Not so Hard Knocks

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Hue Jackson's passion. Larry Black's heartbreak. James Harrison's glower.

All in all Tuesday night's first episode of the Hard Knocks Bengals, 2013 edition, proved to be entertaining and absorbing, if not a bit lighter and bouncier than its 2009 big brother.

A little more Modern Family and a little less House. Maybe the NFL is trying to soften the edges a bit, knowing they are going to ask/command teams to get into a rotation to do the documentary.

But a lot of it has to do with the state of the Bengals, a team seemingly comfortable in its back-to-back playoff skin.

Four years ago the first show seemed heavier and edgier. There was Carson Palmer trying to come back from an elbow injury, the Bengals locked in a tractor pull of a contract holdout with first-round draft pick Andre Smith, the looming volatility of something called Chad Ochocinco, and the 4-11-1 disaster of 2008 fogging every lens.

But not this trip.

The only question about quarterback Andy Dalton in Episode 1 was if he could survive the ribbing of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden scalding him about his rubber wedding ring. Not only is the first-round draft pick signed, but Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert is showcased and extolled while catching everything but pneumonia. The optimism of another playoff berth is reflected in the breathtaking sunrises over Cincinnati caught by an NFL Films helicopter.

What the two episodes share is the riveting unfolding of a catastrophic injury.

Four years ago the filming of trainer Paul Sparling telling tight end Reggie Kelly that his season was over with a torn Achilles was compelling and rare television and may have been a major reason that series won an Emmy. This time it was defensive tackle Larry Black, but this was even more dramatic.

Kelly was a key player, an 11-year veteran and the spiritual leader of the locker room. He took the news sadly, but also softly and stoically with a few tears about an injury that was invisible, occurring merely while taking a step.

Black is a promising undrafted rookie, a Cincinnati kid from Wyoming High School who worked hard with two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins and other Bengals at Ignition Sports even before the draft. He suffered a sickening injury the cameras caught, a broken leg and dislocated ankle when linemate Wallace Gilberry accidently was rolled into him.

The cameras also caught Gilberry's anguish as he told his mates on the sideline what happened and then the weeping Black in the training room barely able to talk on his cell phone as he explained to his parents he was going to the hospital.

With its skilled cameras and ever-present boom mikes, the show portrayed how fragile seasons and careers are. They captured the relief of wide receiver A.J. Green and the coaches when the team's best player was told he simply had a knee bruise after falling on it awkwardly.

"That wouldn't have been good," says defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer when head coach Marvin Lewis told him, "We dodged a bullet."

It also shows that friendly fire isn't so friendly. On second look, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins severely sprained his ankle stretching out to catch a pass just before cornerback Brandon Ghee desperately and unsuccessfully tried to avoid stepping on his legs.

Even the ultimate insider, Hard Knocks, doesn't know how long Hawkins is out.

Sparling, by the way, is going to end up in every athletic trainer's textbook video, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's Christmas card list, and wide receiver Marvin Jones's memory bank.

When Jones confessed to Sparling that he felt a little ringing when his head hit the ground after laying out for a deep incompletion, Sparling immediately took him out of the practice. When Jones tried to take it back, Sparling cited NFL protocol on concussions, and when Jones still tried to talk his way back on the field, Sparling said he was doing it for Jones's son.

Cue Marvin Lewis Jones III toddling into his father's arms after practice.  

But other than that and the Black moment at the tail end of show, it was pretty light, featuring some Gruden one-liners and Jackson's incessant bantering with the defense and constant coaxing of his running backs.

Jackson, the former Raiders head coach who worked under his good friend Zimmer last year as a secondary assistant, is a gold mine for the cameras and mikes. So are Zimmer and Gruden, the other two head-coaching candidates on a gifted staff that appears the series is going to highlight for the remaining four episodes.

Zimmer is caught jokingly telling Jackson to stop bothering his players during practice as he basically asks if the running backs have it all figured out. Gruden's "Don't Touch The Merchandise" conversation on the field with Harrison is priceless after the former Steeler apparently had roughed up Green a tad in that first practice.

"I'm not going to hurt him, but I'm not going to let him do his job if I can't do mine," says the animated Harrison.

"Sorry James," says the laughing Gruden, then adding, "but don't touch that bleep."

And there were a few bleeps, but they didn't all belong to Zimmer. Oh, he dropped some, but if his first Hard Knocks with the Cowboys in '06 is in part to blame for his crusty image and one of the reasons he has yet to be hired as a head coach, then the cameras also captured why he deserves a shot. Lewis and the players clearly believe in him.

"I don't have to like you and you don't have to like me," Zimmer tells his guys. "It's about winning."

Zimmer's delight when Harrison blows up an unsuspecting fullback symbolizes how good of an acquisition the Bengals believe he is. But it's not a great pickup for Hard Knocks. Harrison has made good on his promise not to give the cameras anything but his play on the field.

He blunts the camera at every turn and even gives the finger to the robo camera in linebacker coach Paul Guenther's office. The middle finger also is prominently displayed inching up to his ear as he senses the lens on him in the meeting room, and when the camera tries to catch him getting interviewed by Jim Miller of Sirius NFL Radio, he swivels around on his chair to give them his back.

There are also some pretty funny off-field scenes.

» Cornerback Adam Jones's wife waiting for help right near the stadium when Jones ran out of gas on his way to the first day of training camp.

» Linebacker Vontaze Burfict breaking the windshield of a passing car during his round of golf with fellow backer J.J. Schaffer and the cameras getting reaction from the driver.

» Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, happily noting he's got his own room in his fifth season during training camp, then dropping his own F-bomb in surprise when he checks the rooming list and sees the name of someone he doesn't think deserves it.

» Safety Taylor Mays pondering at the end of practice while the players stretched to conversation of superheroes, "What is Wonder Woman's power?"

When they didn't show the lighter side of camp, the storyline mirrored Gruden's "This year the Super Bowl is expected," and it's just not a concept on a T-shirt.

A little different than '09. But Larry Black may get Hard Knocks that same Emmy. 

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