Hard Knock Life: Life for Teams After HBO

The off-season is dark and full of terrors. Free agency helps thaw the snow, and the draft is the Super Bowl of the off-season, but by the time August rolls around, NFL fans are desperate for anything football. That’s why year after year, HBO’s Hard Knocks documentary series is a smash hit. Cameras follow coaches and players around training camp, tracking storylines and giving fans a unique peek behind the curtain. But the question has to be asked, is it a distraction?

Hard Knock Life: Life for Teams After HBO

2001 Baltimore Ravens

The Year Before: 12-4 (Super Bowl Champions)
The Hard Knocks Year: 10-6
Win Differential: -4

The 2001 Baltimore Ravens were the first team to be on Hard Knocks, though admittedly, they didn’t play under the new rules. The year before, the Baltimore Ravens rode Trent Dilfer, Jamal Lewis, and Ray Lewis to a Super Bowl victory. This year? They made it back to the playoffs with a 10 win record, even beating the Miami Dolphins 20-3 in the Wild Card round before falling to their hated rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional round.

2002 Dallas Cowboys

The Year Before: 5-11
The Hard Knocks Year: 5-11
Win Differential: Even

This squad isn’t going to help anything, because they didn’t win or lose any more games than they had the year before. However, this was the year Emmitt Smith limped past Walter Payton‘s all-time rishing record and the team signed undrafted free agent, Billy Cundiff.

2007 Kansas City Chiefs

The Year Before: 9-7
The Hard Knocks Year: 4-12
Win Differential: -5

The 2007 Chiefs struggled, partially due to injuries, namely tailback Larry Johnson, and because of the off-season decision to move on from quarterback Trent Green for the likes of Brodie Croyle and Damon Huard. Injuries, bad coaching (Herman Edwards was a disaster as Kansas City’s head coach), and terrible quarterbacks are not HBO’s fault.

2008 Dallas Cowboys

The Year Before: 13-3
The Hard Knocks Year: 9-7
Win Differential: -4

The 2008 Dallas Cowboys are now infamous for their epic meltdown. A year removed from a first round bye season, the Cowboys started the year 8-4, only to collapse in December. They lost three of their last four games, including a week 16 loss to the Baltimore Ravens where Joe Flacco won the last game ever at Texas Stadium. It’s hard to imagine that a show filmed in August hurt the team in December.

2009 Cincinnati Bengals

The Year Before: 4-11-1
The Hard Knocks Year: 10-6
Win Differential: +6

In a rare scenario where the Hard Knocks team got significantly better, the Bengals went from picking in the top ten to a division championship. The squad was coached by Marvin Lewis, so I don’t need to tell you what happened in the playoffs, but what’s important is that they got there. So does being on the show make a team better?

Hardly. Hard Knocks didn’t make Cedric Benson break out, nor did it give them a top ten defense. Being on HBO didn’t encourage quarterbacks to throw six picks a piece to Leon Hall or Johnathan Joseph, after all.

2010 New York Jets

The Year Before: 9-7
The Hard Knocks Year: 11-5
Win Differential: +2

The 2010 season was a magical one for the New York Jets, as they improved on their success from the season before. In the same post-season, Mark Sanchez and the New York Jets beat Peyton Manning‘s Indianapolis Colts and Tom Brady‘s New England Patriots, coming up five points short of a Super Bowl berth. Rex Ryan was his usual enthusiastic chaotic self and it worked well for the show. I don’t see how being on the show would’ve bumped the Jets up two wins.

2012 Miami Dolphins

The Year Before: 6-10
The Hard Knocks Year: 7-9
Win Differential: +1

The Miami Dolphins had a rough 2012 season. Chad Ochocinco was the star of Hard Knocks, but after a domestic dispute his wife at the time, he was cut before the season started. Beyond that, the team was hurt by rookie quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, and his struggles. Tannehill completed 58.3% of his passes for 3,294 yards and threw more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (12). Despite all that, they still managed to win one more game than they had the year before.

2013 Cincinnati Bengals

The Year Before: 10-6
The Hard Knocks Year: 11-5
Win Differential: +1

Again, a one game difference is hard to track, but for the second time, the Bengals were on Hard Knocks, and for the third straight season, the Bengals made the playoffs, only to lose in the first round. Marvin Lewis having moderate regular season success only to be one-and-done in the playoffs isn’t HBO worthy, but repetitive and depressing? Put it on AMC right after the Walking Dead.

2014 Atlanta Falcons

The Year Before: 4-12
The Hard Knocks Year: 6-10
Win Differential: +2

This was the first year of the NFL’s rule changes. Teams were exempt from Hard Knocks if they A. had a first year head coach, B. made the playoffs during the last two years, or C. they had been on the show during the previous ten seasons. Somewhere the Cincinnati Bengals and Dallas Cowboys were thoroughly annoyed that these rules didn’t happen sooner.

Anyway, 2014 was the last straw for Arthur Blank, and he fired Mike Smith immediately after the season. 2014 saw the Atlanta Falcons slightly improve on a rough 2013 season, but ultimately fail to overcome a five game losing streak in the middle of the year.

2015 Houston Texans

The Year Before: 9-7
The Hard Knocks Year: 9-7
Win Differential: Even

The 2014 and 2015 versions of the Houston Texans both won nine games, but this season, they made it to the playoffs! They got blown out 30-0 by Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs, but they still made it to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Their win total didn’t change at all, marking the first time the win differential was even since 2002.

2016 St. Louis Rams

The Year Before: 7-9
The Hard Knocks Year: 4-12
Win Differential: -3

2016 is a funny season to look back on now because of how different the Rams are. In 2016, Jeff Fisher was the head coach and the St. Louis Rams were horrible. Jared Goff was a rookie but he couldn’t get on the field, and it looked like Todd Gurley was a one-hit-wonder. Jeff Fisher sank this team and it took Sean McVay and a move to Los Angeles to make this team relevant.

2017 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Year Before: 9-7
The Hard Knocks Year: 5-11
Win Differential: -4

The 2017 Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a stressful season. They got off on the wrong foot after Hurrican Irma delayed their first game to week two. They had to play sixteen straight games, seven of which they lost by less than a touchdown. Kicking problems, poor quarterback play, and underwhelming coaching from Dirk Koetter hurt their season more than a HBO show did.

2018 Cleveland Browns

The Year Before: 0-16
The Hard Knocks Year: 7-8-1
Win Differential: +7

In the most dramatic change, Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns went from one twin in two seasons to falling one C.J. Mosley interception short of a winning record. Interestingly enough, there was a rough start before a dramatic change mid-season. Hue Jackson was fired after an embarrassing loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers and a 2-5-1 start, and the team really turned it around after that. A 5-3 finish should’ve been enough to ban Hue Jackson from coaching forever, but eh, what can you do?


Total Year Before: 97-110-1
Total Hard Knocks Year: 100-107-1
Total Win Differential: +3

The final count? On average, teams actually improved the year after they were on HBO’s show. Does that mean the show makes teams better? Not exactly. In reality, it shows that hosting HBO doesn’t actually change anything. The results are so inconsistent, they don’t prove anything.

There’s only a total difference of three games over the course of thirteen seasons. Even if you only count the seasons after the rule changes in 2013, there isn’t definitive evidence to prove that the show is good or bad for the team. The (then) St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost as many games during the Hard Knocks season as the Browns won during theirs.


This season, only five teams are eligible for the documentary, but one of them leaps out as the obvious favorite. Jimmy Garoppolo‘s San Francisco 49ers could be interesting, but it’s not them. Matthew Stafford‘s Detriot Lions are pretty boring, and barring some Matt Patricia Bill Belichick cosplay, they won’t grab ratings.

With Alex Smith and Colt McCoy falling apart, the Washington Redskins sound more depressing than exciting, and while it could be fun to see what things are like in the wacky world of Saquon Barkley, Odell Beckham Jr., Eli Manning, and maybe a rookie quarterback for the New York Giants, it’s the fifth option that jumps out.

Just Film, Baby

Who is more interesting than Derek Carr‘s Oakland Raiders? Firstly, it’s the Silver and Black’s last year before the Las Vegas move, and as of this writing, they don’t have a home for this season. The Raiders should have three first round picks, one of whom might end up being a quarterback, and not to mention, Jon Gruden mic’d up almost always equals ratings.

Sure, the Raiders would be interesting during their first season in Las Vegas as well, but there’s always the chance the Raiders make the playoffs this year and HBO misses out on a home run. There are enough storylines running wild wherever the Raiders end up playing this year to host a season-long documentary if they wanted.

I’d bet hard cash that the Raiders land the HBO film crew this year, and that it’s one of the best seasons in the history of the series. Fortunately for the Raider Nation, it looks like it doesn’t actually impact the season, so sit back and enjoy the ride!



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