Hard Knocks is NFL Films/HBO's chronicle of one NFL team's training camp. It shines a spotlight on the workings of camp, such as underdogs trying to make the team. (One of the more amusing highlights was the 2010 season, featuring the New York Jets, in which running back Danny Woodhead was labeled an "Eagle Killer," but then ended up becoming a "Jet Killer" for the Patriots that same season.)
Except for 2011, when it didn't air because of uncertainty regarding the NFL lockout, Hard Knocks has aired every season since 2007 (and in 2001 and 2002).
NFL owners recognize both the value of the program and the reluctance of many teams to shine that spotlight on themselves. As a result, according to Ian Rapoport and Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, NFL owners passed a rule that allows the league to mandate teams to appear on the program.
Before drafting a team to appear, the NFL will ask for volunteers. If no team volunteers, then the NFL will choose a team. There are three cases in which a team would be exempt from being chosen.
First, teams that have appeared on the program in the last 10 years are exempt. That would remove the five franchises that have appeared since 2007: Cincinnati, Dallas, Kansas City, Miami, and the New York Jets.
Second, it would exempt any team that has a first-year head coach. Obviously, predicting which teams would be exempt under that rule would require a crystal ball, although Jacksonville at a minimum looks like a prime candidate.
Finally, it would also exempt any team that has made the playoffs in either of the two previous seasons. So, for the 2014 edition of Hard Knocks, that would eliminate any team that makes the playoffs this season, as well as the 12 teams that made the playoffs after the 2012 season. In addition to Cincinnati, which is already exempt, that removes Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, Green Bay, Houston, Indianapolis, Minnesota, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, and, of course, the New England Patriots.
This comes as welcome news, I would imagine, for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Given his penchant for secrecy—witness this exchange regarding Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski's injuries—I can't imagine how angry he would be if he were forced to have cameras during training camp.
On the other hand, I have to wonder just how opposed he truly would be to it. After all, he did agree to allow NFL Films to wire him for sound for every single game the Patriots played in 2009; that served as the basis for the two-part premiere of NFL Network's A Football Life.
As long as Belichick continues to get the Patriots into the postseason at least once every two years, they'lll be exempt from appearing on Hard Knocks. That's a shame, in my opinion—I think most NFL fans, let alone most Patriots fans, would love to see what happens inside Patriots' training camp.
I also think it's a missed opportunity for the NFL, as well: If the Patriots were to appear, I would be surprised if it didn't set ratings records. The NFL would have been better off finding ways to entice teams they want to appear on the program (maybe they pay a certain portion of the coaching salary, or even a certain amount of money towards stadium improvements) rather than forcing teams to appear.
So for now, Patriots fans, the only way we're likely to see the Patriots on Hard Knocks is if Belichick ever chooses to let that happen.
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