.  BIRTH OF THE BUCS was analog all the way, and the film was edited on a Steenbeck editing machine.  Such machines still exist – in museums and junkyards.

The turnaround time for HARD KNOCKS is much shorter than it was for BIRTH OF THE BUCS.  HARD KNOCKS, after all, airs once a week, and there are more camera crews sending back far more material than what was shot for BIRTH OF THE BUCS (or even the first HARD KNOCKS).  The production of HARD KNOCKS requires an enormous amount of manpower – both on location and in our Mt. Laurel, New Jersey headquarters.  The military-like mobilization of NFL Films’ workforce transforms the Mt. Laurel home office into “Fort KNOCKS” for five taxing weeks

Moreover, in this era dominated by social media, HARD KNOCKS is the subject of enormous scrutiny. The show has its own page on Facebook (with nearly 31,000 “likes” – and counting), and on the message boards of various NFL-related websites, fans argue about the choice of team to be covered, the content of individual episodes, and what each show reveals about their team’s chances for the upcoming season.

If BIRTH OF THE BUCS had originally aired in the forest, would anyone have heard or seen it? There was no Twitter, thus, no one ever composed anything resembling this:

@Yukaneer If U dont C BIRTH OF BUCS 2nite on CH 35, UR missing out on awesum Abe Gibron’s shorts. LOL. #McKayIs1NastyDude.

Now a premium cable juggernaut, in 1976 HBO’s programming consisted basically of boxing, stand-up comedians and theatrical movies that were largely unloved and in some cases, unreleased.  HBO was a year away from airing the first season of INSIDE THE NFL, which was the network’s initial association with the NFL and NFL Films. And, by the way, there was no ESPN to dissect and discuss every nook and cranny of sports.  BIRTH OF THE BUCS provided access long before access became a sports programming imperative.

Clearly, the cultural environment has changed dramatically since NFL Films produced BIRTH OF THE BUCS.  While BIRTH never had the impact or reach of any season of HARD KNOCKS, the show’s visual style and narrative trajectory are clearly part of HARD KNOCKS’ DNA. Despite John Facenda’s closing line, the birth of the Bucs was not a “smashing success.”  But because of its lasting influence, THE BIRTH OF THE BUCS was.

FOOTNOTES

*In 2003, NFL Films produced a series entitled “Inside Training Camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars” for NFL Network. It was like HARD KNOCKS, but it wasn’t officially HARD KNOCKS.

**Narrator John Facenda informs us that the Bucs didn’t find much in the expansion draft: “It is not the most gifted talent pool.”  Facenda’s mellifluous narration is one of the many pleasures to be gleaned from BIRTH OF THE BUCS.  It also serves as a reminder that scripted narration was another stylistic element that would be carried over from BIRTH to HARD KNOCKS, which unlike other reality shows, relies on script to move the action along.  Actor Liev Schreiber has been the voice-over talent for every HK season except 2007.  That one was narrated by diehard Chiefs’ fan, actor Paul Rudd.

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