Welcome to the Hard Knocks Power Rankings. Each Wednesday, I’ll list the most interesting characters and storylines from the previous night’s episode of the HBO football reality series, which this year—obviously—follows the Cincinnati Bengals through training camp.
Full disclosure: this article conceit is a complete and utter rip-off of Mark Lisanti’s Mad Men Power Rankings over at Grantland. I can’t even pretend that mine was a semi-original idea before I then discovered that Lisanti beat me to it. Nope. I’m just a huge fan of that column. I simply thought, I’m going to do a Hard Knocks recap in the same vein as Grantland does the Mad Men rankings, because those are brilliant and funny and I want to try to be brilliant and funny too. So thanks, Mark. I hope you didn’t trademark this.
And now, to the rankings.
“Hands off the merchandise.” —Jay Gruden, nervously talking to James Harrison about AJ Green.
1. James Harrison
Episode 1, and a newcomer already owns the top spot. I almost broke this into two separate rankings—“James Harrison’s middle finger” and “James Harrison’s I’m-going-to-eat-you face” (which is the only face he has)—but the two truly go hand-in-scary-as-hell-death-stare. His disdain for HBO cameras and HAPPINESS OF ANY KIND is hilariously terrifying. I have no idea how productive Harrison can still be out on the field, but this offseason signing was completely worth it, if only for watching Jay Gruden wet himself at the thought of Harrison decapitating AJ Green and holding his head out in front of the entire team like he’s a character from Game of Thrones.
2. Giovani Bernard
Another new guy that got plenty of face-time last night. Between the rookie running back driving his girlfriend’s mom’s Honda Odyssey and juking half of the defenders out of their shorts, he’ll be a fun guy to root for this season. I can’t wait until Episode 3 when he forms a giant water slide from his new apartment at The Banks into the bro’d-out swimming pool 10 stories below (sooooo many tribal armband tattoos). Side note: with fellow running back Bernard Scott’s chances of making the final 53-man roster only slightly better than my own, it’s now a matter of time before Gio adopts the ‘Nard Dog nickname.
3. Hue Jackson
A man of many talents: trash talking, hype man, growing a devious-looking goatee, making Mike Zimmer smile, “coaching” any position on the field, earning a head coaching gig with Oakland before throwing away two high draft picks for Carson Palmer’s corpse and then weaseling his way back to the Bengals while Palmer rots behind center out on the West Coast. He’s a Renaissance man.
4. Players and their cars
We already mentioned the new ‘Nard Dog driving his girlfriend’s mom’s minivan (he’s a big fan of the automatic doors). Then there was Pacman Jones running out of gas while driving to the first day of camp (and wishing he could “make it rain” gasoline), as well as AJ Green sliding into a shiny black BMW (which I’m assuming he didn’t pay a single cent for, which is perfectly fine with me). The best part? AJ could probably catch a bullet if you shot at it him, but he can’t figure out how to put an automatic car into gear. “Just push that button on the left of the knob, then slide it back to the ‘D’.”
5. Andy Dalton
Slinging touchdowns, rocking V-necks, and strengthening his core with Pilates, from Fort Worth all the way to Cincinnati.
6. The Oklahoma Drill
It’s the most exciting/barbaric part of Bengals training camp, the only way players can measure their manhood on television without having it blurkled out (though it is HBO, so maybe not). It’s one offensive player and one defensive player trying to pound each other into the earth while the rest of the players jump around like the 12th man on an NBA bench, all brought to you via a Cloverfield-style camera angle and set to the sweet sounds of Fall Out Boy. I don’t know how much footage HBO took of this, but I would have watched it into eternity.
7. Geno Atkins
So futile and doomed are the efforts of the offensive linemen attempting to block him. They’re just kids, dammit! They never stood a chance.
8. The Wes Anderson-style slow-motion walk
HBO cameras love the slow walk more than MTV cameras loved aerial shots of Hollywood on The Hills. I kept expecting Bill Murray to come sauntering out of the Bengals weight room flanked by the special teams unit.
9. Mike Zimmer
Will win running away with the good-thing-this-is-on-HBO-because-man-does-that-guy-drop-a-lot-of-F-bombs title. Now go take your kids to effing soccer practice.
The new ‘Nard Dog writes love letters to his lady and carries them around in her momma’s van. Dalton has his wife spot him while using the wimpy Bowflex machine and wears a rubber wedding ring on the field. Pacman’s wife puts him on blast for his aversion to unleaded fuel while waiting for AAA. AJ recently got engaged and will be more than happy to take his fiancé for a spin in that fancy new car as soon as he figures out how to put it in drive. A few years ago, you couldn’t distinguish the Bengals on Hard Knocks from an episode of The Wire. Now the team has the street cred of a door-to-door insurance salesman. The times they are a-changin’.
Honorable Mention: AJ Green AKA The Merchandise, Vontaze Burfict’s purple golf shirt, Andre Smith’s love of drag racing, Taylor Mays discussing invisibility on airplanes, the assistant coach who steals mini bags of Doritos.