Posted: 7:25 p.m.
Steve Sabol, the heart and soul of NFL Films, had to be feeling on Wednesday a little bit like Spielberg after Jaws and Ken Burns after The Civil War.
Thanks largely to the open arms, not to mention the open minds, of the Bengals, Sabol called his seventh Hard Knocks series with HBO the best one yet after gauging ratings everywhere from hard numbers to Tuesday night's cocktail party with the highest NFL officials.
With the series wrapping up with the fifth show on HBO at 10 p.m. Wednesday, Sabol cited the Bengals' "unprecedented access and honesty" for ratings that were measured 45 percent more over last year's first four episodes with the Cowboys.
Sabol said the Bengals never once prohibited the NFL Films crews from shooting something and only once in all five episodes did they ask something to be edited out.
"It was a play in the huddle with Jordan Palmer in the Rams game," Sabol said. "Marvin was afraid it gave away something with their audibles and so we cut it. But, yeah, that was it."
Sabol said the result can be seen in more than numbers.
"I heard 'Child Please' at several intervals last night," said Sabol of Chad Ochocinco's slang that has become a national catchphrase and could be heard during the party. "Not from the commissioner. The commissioner didn't say it, but he's loved the show and wants to make sure we keep doing it. Ratings-wise and critical acclaim, the best yet."
The last episode focuses on the final cuts and Sabol says get ready for an emotional scene with the mother of one of those released, rookie fullback Chris Pressley.
"The editing room fell silent," Sabol said. "It gives you chills."
It's not the first time that's happened there the past month. The scenes that have lasted with Sabol are like that, such as when tight end Reggie Kelly found out his season was over with a ruptured Achilles tendon and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer called in defensive tackle Tank Johnson for a heart-to-heart talk about life. And there have been about 15-20 requests from high school and college football programs for a copy of head coach Marvin Lewis' impassioned plea for professionalism after the sloppy 24-21 loss to the Rams.
A big reason why the Bengals asked for just one edit is because Sabol already has a pretty good idea what teams find objectionable. But Sabol also said it's because Bengals president Mike Browns runs a pretty straightforward ship. He got a visit from former NFL quarterback and current broadcaster Phil Simms on Tuesday and Simms raved about the reality.
"He felt it really peeled back the layers and you saw the way it really was for the Cincinnati Bengals," Sabol said. "He said there was none of the B.S."
Sabol said he was taken aback by the negative reaction in Cincinnati out of the first episode in which Brown led a personnel meeting. It hit the raw nerve locally that Brown chooses to own the team and have the final say in football matters despite the team's failure to win consistently.
"What we got from the outside from bloggers and on Facebook was almost the exact opposite.," Sabol said. "They said it's nice to see a guy that doesn't sell cars or anything else who has been in football his whole life taking an interest like that. I think (the show) put the entire organization in a good light. I think Mike said it all in that first meeting when he said last year was an embarrassment and they needed to win their fans back. I think that kind of honesty hit home."
When you focus on guys like Kelly, you can't help but get positive play. It turns out that Hard Knocks discovered the Bengals have a lot of good guys.
"What a great guy Reggie Kelly is. We found a lot of good guys. And the leadership is spread out with guys like Carson, Dhani, Whitworth," Sabol said. "I'll tell you, there are 300 new Bengals fans here at NFL Films."
And they had their own drama to deal with as the series shut down Friday night. The show's producer, Keith Cossrow, was called away when his wife delivered six weeks early. Yeah, bad timing because that weekend they were putting the show to bed for good, but Sabol told him to forget it. They'd do it without him.
But son Josh was doing just fine and his dad had his laptop in the hospital. So suddenly Keith Cossrow was splicing it together via cyberspace hooking him to the editing room from the neonatal unit. They were up until 1 a.m. Monday grinding like a coaching staff and one of the images sent over the weekend was tiny Josh Cossrow wearing an even smaller Bengals keychain around his neck.
"That shows you how into it all of us were," Sabol said.