I love HBO. Year after year, their shows remain just a bit juicier than the stuff found on network television. Maybe it’s because they can get away with more. Maybe the swear words, violence, and adult situations are the key to superior entertainment in America today.
That is certainly the case with Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals. One thing’s for sure, if the Denver Broncos aren’t using this show as a means to study their first regular season opponent, they definitely should be.
Now, I realize Hard Knocks doesn’t give away everything. The Bengals' leadership is smart enough to keep all their real secrets to themselves. However, there’s no denying that teams who participate in this series year after year also reveal their mentality, their attitude, and most importantly, the frustrations with which they are dealing.
Similar to the way that some investment analysts look past fundamentals (the “numbers” behind a stock), much, if not more, can be predicted by things other than systems, playbooks and former stats. Hard Knocks is a great examination of the humanistic, emotional side of the team.
The first thing to look at is the way the Bengals are attempting to soothe the sting of last year’s dismal 4-11-1 season. “Everybody knows how excited we are. We can’t wait to get to work and get that bad taste out of our mouth from last season,” stated head coach Marvin Lewis during the team’s training camp kickoff party.
The slogans “Fight Back!!” and “Sacrifice!!” are constantly repeated and even printed on t-shirts handed out to the players at the start of camp. The point is to never underestimate the recently humiliated, which can be said for both the Bengals and Broncos.
The personalities of the players and the relationships they’ve created with each other can also be very telling. Let’s look at two of the most important players, Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco.
You’ll notice there’s a world of difference between their effect on the franchise and that of wide receiver Brandon Marshall and ex-Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler. While the petulance, selfishness and greed of Marshall and Cutler have dominated Denver headlines this offseason, Palmer and Ochocinco have brought more positive attributes to their preseason environment.
Both are extremely funny, which helps a great deal in keeping the team relaxed and unified. Although Ochocinco’s antics have been a little distracting in the past, there’s no denying his work ethic. The show does a good job of showing how he is, for the most part, able to balance both lightheartedness and seriousness. The things that come out of Palmer’s mouth are hilarious.
At the same time, his skills as a mentor and communicator, even while injured, are helping him manage an offense that is anything but a circus. Numerous other coaches and veteran players are doing their part to create a relatively healthy locker room atmosphere. Anyone with a decent amount of football knowledge can tell you the huge importance of this.
Like any other team, things aren’t perfect for the Bengals. As I said before, players like Ochocinco are a double edged sword. As much as a talented player’s high energy, celebrations and all around mojo can make a team gel, too much of the same can create interruption and overconfidence. Cincinnati’s time in the spotlight on HBO has shown several possible deterrents to a successful opener against the Broncos.
With the likely possibility of Brandon Marshall playing in the opener, an interesting matchup of big headed wide receivers is in the cards. The balance between good showmanship and a good old fashion sideshow could very well wind up tipping in the direction of the bearded woman.
The only difference is that this bearded woman is an NFL receiver who likes to twitter, run his mouth, and pout when the chips are down. If Ochocinco gets in a groove, Broncos beware; but if Denver’s eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey comes out strong like he should, 85’s energy, in the form of frustration, will work just as effectively against the Bengals.
If you think Ochocinco is Cincinnati’s biggest bad boy, then I would have to say “Child Please!” Enter Chris Henry. This guy makes B-Marsh look like an upstanding young gentleman.
His rap sheet includes marijuana possession, driving without a valid driver's license or insurance (2005), concealment and aggravated assault with a firearm, reported connection to an alleged sex crime, a DUI in Ohio (2006), providing alcohol to minors, allegedly failing a court-mandated drug test, allegedly assaulting a 16-year-old boy with teammate Reggie McNeal, allegedly assaulting a valet attendant, violating his probation (2007), and finally, allegedly punching a man and throwing a beer bottle through the window of his car (2008).
On the show, Henry is less than convincing while explaining how he’s going to stay out of trouble. In a preseason game, Coach Lewis has to scold him for celebrating in front of the opposing team’s sideline. Needless to say, Henry might just be a source of negativity for a team that is trying to “fight back.”
While he won’t directly affect Denver in the upcoming matchup, Andre Smith is yet another piece of evidence that points towards the Bengals tendency towards a chaotic franchise and locker room. Smith was suspended from the Sugar Bowl for allegedly dealing with an agent other than his own.
He then proceeded to show up to the NFL Combine and Alabama Pro Day overweight and otherwise out of shape. After holding out through the first three preseason games, Smith fractured his foot just two days after reporting to practice. This whole situation reflects badly on both parties.
Shame on the Bengals for once again drafting a player with a checkered past. Shame on Smith for being more focused on money than on the actual game of football.
Vegas bookies are keeping a close line on this one, with the favor slightly on the side of Cincinnati. My guess is that those same professional score predictors have used HBO’s Hard Knocks as at least one piece of evidence.
That said, when the word "allegedly" shows up too many times in the bios of your players, it’s safe to say that the season will be a gamble. Denver has shown slow but constant improvement. Will it be enough to eclipse the tacky, yet unrefined talent amassed on the Bengal’s sideline?