Hard Knocks: A Crucible of Emotions

Behind the Scenes, Cincinnati Bengals, Hard Knocks, Richard Owens

You’re going to make a reality-style television series. Thanks to hours of research you have a working knowledge of every character involved. You gather up your small crew of 40-odd people and head to the site of the shoot. You’ll be there for five weeks. Filming starts. Remember all that research you did? Throw it out. Only when filming begins do you discover who the truly interesting characters are. Only once you’re knee-deep in the process is it clear who takes center stage in your piece. Imagine embarking on a five-week film-making journey without knowing who your main characters are, little knowledge of the plot, and seven days to sift through 300 hours of footage for 60 minutes of the best stuff, formulate a cohesive story, put together a script, edit it, add music, and send it off. Now do that five times.

Welcome to Hard Knocks, and the life of NFL Film’s Ken Rodgers, Supervising Producer of HBO’s hit series. Taped to the door of Ken’s office at Film’s headquarters is a quote from the late Steve Sabol that reads, “Remember that producing Hard Knocks is like trying to build an airplane while in flight.” It illustrates the real challenge of the show: you start production and the real work begins.

NFL training camp is the five week trial by fire in which coaches get the first opportunity to see what their players are really made of. Every Films employee working on the show goes through the same grueling process.

“Like the players, we’re in the trenches together, working hard, sometimes vehemently disagreeing with each other, sometimes celebrating hard-fought victories together in the editing room. We have our own crucible of emotions we go through on this show,” says Rodgers. “When players retire from the NFL they always say they miss the bonding and the locker room camaraderie much more than they miss the fans cheering for them or the glory. And I think it’s the same way here.”

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Talking to Rodgers, it’s obvious the show takes its toll. While other NFL Film’s productions are lavished upon for weeks and months, Rodgers and his crew have seven days to hand in a finished product. And then they do it all over again. “The pressure is enormous,” says Rodgers, “The only way we get through this show is a mutual faith that everyone who touches it will do their very best, and the very best has always led to a really solid product.”

Hard Knocks started as a collaborative effort between former NFL Films President Steve Sabol and former HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg. Before the series began, NFL Films had been partners with HBO for years, and Rodgers describes Hard Knocks as a culmination of the partnership between two companies that see sports filmmaking very similarly. It’s also a natural step in the evolution of the companies’ goal to bring fans closer to the game. Early on, it was close-ups of player’s faces. Then it was hearing what players and coaches say during games. Then it was behind the scenes access on game-day. Now it’s Hard Knocks.

The show itself has gone through an evolutionary process since its inaugural 2001 season with the Baltimore Ravens. Although Rodgers notes that every year of Hard Knocks has been a step forward, he points to 2009 as the show’s biggest evolutionary leap.

“Everything worked perfectly with the Bengals,” he notes, “We had a team that was extremely interesting, we had a superstar in Chad Johnson that was really entertaining, we had great rookies, heartbreaking stories of injuries and players not making the team, and an organization that to this day has been the most welcoming in our history. To me, the show became what it is today in 2009 thanks in large part to the Cincinnati Bengals.”

Steve Sabol was fond of describing Hard Knocks as “our Super Bowl.” Based on how it consumes the company for half of the summer, it would seem to be an accurate statement. The crew in Cincinnati numbers almost 40 people, with a rotating cast of 20 producers editing the show at NFL Films headquarters in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. Although the number of employees working on the show on a weekly basis reaches triple digits, the crew’s footprint in Bengal’s training camp is startlingly small.

“It’s not a Hollywood production with hundreds of people around,” says Rodgers, “Our number one goal is to capture the storylines happening at camp. Our second goal is to stay as unobtrusive to the team as possible.”

Prior to 2010, the show was even more complex. Everything was shot on various forms of high definition tape and film, and all the footage would be sent back to One Sabol Way via a private courier. Starting last year in Miami, Films began shooting the entire show digitally, allowing the footage to be transmitted the same day, hours after it was shot. In an accelerated production schedule it gives the staff more time to develop storylines, identify the most fascinating personalities, and monitor the happenings at camp.

The first episode of the new season—which aired August 6th—featured the type of balance that makes the show great. “It all came together with young players succeeding, the type of bonding and camaraderie that lightens the mood, the aggressive desire to be great, and plenty of heartbreak,” says Rodgers. Of particular interest in this year’s edition is the number of young superstars on the Bengals’ roster that are not as well-known nationally as they should be. The opening episode featured more of the players that are locks to make the team rather than the journeyman veterans and undrafted rookies fighting for roster spots we are accustomed to rooting for on Hard Knocks.

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Steve Sabol loved the struggle and strife of men trying to be great at their jobs. That’s what training camp is like for the players, and what Hard Knocks becomes for the men and women of NFL Films. Our informal tagline developed in 2001 and used to this day is: ‘The toughest five weeks you’ll ever love.’ Originally intended to be from a player’s perspective, it has come to represent how the crew at NFL Films feels.

“It’s the toughest thing we do on a yearly basis,” says Rodgers, “but it’s also the thing we love most on a yearly basis.”

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