Photos from Tuesday's Hard Knocks Premiere event.
"The road to success is always under construction."
Midway through the season premiere of Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Special Teams Coach Nate Kaczor made that point to a room full of players, many of whom will earn their roster spots by proving valuable in the kick-and-return game. Kaczor intertwined the message with a comparison to the various jobs being done by the construction crew currently building an indoor practice facility behind One Buccaneer Place, and the Hard Knocks producers spliced in a shot of that same message painted on the wall near the players' entrance.
That quote essentially defines an NFL training camp, and is thus the underlying truth of Hard Knocks: The Buccaneers are expecting big things in 2017, but it's going to take a lot of hard work to achieve them.
The first 60 minutes of this remarkable behind-the-scenes look at the Buccaneers' preparations for the season had a little bit of everything: slow-motion rain-drenched action shots (an NFL Films specialty), family interactions, singing rookies, struggling rookies, even a Snoop Dogg cameo. But it began and concluded with the hardest of workers, described by the narrator as the Buccaneers' most important player: quarterback Jameis Winston.
The actual first shot of episode one is a cold open on Head Coach Dirk Koetter addressing the team about expectations. The camera quickly lets us know who will be the stars of this year's series, lighting first on Winston, then Gerald McCoy, Mike Evans and Kwon Alexander. Later, viewers are treated to a longer look at newcomer DeSean Jackson and rookies Riley Bullough and Jeremy McNichols. Bullough, an undrafted linebacker who excels both at singing and taking on a leadership role on the practice field, looks likely to be the "on-the-bubble" player the producers focus on for the next month.
Again, though, Winston is the star. After Koetter's speech, the show takes us to the young quarterback's hometown and gives the viewers a peek into his childhood, including a room that he shared with six others. Clips from early in the episode show him hooking up repeatedly with Evans and Jackson on big plays, getting encouragement from Jon Gruden and inspiring kids at his football camp. "We're here to lead," Winston tells his campers. "We're here to make our teammates better."
At that point, Hard Knocks pulls a dramatic turn to Winston struggling at various points during practice and absorbing some pointed words from the coaches. It's a reminder of the point Episode One made at the beginning: Winston is the team's most important player, and the Buccaneers' big expectations ride on his shoulders. The close of the episode is the perfect answer to this setup: Winston waking up early, listening to an inspirational speech, getting to One Buccaneer Place before dawn and working alone in the weight room.
Aside from the dramatic Winston arc, the first Hard Knocks episode is full of small delights for Buccaneer fans, who are getting an unprecedented look behind the curtain. McCoy's children are adorable, and his horror at accidently hitting Winston on the practice field is both genuine and funny. Jackson's new teammates are clearly amazed by his undiminished speed, and he has quickly formed a bond with Evans. Punter Bryan Anger's off-day activity – spearfishing! – wins among shots of other players bowling, doing yoga and taking dancing lessons. Shots of a confused McNichols underscore how difficult it is for rookies to absorb an entire playbook and put it into action on the field.
And the camera's access is incredible, which is the number-one draw of the Hard Knocks series. It goes into the huddle, where Winston's natural leadership qualities are evident. It follows Anger underwater. It shows Koetter giving the bad news to the first few players cut and General Manager Jason Licht having a casual off-site conversation with his player-personnel staff. Bullough's reaction to being (positively) called out in a meeting is uplifting; Winston's angst after a handful of poor plays is palpable.
The end of the episode is, of course, really no end at all. The preseason, and Hard Knocks is just getting started. The roster is still at 90 players. The Episode 2 trailer promises a look at the placekicker battle. There's a long way to go, but the Buccaneers have had a productive week.
"The Bucs aren't perfect," says the show's narrator in closing. "They aren't even close. But they're closer than they were a week ago."