RICHMOND, Va. — A couple months ago, it was revealed that the Washington Redskins had been chosen as a finalist for HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” a yearly, behind-the-scenes look into NFL training camp that focuses on a different team each year. For those with a cursory knowledge of the show, the often drama-filled Washington football club may have seemed like a perfect fit, but the show eventually landed with a promising — if less controversial — Houston Texans club. Which means that even though the Redskins aren’t the show’s primary focus, they’ll still be exposed to the all-access cameras for the long weekend the two teams are practicing together, beginning Thursday.
But the show’s director says Washington was never a likely candidate to be the featured club, and fans can expect the Redskins’ appearance in the show to be treated only through the reflection of how they affect the Texans.
“I’m not sure how serious the Redskins were as a contender,” said Matt Dissinger, the NFL Films producer who has directed “Hard Knocks” for the past eight years, and who arrived on site with his crew at Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center Thursday. “The Texans really jumped out at us for a few reasons: They’re a team on the rise. Coach (Bill) O’Brien’s of interest to us. It doesn’t hurt that they have maybe the best player in the NFL on their squad. So they were a very attractive option for us.”
In highlighting every positive reason the Texans were ultimately picked, Dissinger backhandedly reminded Skins fans of the qualities lacking on Washington’s side: The team has won just seven games the past two seasons combined; head coach Jay Gruden isn’t even the most famous football coach in his own family, and while DeSean Jackson may be an elite receiver (when healthy), there is no singular talent that stands out from the crowd the way reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt does.
And just because the crew is in Richmond doesn’t mean that the Redskins are the focal point for these three days of camp.
“I know we have some players that have some ties to Richmond,” said Dissinger. “Those are the kinds of things we tie in when we travel somewhere. It’s not necessarily that we’re going to come here to cover the Redskins, but we’re going to cover the Redskins in the way the Texans interact with them.”
It’s one of the ways the show is misperceived by NFL fans. Another is the very way it is shot.
The NFL Films crew is composed mostly of freelancers who come in for the six-week stint and operate six cameras, five with sound and one slo-mo action-oriented one without it. Those images are complemented by footage from 14 fixed cameras planted around the Texans’ training facility, which did not make the trip to Richmond.
“That’s where I want to watch from today,” said a fan to some friends Thursday from the gallery, peering up to one of four cherry pickers suspended high above the field of play.
But the crew shooting was not part of the “Hard Knocks” team, which instead blended itself in at ground level, crew members noticeable only by their matching white T-shirts as they weaved their way in and out of crowds.
“It is difficult, because it’s awkward,” said Dissinger. “Let’s be honest — teams aren’t used to having cameras at the ‘Hard Knocks’ level of access at their training camps. So the perception’s always worse than the reality. When we come in here, teams, head coaches assume the worst. I try to impart to them exactly what it is we’re after. Hopefully, like, a week, two weeks into the project, we start to settle into the background, we don’t become a distraction, and they kind of know what to expect and I think that’s when you really earn their trust.”
There was a moment during 11-on-11 goal-line drills Thursday when O’Brien’s defensive unit was not prepared coming out of a huddle at the snap and he stopped play, unleashing an expletive-laden tirade at his troops. A Redskins PR official joked about the moment ending up on the show which, due to its pay-cable nature, has fewer language restrictions than basic cable.
But the truth is, just because something might seem like the type of bit that would make the final cut doesn’t necessarily mean it will. The ratio of film shot to film used might astound you.
“For every one hour that makes it, we shoot 350 that don’t,” says Dissinger. “In those 350 hours is a lot of stuff where we took chances and it didn’t work out. But the reason we shoot so much, and cover as much as we do, is hopefully you get the cream of that crop off the top of that and it makes a pretty entertaining hour of television.”
Gruden has been through the “Hard Knocks” life before as a coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals. Whether that experience or the nature of the crew was the primary reason, the cameras didn’t faze him on their first day in Richmond.
“I didn’t even notice them today,” Gruden told the media after practice. “I don’t think our players did either. If they did, it surprises me. There’s bigger things on their plate right now that they have to deal with. They’re trying to take advantage of the reps; they’re trying to compete; they’re trying to make the football team.”
As to whether that means Gruden would be all right with “Hard Knocks” choosing his team next year, he dodged the query, showing the same reticence Dissinger indicated he has become accustomed to from head coaches.
“That’s out of my control,” Gruden chuckled. “Thank goodness.”