One of the most poignant scenes in the entire five-episode arc of Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was also a total fake out.
Since 2001, the hugely popular HBO Hard Knocks reality show has been chronicling the blood, sweat and tears of a series of NFL teams going through training camp. Each season has its share of levity, hard-hitting game footage, R-rated asides and behind-the-scenes reveals, but the heart and soul of the series is the tracking of bubble players fighting to make the roster. Some succeed. Many fail.
A well-deserving star of this year's Hard Knocks series was linebacker Riley Bullough, an undrafted rookie out of Michigan State. He drew praise from Head Coach Dirk Koetter in the first episode and thus also drew the attention of the NFL Films cameras. His fate was the series' denouement; his cut was the last one shown.
With about 25 minutes left in the episode, Bullough gets a call on his cell phone while standing at his locker at One Buccaneer Place. On the day he was either going to make the 53-man roster or be waived, he came in to get in an extra weight-lifting session. The cameras show Director of Football Operations Shelton Quarles – or for the purposes of this episode, "The Turk" – making a call as he goes down the list of final cuts. The next shot is Bullough answering his phone. He looks at the screen, turns to fellow rookie Stevie Tu'ikolovatu and gives a solemn nod. It's the call he's been dreading.
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Except it's not. It's a friend, who Bullough quickly hustles off the phone, knowing he needs to keep the line clear. Hard Knocks moves on to the next bubble player, rookie wide receiver Bobo Wilson.
Eventually, the show will return to Bullough and, yes, he will be waived in the league-wide cut-down to 53. But he will also receive encouraging words from Koetter and a commitment from the team: They believe in his football future and they want to help him develop on the practice squad. The first phone call on Hard Knocks may have only spared Bullough an hour or two, but the second one didn't bring his dream to an end. As Koetter tells Riley: "Not the end of the line."
"You did awesome," Koetter tells the young defender, whose older brother, Max, overcame the odds to make the Houston Texans' roster as an undrafted player. "You're just playing a position that…linebacker and tight end are probably the two deepest positions on our team. We like everything about you. When I said the stuff about you in the meeting, I meant every word. You know I don't say [things] I don't mean. Leadership and playing the run are your strengths. You've got to get better at playing the pass."
Bullough clearly has the attitude to make the most of the opportunity he ends up with, even if it isn't an opening-day spot on the active roster.
"I knew it was an uphill battle to make the 53, so the practice squad can be a great thing," he said. "That what my brother's done. A ton of guys from Michigan State started on the practice squad that are still playing. I'll be happy to be here, obviously."
The disparate fates of the last few young players fighting to make the 53-man roster dominated the final episode of the Bucs' Hard Knocks run, as they were always destined to do. The flip side of Bullough's waiver was that young linebacker Cameron Lynch – a former Ram going through Hard Knocks for the second summer in a row – made the team. He, too, had a poignant phone call, telling his girlfriend: "All that hard work, it paid off."
Meanwhile, Wilson plays well in the preseason finale but gets waived anyway and chooses to head to Miami for the weekend. The Buccaneers want him back on the practice squad but there's a bit of drama surrounding whether or not he'll make the effort to get back in time on Sunday. He does, and he'll also have the time to develop his game, like Bullough, but the Hard Knocks cameras underscored how much real life and emotion there is behind what are usually just lines on an NFL transaction wire.
The resolution of the Jeremy McNichols storyline is less satisfying. McNichols struggled throughout the preseason but the Bucs still hoped to have time to develop the fifth-round pick out of Boise State on their practice squad. Instead, he chooses to sign with San Francisco's practice squad, and in the aftermath the insular nature of a football team is made clear. If McNichols wants to move on, the Bucs are also ready to move on with the men they have in their own building.
Somewhere in the middle is quarterback Sefo Liufau, who takes a beating while playing the second half of the Bucs' preseason finale, as was rather mercilessly displayed by a Hard Knocks montage. But Liufau also directs a pair of scoring drives and even gets off a possible game-winning "Hail Mary" pass as time expires. Fittingly, Liufau is buried by a Washington pass-rusher just as he releases the ball. Liufau has clearly impressed Koetter, and while he won't be continuing his run in Tampa, he has a bright future in the coach's mind.
"Most guys when they go from practice to game, they do less in the game than they do in practice," Koetter tells Liufau as he delivers the bad news. "You play better in the game than you do in practice. You scare the hell out of me in practice every day that you don't know half the stuff you're doing, but you get into a game and you seem to be able to put it all together. My advice would be to you, when you do get your next opportunity, wherever it might be, take it faster from the meeting room to the practice field. You're going to do fine long-term, whether it's football or not. You've got a good future ahead of you."
Liufau is appreciative and gracious in his response to Koetter, and indeed, most of the seminal "cut" scenes show two men offering mutual respect to each other, and sharing the hope that, as Koetter told Bullough, this is "not the end of the line." That said, the Hard Knocks cameras only served to emphasize how much both players and management dread cut-down day. In fact, General Manager Jason Licht had a very specific description of how the day made him feel as he talked things over with Director of Player Personnel John Spytek.
"I would rather drive across the country with Skip Bayless and no radio working and the heater stuck on," said Licht to an amused Spytek. "And the windshield wiper is stuck on, and it's got the metal hitting the glass. With Skip Bayless."