Hard Knocks: looking back and ahead


Chris Pressley

Steve Sabol, the late legendary president of NFL Films who knew a thing or two about good television, said in 2009 that "ratings-wise, and from critical acclaim," the Bengals version of Hard Knocks had been the best to date. Four years and two documented training camps later—the Jets in 2010 and Dolphins in '12—it's highly debatable that the '09 version still reigns king. But if at first you do succeed, try, try again.

Consider first that the 2009 version of Hard Knocks won an Emmy for outstanding edited sports series/anthology, despite one of the fastest edit-to-air turnaround times in television. That's due largely to Sabol's immensely-talented NFL Films crew, but a few compelling storylines along the way didn't hurt, either.

The 2009 version surely set the bar high. But only 13 current Bengals were around then, and only a handful of those were featured on the show. So where will the entertainment come from?

One of those few remaining Bengals featured on the 2009 show is fullback Chris Pressley. The show documented Pressley's humble beginnings in Woodbury, N.J., his journey into fatherhood and a resulting toughness and humility that earned him instant respect. Undrafted and a long shot to make the squad, he battled tooth and nail for a roster spot with veteran Jeremi Johnson and rookie seventh-round pick Fui Vakapuna.

Pressley made the practice squad and was picked up in October by Tampa Bay. He eventually found his way back to Cincinnati the next season, where he has remained ever since.

Now a fifth-year player, Pressley is rehabbing from a season-ending knee injury, and if healthy, figures to battle John Conner, another former Hard Knocks star, for a roster spot. Conner earned national notoriety on the 2010 version of the show with the Jets, as his hard-nosed style garnered the admiration of head coach Rex Ryan.

If Pressley can return from the injury in time for camp, he and Conner—two of the more endearing figures in the series history—will tough it out with second-year player Orson Charles, who this season is making the transition from tight end to H-back.

One of the other more popular storylines was the roster battle between safeties Tom Nelson, a college free agent, and Corey Lynch.

Lynch first tugged on viewers' heart strings when the show documented a story of him racing to the aid of the driver whom he saw crash along a Kentucky interstate. The driver survived and credited Lynch as the "hero" who saved her life.

Lynch stayed in contact with the driver, and cameras followed during a captivating scene in which the driver and her family reunited with Lynch on the field after a practice.

The unassuming Nelson, though, would capture the hearts of viewers as well. Cameras followed the ever-modest Nelson and his girlfriend, Jenny, as the two adjusted to post-college life in a new city. In a memorable scene, the two enjoyed a horse-drawn carriage ride through downtown Cincinnati, and when asked what brought them to the city, Nelson replied, "Job searching." One of 2009's happiest scenes also came via Nelson, when in the final episode head coach Marvin Lewis called him to deliver the news that he had made the roster.

A human interest story that comes to mind with the current Bengals squad involves rookie sixth-round pick Rex Burkhead and his friendship with seven-year old cancer patient Jack Hoffman of Atkinson, Nebraska. Burkhead drummed up the friendship during his college career at Nebraska, and last spring he masterminded a plan to let Hoffman suit up and run for a touchdown in the Huskers' annual spring game. President Obama took notice of the story and invited Jack, his family and Burkhead to the White House for an April 28 visit.

Perhaps Burkhead and Hoffman will be featured, or maybe there is another similar story waiting to be told.

While Lynch and Nelson set the bar high in 2009 with their fascinating stories and roster battle, this year's training camp also figures to produce a few red-hot battles in the secondary for roster spots and starting positions.

Up for grabs is the starting safety spot opposite Reggie Nelson, and there is no shortage of candidates. Talented, instinctive and soft-spoken, rookie third-round pick Shawn Williams of Georgia is perhaps the fan favorite to land the position. However, second-year man George Iloka drew rave reviews from Lewis in the spring and took most of the first-team snaps during practices. Veteran Taylor Mays, a hard-working physical specimen with a big reputation from his college days at USC, will try to work his way into the mix as well. Also in consideration are second-year player Tony Dye, who missed last season due to an ankle injury, and special teams ace Jeromy Miles.

Add to the position battles the open starting spot at center. Veteran Kyle Cook, who suffered an ankle injury in training camp last year and returned late in the season, will battle Trevor Robinson and rookie seventh-round pick T.J. Johnson for a starting spot.

Cook has long been highly-regarded by the coaching staff for his smarts and leadership. But in Cook's absence last season, Robinson more than held his own. In the seven games that he started, the Bengals averaged 144 yards rushing.

Rounding out the battle is Johnson, who at 6-4, 310 pounds, has the size and strength (32 bench-press reps at the NFL combine and a two-time winner of South Carolina's award for effort in the weight room) of an NFL veteran.

One of the more entertaining storylines from 2009 was the college-to-pro adjustment of the team's rookie third-round draft pick, tight end Chase Coffman. Coffman's development was put under the microscope after veterans Reggie Kelly (Achilles) and Ben Utecht (concussion) suffered season-ending injuries early in camp. Both injuries were documented by the show.

Tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes drew plenty of laughs by giving Coffman a heavy dose of tough love, making him one of the more quotable coaches on the show. And this season, Hayes has another rookie to bring along – first-round pick Tyler Eifert of Notre Dame. Joining Eifert in Hayes's tight end room will be Jermaine Gresham, Alex Smith and Bryce Davis. Charles also figures to work some with the tight ends.

The most drawn-out news story of the 2009 camp was undoubtedly the contract negotiation and resulting holdout of the team's first-round pick, tackle Andre Smith. The saga was documented heavily by Hard Knocks. Cameras captured chatter around the facility, and a crew even ventured to Alabama to catch a glimpse of Smith as he worked out during the holdout. Even tackle Augustus "Gus" Parrish, the player brought in to fill Smith's roster spot during the holdout, was documented. Players mercilessly teased Parrish for his resemblance to former American Idol judge Randy Jackson.

Only one rookie (Eifert) remains unsigned this year, but most feel that a prolonged holdout is not in the cards this time around.

But Smith could again find himself the focus of Hard Knocks attention this season. In April, he signed a new, lucrative deal to stay in Cincinnati, but he's since been absent from the team's offseason activities due to personal reasons. His absence has sparked media attention, and his return figures to attract a heavy spotlight as well. Count it as a possible storyline.

And then there were the personalities. Of course there was receiver Chad Ochocinco—now, again, Chad Johnson—whose frequent quips and popular catch-phrases ("child please," "kiss the baby") may have been the most lasting impression from the show. And there was veteran tackle Tank Johnson, whose lightheartedness, sense of humor and infectious personality stole the show's first few episodes. A famous scene—considered one of the show's funniest—in which he struggled to build a bed for his young daughters showed Johnson as more of a family man, and helped him to shed his previously-negative reputation.

As has been much-discussed, Cincinnati's current crop of top players—Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson—don't figure to seek out the camera a la Ochocinco and Johnson in 2009.

But for those looking for a dose of personality or family in this year's version of Hard Knocks, don't fret. Second-year receiver and family man Marvin Jones, father of two young boys, could be a candidate for a similar role. As could cornerback Adam Jones, whose story aligns similarly to Johnson's. Like Johnson, Adam Jones is a proud and active father to two young girls, and his positive presence inside the Bengals locker room could surprise critics.

While Ochocinco's unique brand of comedy is a thing of the past at Paul Brown Stadium, a current wide receiver could be poised for this season's spotlight. Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, who just a few summers ago was sleeping on his friend's couch in Toledo, caddying and driving a forklift, is known throughout the facility not only for his compelling story, but also his good-natured sense of humor and infectious personality. Hawkins is considered the cut-up amongst a mostly modest group of receivers.

Finally, there remains the intriguing storyline of Cincinnati's newest big-name addition, James Harrison. The 35-year old linebacker's arrival in Cincinnati after nine decorated seasons with division rival Pittsburgh is sure to be addressed, as he will not only be adjusting to a new locker room, but also to a new 4-3 defensive scheme.

Hard Knocks has become known for, among many other things, letting its audience in for a glimpse into the most fascinating figures on each team. With developing storylines and frequent roster moves, it's anyone's guess as to whose stories become the most memorable. For every Ochocinco, there waits a Pressley, Lynch and Nelson.

The Bengals roster currently stands at 89 players. Take your pick.

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