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Hard Knocks Lead Ken Rodgers Talks Lions' Intent on Restoring Pride in B/R Interview

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured Columnist IVAugust 4, 2022

Nic Antaya/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions are something of a punchline for most fans, and for good reason.

The franchise is coming off four straight last-place finishes in the NFC North and hasn't won a playoff game since the 1991 season. Driving the perception home was the fact Matthew Stafford never won a playoff game in 12 seasons for the Lions just to win the Super Bowl in his first year with the Los Angeles Rams.

Yet this year's Lions team, which will be featured on HBO's Hard Knocks, is out to prove everyone wrong.

"A lot of people think of the Lions and their first thoughts are negative, and that's certainly been the case historically," Ken Rodgers, Vice President and Senior Coordinating Producer at NFL Films and lead creative producer for Hard Knocks, told Bleacher Report. "But this roster is full of players who actually want to be Lions and who are proud of being Lions. And coaches who are proud to wear that logo. They're really intent on restoring the pride of that franchise. That's a big hill to push up. Being able to capture some of that is fascinating to us."

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There is reason for optimism beyond a renewed sense of pride in being a Lion.

Detroit signed 2019 Pro Bowl wide receiver D.J. Chark to pair with Amon-Ra St. Brown after the latter's breakthrough rookie season. It also selected Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson with the No. 2 pick and Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams with the No. 12 pick of the 2022 NFL draft.

That is multiple franchise cornerstones right there, and the sense of urgency and high stakes permeating throughout the entire organization as training camp begins is ideal for Hard Knocks.

"I think people will see a classic Hard Knocks team," Rodgers said. "That is, a team that has a lot at stake across the whole roster. Last year, the Cowboys were favored to win their division and go deep into the playoffs, the year before, we did the Chargers and the Rams—who are now Super Bowl champions. But really, Hard Knocks is always about aspiration. That's why the younger players and the players on the bubble always resonate so strongly because everyone is chasing a dream. The entirety of the Lions staff, front office and roster are still chasing that dream. They haven't gotten there yet. There's a real sense of urgency compared to some camps. There's a lot of camps where the goal is 'don't get anyone hurt.' That's not happening at Allen Park. The goal is getting better and working extremely hard every day. You can sense it in the footage. You can sense that there's a lot on the line and that these guys care about every rep that they take."

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Rodgers revealed the opening episode will largely focus on headline names such as Jared Goff, Hutchinson and St. Brown before later episodes shift as far down the roster as the backup quarterback competition between Tim Boyle and David Blough.

"I even think that some roles like backup quarterback that you wouldn't normally think of can provide tension because it's not set yet who exactly that's going to be," he said. "That role, as we've seen in the NFL, is extremely important."

Boyle was winless in three starts for the Lions last year, while Blough went 0-5 in five starts for the team in 2019. Which one of them establishes immediate chemistry with the wide receiver group may be key in creating separation for multiple position battles.

"The biggest position group will be just a free-for-all battle at wide receiver," Rodgers said. "There's just a ton of young, talented players on this roster without spots at the end of the day. They're all pretty equal in talent, and they're all competing for limited spots. There's going to be some real fireworks with the wide receivers."

While Williams, Chark, St. Brown and Josh Reynolds are safe when it comes to roster spots, audiences may get a chance to see pass-catchers such as Kalif Raymond, Kalil Pimpleton and others battling it out.

Learning more about those players, both on and off the field, is what Hard Knocks is largely about, but it will likely be up to their performances to determine which ones get more shine.

"We're really documentarians," Rodgers said. "As camp develops and as the coaches get impressed with players, that's who we'll be impressed by. We don't create stars out of nothing, we wait to see how they're performing and what coaches are thinking. Who is moving up the ladder and who is dropping down the ladder."

Of course, it wouldn't be Hard Knocks without certain players shining through and becoming fan favorites for more than just their football skills.

Running back Jamaal Williams, whom Rodgers said "has probably the biggest personality on the team," is a candidate to do just that this year.

He's the "king of their TikTok," Rodgers said. "The Lions have the best TikTok in the NFL by far. So he's very open as a personality, and that always helps us get to know people. It's a thin line, but we make sure that if a player is showing off for the camera that we don't use that material. It's when they're acting naturally that their personality comes out."

Detroit Lions @Lions

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Players aren't the only personalities audiences will get to know with a behind-the-scenes look at the Lions.

A coaching staff that includes notable names and former players such as Duce Staley, Mark Brunell and Antwaan Randle El also figures to be under the spotlight.

"I think the personalities are going to be more on the coaching staff than in past years," Rodgers said. "This coaching staff has 80 years combined playing experience, which is incredible. And they're teaching the youngest roster in the league. You have Dan Campbell, the head coach, who has played in the NFL. Mark Brunell is the quarterbacks coach. Duce Staley is the running backs coach. Antwaan Randle El is the wide receivers coach. And Hank Fraley is the offensive line coach. So just on offense you have multiple decades of experience out on the playing field. You don't get to be as successful in the NFL without having strong personalities. They're now teaching this new generation how they did it, and that creates a completely different feel at camp because the guys who are imposing the rules and the discipline have been there themselves."

It is reasonable to expect that Campbell will be a main character.

After all, he is not just the head coach but a former player who is also a quote machine. Whether he is talking about biting kneecaps, bringing the energy or just preparing for a game, Campbell turns heads and is a familiar presence to even casual NFL fans.

However, the ability of Hard Knocks to go beyond the surface-level sound clips will give fans the opportunity to learn more about the Lions' second-year head coach.

"What I will say is that he has proven to be twice as smart as anyone gives him credit for, probably because of the way he looks—which is a complete badass." Rodgers said. "His attention to detail and care for the thought process behind playing the game is something that people overlook. I think it's easy to focus on his quotes, and there will be plenty of quotes that people will enjoy, but I think you'll be just as impressed with the quiet conversations he has with players. And how personal and professional he makes his relationships with players. You're going to get to know him a lot better than you think you do from the press conferences."

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Campbell, the players and the coaching staff will be the features as fans get to know them better, but every good television show needs supporting characters.

A notable supporting character in this year's Hard Knocks?

The renowned Detroit music scene.

"Music is such a focus on this show, we take a lot of pride in our soundtrack listings each week," Rodgers said. "There's definitely going to be some Detroit focus throughout all five episodes. The Hard Knocks original compositions here at NFL Films have a Motown flare this year. And there's always the possibility that famous musicians will stop by training camp themselves and interact with the players. Music is a bedrock of Detroit, and I expect the Detroit music scene over the course of five episodes to be a pretty big bedrock of the show."

Motown won't be the only treat for fans this year, as Rodgers revealed audiences will be even closer to the field than in the recent past.

"The last two years, we've had COVID restrictions so there's been a distance between us and the players," he said. "We tried our best to not show it on screen and get as close to the players as possible and get to know them as much as possible, but it was difficult. This year, there are no COVID restrictions, so I think people will really feel like they're right in the middle of action."

That action begins with the first episode on Aug. 9 on HBO and HBO Max.

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