By Robert Weintraub
Everyone's favorite, annual, "Football is almost back!" tradition -- the five-week run of the HBO-NFL Films collaboration Hard Knocks -- ends tonight, with its final episode chronicling the training camp of the Cincinnati Bengals. While no real fan would dare miss the show, I think it is safe to say that this year's collection of grunting athletes and cursing coaches has been rather flavorless, excepting the last fifteen minutes of the first episode, which offered a sensational depiction of the "Oklahoma drill," during which players went mano a mano -- or in this case, tigra a tigra -- in a violent battle of wills.
But otherwise, Hard Knocks 2013 has been, in a word, dull. And that makes me deliriously happy.
As it happens, you see, I am one of the few and proud Bengals fans (despite being from New York and having no connections to the Queen City). Having stuck with the "Stars in Stripes" through the long fallow period (one playoff appearance from 1992-2008), I've since been rewarded with three playoff berths in the last four years. At long last -- after the knuckleheaded parsimony of Mike Brown, the misfires on Ki-Jana Carter and "Big Daddy" Dan Wilkinson and Akili Smith and David Klingler and so many others, the shame of the endless arrests in the mid-2000s, and the false hope of the Carson Palmer years -- the Bengals are contenders with a strong, deep and balanced roster, and they are poised to make a loud noise in the AFC this season.
Which is why I was scared to death of Hard Knocks.
Don't get me wrong. I love the show. It does a tremendous job of capturing the glory of the sport while not shying away from the inhumanity shown to the players -- the endless carping from anal retentive coaches about their practice performances, the razor's edge of unemployment so many of them walk throughout the summer, the injuries and pain that can come at any moment. And of course, come cut-down day, the cameras are there for every second of pathos that can be rung from that dreaded call from the office lackey ("the Turk"), for the coaches' awkward bonhomie, offset by each player's forced "thanks for this opportunity," spit through gritted teeth, lest they be branded as a malcontent and thus unable to land a spot on another team.
But Hard Knocks also brilliantly pounds home all the things we love about the game, its savage beauty on the field and the camaraderie between warriors off of it. I was so pumped up and excited I could scarcely sleep after that Oklahoma drill sequence -- which was fortunate, because if it weren't for that, my sleep would have been thrown off by the memory of rookie lineman Larry Black, who had just broken his leg in a practice session, weeping while calling his father to tell him. The two sides of the show and the sport were perfectly captured by those back-to-back sequences.
But the rest of the four episodes to date have been fairly blah. Perhaps the defining images so far have been the ode to rookie running back Giovanni Bernard's ride -- a minivan, for God's sake.
Hard Knocks generally requires a few traditional elements to be in place to succeed as a television show:
1. There need to be roster battles at key spots or featuring interesting personalities. If the competition involves an older, known veteran, even better.
2. Some controversy or unusual circumstances, such as the Darrelle Revis negotiations with the Jets back in 2010, are critical.
3. The star turn, exemplified by Rex Ryan's impression (also in 2010) of what John Blutarsky would have become, had he not gone into politics. An extremely mouthy player -- like Chad Ochocinco in both 2009 and 2012, before he memorably was cut after being arrested -- also greatly aids the producers in finding material.
4. A major injury or two to key players.
5. A setback in an preseason game, causing the coach to explode upon the team.
This year's series has featured little of the above, much to my relief. The Bengals changed only 11 players from last year's 53-man roster, tied with the Vikings and the Packers for the smallest turnover in the league. Head coach Marvin Lewis was quoted coming into camp as saying he could pretty much determine the final roster before practices even started. The team is young, and the talent is everywhere. The only battles were for the final slots, involving little-known players on the margins. Those who were cut were told to report to Lewis and "bring their iPads," which filled me with wonderment. The Bengals, a team that remains without an indoor practice bubble, are actually on the cutting edge for once!
Meanwhile, Lewis is hardly Rex-ian in terms of outsized personality. He trails only Bill Belichick in longevity on the sideline, and he manages to say nearly as little as the Pats coach without drifting onto the Asperger's spectrum, as Belichick is wont to do when dealing with the media. His mostly successful power grab from Brown has resulted in a steady, professional franchise that, for the first time in my decades of slavish devotion to this team, actually resembles the Ravens and the Steelers, the gold standard for well-run organizations and the bete noires of any Bengals fan.
Ochocinco and his camera hogging tendencies are long gone, the injuries have been mercifully few and the controversy nil, all of which is great news. And while there was a reality check, in the form of a loss in Dallas in the third preseason game, the result wasn't a fire-and-brimstone speech from Lewis (who had memorably delivered one during the Bengals' first go-round on Hard Knocks back in 2009, when the team wasn't nearly as good). Lewis told the team that they should stop listening to the "smoke being blown up your ass," and that was about it. You almost got the sense he was happy to have his squad brought back down to earth a bit.
For the devoted fan, the preseason is basically five weeks of breath-holding. You check the beat writer's Twitter feed, hoping his entries are all about the nominal signings of draft picks and the accuracy of your quarterback in 7-on-7 drills, and devoid of red meat. You peek at the games through your fingers, wincing at every hit an important player takes. And you hope to never see the team doctor quoted anywhere.
When Hard Knocks is about your team, the trying month of August is exacerbated by the worry of embarrassing moments (Antonio Cromartie struggling to name his platoon of children born out of wedlock) or unprofessional behavior (the Ravens holding a "King Ugly" contest in the locker room) -- or just adding to the sporting lexicon in a perverse way ("Let's go eat a goddamn snack!") -- all of which makes for sports radio fodder and general unease about the mental state of the team.
So far, the Bengals have been boring in the best way possible. Only one more episode to go, and I can go back to more prosaic worrying that the team will merely embarrass itself with its play during the season.
Unfortunately, I have many years of practice with that.
Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.