"I'll be back."
The last words spoken on Episode Three of Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (not counting the preview for Week Four) come from rookie cornerback Maurice Fleming, the latest star of the popular HBO reality series.
Actually, Fleming is more of a shooting star, because his training camp journey burns bright but flames out way too fast. The all-seeing NFL Films cameras provide incredible insight into that journey, showing a young player giving his all in the face of the tough odds that undrafted rookies face, compounded by some terrible luck. By the end of the episode, Fleming's first NFL training camp is over, but not before he displays impressive toughness in Tampa Bay's preseason game in Jacksonville and earns admiration from Head Coach Dirk Koetter.
Fleming's arc, which begins with some unsolicited practice-field praise from Koetter and ends with a lonely shuttle ride away from team headquarters, provides the biggest emotional impact of the middle episode in a five-part series covering the Buccaneers' efforts to get ready for the 2017 season. Other prominent themes in Episode Three include Jameis Winston's leadership, Doug Martin's resurgence and the team's reaction to tough times in practice and in the Jaguars' game. Rookie linebacker Riley Bullough, one of the early focal points of the Hard Knocks season, gets a mostly positive new chapter, though the show underscores how difficult of a challenge he faces.
It's the Fleming story, though, that best illustrates the incredible inside access provided by Hard Knocks. We hear Fleming saying, "I'll survive," very early in the episode, unrelated to his roster chances but an ominous bit of foreshadowing. We get up-close practice shots of the rookie performing well and getting kudos from the coaches. Koetter points out to the media that the West Virginia product has taken to getting in extra workouts by himself on the field early in the morning, and the next thing you know the Hard Knocks cameras are there to capture exactly that. Fleming reveals that he has begun setting his alarm to match Winston's famously early arrival.
Pictures from the Buccaneers' training camp practice on Tuesday.
"I'm an undrafted free agent," says Fleming, "so I'm always going to be remembered that way."
His performance in the Jaguars game is certainly memorable, and the extent to which that is true would have been known only by a few if not for the Hard Knocks presence. Playing in the fourth quarter as the Buccaneers are trying to protect a 12-6 lead, Fleming sustains a knee injury but chooses to continue playing, and he's seen falling down at the snap in the next scene. Eventually, Fleming makes a dazzling play to break up a pass in the end zone that would have given Jacksonville the win. Tampa Bay holds on for a 12-8 win. Veteran cornerback Brent Grimes tells Fleming, "Way to fight to the end."
Viewers also witness Fleming undergoing medical tests the next day and receiving the unwelcome news that his injury will keep him sidelined for at least the rest of the preseason. The Buccaneers waive/injure the rookie, which means he will either end up on the injured reserve list or as a free agent with an injury settlement.
Koetter delivers this news to Fleming personally, and the scene underscores how much pure luck can sometimes play into whether or not a young player makes a team. It also makes it clear that this is not likely to be the end of the rookie cornerback's NFL dream.
"You've got to get healthy, but you did a really good job here," Koetter tells Fleming. "Love your competitiveness, appreciate everything you did. You didn't do anything wrong. This is a medical issue. I can't believe how impressed [I am] that you finished out playing that game with that. Seeing it on film, seeing it rolled up and the fact that you were able to finish the game, that's pretty impressive, how tough you are. You have the right qualities, it's just a health issue. You just got a little unlucky right now. I'm sure you're going to get another opportunity at some point."
There were plenty of lighter moments to balance Fleming's emotional arc. Scenes of Winston's pregame hype speeches are repeatedly intercut with quiet moments of veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick wryly critiquing his performance. Defensive tackle Chris Baker romances a palm tree with sultry dance moves. The quarterbacks discuss the possibly dubious idea of "goat rescue." Gerald McCoy springs for not one but three food trucks during one of the team's long days in Jacksonville.
The third episode of Hard Knocks also does a fine job of highlighting some of the team's rising stars. Jameis Winston's one ill-advised pass while being sacked in Jacksonville gets serious treatment, as expected, but otherwise he is seen leading a dominant effort against the Jaguars. Center Ali Marpet looks like a winner both in one-on-ones against the Jags D-Linemen and when he chooses some solitude and sushi on the beach during an off day. Martin runs hard in the game and talks openly about turning his personal issue from a negative into a positive. Mike Evans expresses his desire to rise from one of the league's four or five best receivers to his own spot at the very top.
As always, though, the best part of Hard Knocks is when it captures players honing their craft in settings that fans otherwise never get to see. It's telling that Winston chooses to use some of his downtime in Jacksonville to walk through plays in his hotel room with both a seasoned veteran (DeSean Jackson) and a wide-eyed rookie (Jeremy McNichols). Winston's complete command of the playbook is obvious in this scene.
Winston will surely be featured heavily in the last two episodes of Hard Knocks. McCoy, Evans and Jackson will undoubtedly show up. The resolution of the Bullough storyline lies ahead. For Fleming, his time in the Bucs' training camp, and thus also in Hard Knocks, appears to be over, but not before he impressed a team and a national audience with his toughness.