The natural state of the Bengal fan is that of Pittsburgh Steeler-based paranoia. From Kimo von Oelhoffen breaking Carson Palmer to A.J. Green being carted off the field following his glorious touchdown leap over dandruff-sufferer Troy Polamalu, the Steelers have been breaking Bengal hearts and limbs for years. So when the Hard Knocks cameras caught Jay Gruden asking newly acquired ex-Steeler James Harrison not to destroy Green during practice (cuz, you know, he’s on our side and all) that familiar sense of dread began to creep in. Harrison replied with the cold, dead eyes of a killer (although, to be fair to James Harrison, I believe he also eats birthday cake and tickles puppies with the cold, dead eyes of a killer) that should A.J. “The Merchandise” Green cross his path in practice, he, James Harrison, would be doing “his job” and blasting Green into oblivion. He may have been joking. But it will now be some time before any Bengal fan can entirely shake the suspicion that, rather than being a savvy off-season pick up, James Harrison was sent here by the Steelers to bring us down from the inside.
From the moment the opening sequence flashed Marvin Lewis in designer reflective sunglasses, looking like he’d shown up to a costume party as David Caruso from CSI Miami, you had to wonder what the Bengals were thinking in re-appearing on the show. Given that Chad Johnson’s potential Hall of Fame career virtually collapsed when he realized that it was kinda fun to be on television, it seems like a surprising choice to dare history to repeat itself. That said, the only Bengal who appeared desperate to use the cameras as a self-launching pad was running backs coach Hue Jackson. Jackson spent most of the show doing his best David Brent/Michael Scott impersonation, although of course this might just be what he is like in real life. Either way, he’s making sure every player at camp hates him, while simultaneously nodding and winking at the camera as if to say, “They really love me, don’t you know?”
Marvin wasn’t the only guy to make the opening credits. Viewers were also treated to the site of Rey Maualuga hitting a tire with a crowbar. It would be entirely unfair to ask HBO how many takes they wasted as Maualuga ran past the tire, swiped the crowbar ineffectually in the air, and then spun around looking cross and confused…although it would be fun to know. Soon, however, we were back to Marvin, who at a party for the Bengals staff got stuck with a plastic solo cup instead of a glass. Presumably Mike Brown didn’t even need to say to him, “I know it’s second rate but it’s cheaper and it’ll do the job,” as those words are just permanently etched into Lewis’ psyche. But the subsequent shot of him with a Swiffer, quite literally cleaning up everybody else’s mess with a sad air of inevitability was frankly too much metaphor.
Spirits were raised by the amusing sight of Adam Jones running out of gas on his way to the stadium, as he conceded that he “just didn’t have the mind” to think about the amount of fuel he had, presumably as his brain was too busy considering the comparative merits of Derrida and Foucault to focus on filling up the tank. Likewise, there was something pleasingly appropriate about the segment in which HBO showed just how fast these athletes sprint in competition, before zooming in on Andre Smith gently riding a stationary bike. Seeing linebackers coach Paul Guenther nervously ask Harrison if he wouldn’t mind, ya know, maybe trying this one play Guenther has thought up (but if you don’t like it, you don’t have to, honestly, thanks for even thinking about it, really) could have triggered memories of Bengals teams of old, but this group—one hopes—is different. There are the rookies, to start: TE Tyler Eiffert appeared to catch anything within a 30-yard radius, and Gio Bernard managed to be both utterly adorkable (yep, I used it; it’s the 10th anniversary of The O.C., gimme a break) and terrifyingly quick. Most of all, the sheer athleticism of this team was highlighted in The Oklahoma Drill. HBO had allowed us to listen in on the offensive coaches conceding they literally had no idea how to stop Geno Atkins, and the matchup of the day was Geno against Jermaine Gresham. If you’ve ever seen Gresh without his jersey on, it is terrifying—his shoulder muscles are bigger than my head—and the fact that he had to cheat in order to beat Geno was both amusing and an exciting reminder that the Bengals genuinely have one of the best players in the game on the D-line.
The hardest part of Hard Knocks is often when the show lives up to its title—the tears were jerked in Episode 1 as DT Larry Black’s season ended before it began with a broken leg. Eagles fans—who only have one receiver able to play this year as the rest are out due to torn ACLs or being racist—may have little sympathy for the demise of an undrafted rookie, but in a show that dealt predominantly with the humor in Andy Dalton wearing a rubber wedding band and Vontaze Burfict’s terrible golf, watching Black’s heartbroken call to his parents on the way to the hospital was a poignant reminder of how fragile and ephemeral the majority of NFL careers are.