Last week on Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals, we finally got our first intimate look into the 2013 Bengals.
Coming off their second consecutive playoff performance, this was a team looking to make the proverbial leap to Super Bowl contention. They brought in a bevy of new playmakers on both sides of the ball, added some new members to Marvin Lewis' coaching staff, and began staking claim to what they hope will be an AFC North crown.
Last Tuesday, we got our first glimpse into what life was like for these players. How new characters like James Harrison fit into the locker room, how rookies acclimated themselves to NFL lifestyle, and, most importantly, who would be the most entertaining players and coaches to watch this season.
A yearly inside look at the inter-workings of a football team, Hard Knocks is also a television show above all else. It's meant to entertain, and last week's episode did just that.
With a week to judge how they all looked on HBO's wide lenses, did anything change this time around? Here is a complete breakdown of all of Tuesday night's top stories and takeaways from Episode 2 of Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Hue Jackson Continues to Take a Starring Role
As we've come to realize these past two weeks, this Bengals roster is not without its fair share of personalities. Running back Giovani Bernard drives the same vehicle I used to get picked up from pee-wee practice in. James Harrison is a scary human being whose sheer presence last week made NFL.com's Jeff Darlington say he should have been on "Shark Week" instead.
But none have had quite the standout performance of Cincinnati running backs coach Hue Jackson. While I didn't quite notice him blowing kisses to anyone on the sideline this week, Jackson was in rare, impressive form during the program's first half.
He was smack-talking players, giving motivational speeches that were better characterized as dress-downs, and generally looking happy to be showing off his coaching skill set on television. Here is one particular nugget, courtesy of Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer:
Hue Jackson: "I expect the fullbacks on this team to be heat-seeking missiles." #hardknocks— Joe Reedy (@joereedy) August 14, 2013
There aren't many times during this program in which I would call Jackson "fatherly." But that's probably the reason Mark Ennis of ESPN 680 Louisville wishes he was your father instead of his:
I wish Hue Jackson was your dad and that we were friends.— Mark Ennis (@Mengus22) August 14, 2013
Either way, Jackson has probably emerged as the man you most want to have an adult beverage or six with if given the chance. His intricate football knowledge—it's amazing he's not running an offense somewhere—and force of personality would make it worth picking his brain. That said, Will Brinson of CBS Sports said he had the perfect elixir for Jackson's smack-talking, wiseacre ways:
If Hue Jackson talked smack to me I'd just pull out a picture of Carson Palmer eating a hot dog. #HardKnocks— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) August 14, 2013
Then again, the sight of Carson Palmer eating a hot dog is arguably enough to make even the most hardened NFL coach think twice. Just to be fair.
Mike Zimmer: Also Not Boring
Look, I know Marvin Lewis has been through this Hard Knocks process before. I understand. He knows to stick in the background, look like the all-knowing head coach and move on about his day. There's nothing good that can come from being a celebrity head coach if your goal is to, you know, win football games.
But man is Lewis getting outshone by his assistants this year. Zimmer, now in his third Hard Knocks installment, is not known for pulling punches on his players. He's had quite a few colorful quotes over his past appearances on the HBO program, and that's the case whether he's dressing down or praising his players.
For instance, the Bengals drafted SMU defensive end Margus Hunt in the second round of this year's draft. A 6'8" behemoth with otherworldly size and strength, the 26-year-old Hunt is the type of raw physical prospect who could take over a game if he effectively cultivates his gifts. So enthused with Hunt is Zimmer that he may have taken things a little too far in finding a comparison, as pointed out by CSN Houston's James Palmer:
Now keep in mind that this is the same Hunt who, in the same program, was absolutely eviscerated by fullback John Conner on a block. So flattening was said block that Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports basically suggested we do Hard Knocks like Being John Malkovich from now on:
HBO should decide on who does Hard Knocks by whichever team John Conner is on.— Bruce Feldman (@BFeldmanCBS) August 14, 2013
So...not so much like Watt.
But Zimmer was not done entertaining. The episode also covered the Bengals' first preseason game, a 34-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. While much joy was to be had, Zimmer became so displeased with his second unit's effort against Atlanta backup quarterback Dominique Davis that he spouted some words not fit for a family website.
According to CBS Sports' Pete Prisco, however, said words—and the subsequent entertainment value that comes along with—could be just the spice that livens up a boring organization.
Some owner please give Mike Zimmer a job to stir up your stale organization. Do it.— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) August 14, 2013
Terrence Stephens Can Siiing
Not everything on Hard Knocks is about football. OK, most everything on Hard Knocks is only tangentially related to football. But still. Sometimes there are events in these episodes that completely removes you from the fact you're watching football players, captivating you in such a way that any normal television program would.
Such was the case when rookie defensive tackle Terrence Stephens opened his vocal cords to unleash a heavenly rendition of Luther Vandross' "Superstar." Here is a short version of what was arguably the best moment from Tuesday night's episode, courtesy of CSN Bay Area's Kyle Bonagura.
As you can tell, just about everything about that clip is amazing. Whether you credit "Superstar" to Luther or The Carpenters, everyone can appreciate a stellar rendition of an amazing song. Plus, when you get done applauding Stephens' built-for R&B voice, go back and watch Harrison's reaction. There may be no man on the planet who enjoyed himself more in that moment than No. 92.
ESPN's Bomani Jones, like the rest of us, was amused:
this dude is singing luther vandross with james harrison in the front row. this is SO funny. #hardknocks— Bomani Jones (@bomani_jones) August 14, 2013
dog, “superstar" is james harrison’s JAM. i bet he told buddy to sing it again. i bet he sang it again. #hardknocks— Bomani Jones (@bomani_jones) August 14, 2013
Digging a little deeper into this moment, it seems this isn't the first time Stephens wanted to sing in front of the cameras. Dan Hoard of the Bengals' official website got some of the backstory on the former Stanford standout's singing prowess, and it seems he once stood before Simon Cowell and the American Idol judges.
“I was 16 and it was something that I had always wanted to do,” Stephens said. “I didn’t get as far as I wanted to, but it was an interesting experience to say the least.”
He may not have impressed Simon enough to gain international fame, but he did James Harrison. I'll let you be the judge on which one you'd rather impress.
John Skelton vs. Josh Johnson: Who Will Be Cincy's Backup QB?
Back on the field, the Bengals' battle to see who will back up quarterback Andy Dalton took center stage. John Skelton and Josh Johnson both came to Cincinnati this offseason looking to resurrect flailing careers, both having worn out their welcome in previous locations.
Skelton played seven games with the Cardinals last season and had a quarterback rating of 63 over the course of 20 appearances in Arizona. Johnson has had fewer opportunities, but somehow boasts an even lower efficiency over his career at 57.7.
Suffice it to say, Bengals coaches are hoping that Dalton stays healthy this season no matter who ultimately pulls ahead. Marvin Lewis shed light on Johnson's struggles during practices, pulling no punches on what he thought of the former fifth-round pick, per CBS Sports' Josh Katzowitz:
Marvin Lewis on Josh Johnson at practice: "His accuracy is ... horrible."— Josh Katzowitz (@joshkatzowitz) August 14, 2013
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden later noted Skelton's slowness getting to the line and lack of urgency in the huddle. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller pointed out that the former Fordham standout was probably a bad fit for the team regardless of his play-calling speed:
You *do* wonder why the #Bengals picked up QB John Skelton when he's a really poor fit for their offense.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) August 14, 2013
Through one preseason game, though, it looked like neither player particularly had an advantage. Skelton connected on a beautiful seam route with Dane Sanzenbacher for a touchdown en route to a 4-of-5 performance for 72 yards and a score. Johnson went 9-of-16 passing for 100 yards, adding a touchdown to Brandon Tate in the second quarter.
With just a few weeks to go until the regular season starts, it will be an interesting next few episodes of Hard Knocks. Will it be Skelton or Johnson under center? Will Mike Zimmer and Hue Jackson continue their show-stopping ways? Will Stephens sing again?
We'll find out next week.
Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals will continue its five-episode season Tuesdays at (10:00-11:00 p.m. ET/PT), on HBO. There is also an encore every Wednesday at 11:00 p.m., culminating in the Sept. 3 season finale.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: