Hard Knocks knocks


Steve Sabol of NFL Films talks about the Bengals participation in Hard Knocks during Thursday's press conference at Paul Brown Stadium. (Bengals photo)

Updated: 2:40 p.m.

Hard Knocks* arrived at Paul Brown Stadium on Thursday announcing its five-show HBO series featuring the Bengals that begins Aug. 12 at 10 p.m. and ends Sept. 9. A 24-person crew descends on Georgetown College for training camp to shoot more than 1,000 hours of video beginning July 30.

Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports, and Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films attended a noon news conference Thursday with head coach Marvin Lewis.

Lewis had been one of the stars of the first Hard Knocks series, a look at the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens in 2001 when he was their defensive coordinator. Since then HBO has called it TV's first reality show.

"We don't know what's going to happen," Sabol said. "We're just going to show up with six cameras and start rolling."

"I go back to something Paul Brown told me," said Sabol of a trip once to Wilmington College. "In what other business can a man discover in six weeks if he has the guts and intelligence to make it in his business?" 

Sabol, who has been the heart of NFL Films for five decades, is a key man in the production process. He said he has the final say on what is left in and what ends up on the cutting room floor.

"That's left up to me," Sabol said. "I think I have a good sensitivity about what can be shown and what can't. I would never show anything that would affect the competitive phase, give away terminology. I will say if something comes up, if there is a question in my mind, I will talk to Marvin. But that's something that has been left up to us. I want to sleep at night. Wednesday moring or Tuesday night if we have something in I say, 'Gee i don't know the background,' I certainly don't want to embarrass anyone. ... Maybe something in a coaching meeting, terminology that is very sensitive, we take that out. The bottom line is affecting the competitive phase. ... We wouldn't be here even talking about (a show) if there wasn't a trust factor."

Greenburg thanked Sabol for "luring" Lewis and Bengals president Mike Brown into the project. Sabol admitted he had to do some arm-twisting with Lewis through their prior relationship, and Lewis said the idea was discussed with Bengals vice presidents Katie and Troy Blackburn before they went to Brown and he signed off on it.

Sabol and Greenburg ticked off a variety of reasons for approaching the Bengals. They were looking for an AFC team after doing an NFC team last season and the legacy of Paul Brown appealed to them in the 50th anniversary season of the AFL. Plus, they were looking for a team that goes away to training camp and Georgetown's proximity to Cincinnati was a bonus. And unlike the Cowboys last season, the Bengals have more roster battles shaping up.

But in the end, it seemed to come down to Lewis and while the local media may have its struggles with him from time-to-time, he remains a national darling. Sabol called him "our leading man," and said a charismatic head coach is a key for the program. Greenburg called him a "Denzel Washington-Tom Hanks."

Lewis said he had been approached in seasons past, but didn't think the Bengals were mature enough. He's not worried about the camera giving an artificial hue to the most important part of the season.

"I think our football team is beyond that point," Lewis said. "I think we've got a mature group of guys that are fighting for jobs. They won't notice the cameras. We know there'll be special things that guys will be a part of; I think that way we're mature enough. Steve has approached me before and we didn't come to the same conclusion. This time I did because I think we're in a different step in the team's maturity and where we are. I think it's great for our fans. I felt like we could handle this."

NFL Films figures to have production numbers that include 50 people on the ground for 50 days with a minimum of four two-man camera crews that may double at each preseason game. There are also six robtoic cameras that will be placed in meeting rooms, offices and the weight room. It is all shot in high definition.

Plus, NFL Films will wire six coaches and/or players at each practice, which gives them a total of 120 wirings during camp. For the first time the series is going to use a "phantom camera" that shoots up to 1,000 frames per second, or 10 times as slow compared to the game cameras.

"What we do is pull out the unique story lines that develop through training camp," Greenburg said. "We don't manufacture any of it. I feel very strongly about that. We don't have people losing weight because we want to showcase it on television. They lose weight because (Lewis) wants them to lose weight. It's important to us that everything you will see on this show is real."

What the Bengals have going for them is that Lewis' '01 Ravens had the best record of any team that has done the show, making the playoffs at 10-6 before getting knocked out by the Steelers. They were the only ones that made the playoffs. The '02 Cowboys went 5-11, the '07 Chiefs went 4-12, and the Cowboys last year finished out of the running.

They also have other another Knocks veteran in defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, known for regularly dropping the F-bomb on the field. No problem for HBO, a few bleeps removed from NFL Network.

No problem for Sabol, either, since he's brushed up with just about everybody in the league. He worked with Zimmer seven years ago in the Cowboys' first Hard Knocks appearance and just the very mention of his name gets Sabol waxing poetically.

In fact, he pulled out a Mark Twain quote for the occasion.

"Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer," is how it reads and Sabol added, "We have no problems with Mike. He's a great communicator.  When we did the (first) Cowboys Hard Knocks, he gave us some of our most memorable sequences."

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