The moment the Houston Texans were announced as the featured team on Hard Knocks this season, it already promised to be a more exciting installment than last year's soporific Falcons showcase. It may not seem obvious at first, but the Texans are the perfect team for this five-episode peek into the reality, or at least the reality television version, of NFL training camp.
Sure, other teams are more dysfunctional -- the 49ers, for example, dealt with an unprecedented amount of misfortune this offseason that their "who are these people? what's going on?" vibe would feel like a continuation of True Detective Season 2. And the Jets just lost their starting quarterback because of a sucker punch from a (former) teammate, which can't even be considered the lowest point for that franchise.
Others have more outspoken members, or at least players who would threaten to monopolize the entire show, whether it was LeSean "Chip Kelly is a racist" McCoy or engulfed-in-DeflateGate Tom Brady.
The Texans, on the other hand, offer a little from column A, a little from column B. They will scrape with another team during a joint practice, but they don't have the baggage of a team that's known for ineptitude at every turn. And they boast several scene-stealing characters, but everyone seems willing to share the spotlight.
A few notable cast members:
- Bill O'Brien, who is basically Bill Belichick Jr. with the haunted look of a man who had to deal with Penn State fans for two years. Fluent in coachspeak and tells the media things like, "We just have to improve as a team and then we'll win some games."
- J.J. Watt, star defender with a Tom Hanksian Q Score. Seriously, the only people who don't like J.J. Watt are either those who are way too proud of being contrarians or ones who are still not over the Caroline Wozniacki-Rory McIlroy breakup.
- Vince Wilfork, the world's greatest farter.
- Romeo Crennel and Mike Vrabel, the Bunk and McNulty of the defensive staff.
- The best* QB battle in the NFL between former Tom Brady backups Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett. Granted, the competition is just the Bills, where Rex Ryan would rather trot out 55-year-old cancer survivor Jim Kelly as quarterback, and the Browns, who are never allowed to have the best anything and currently have 55-year-old Josh McCown holding off Johnny Manziel.
So, did the first episode deliver on the promise of a more entertaining season, or did it end up being another neutered product put out by the NFL? Well, let's just ask the head coach:
And on that note, a few takeaways from the premiere:
Bill O'Brien has more of a personality than he's given credit for
... but not the vocabulary, as I'm sure his mother would agree:
OBrien saw first episode of Hard Knocks and said he called parents and told them not to watch (language). "I may get a call from my mother"— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) August 11, 2015
Although those string of F-bombs (episode count: 13) he let loose get all the attention, they weren't the only glimpse we got of the kind of coach O'Brien is once you strip away the canned responses to reporters. Even with generic motivators like "be competitive!" and "work hard!", O'Brien gave off an "I WILL RUN THROUGH A BRICK WALL FOR YOU" energy and encouraged every player to play for each other. He grilled the rookies so they knew their teammates and the franchise, while also coming across as more playful than many would suspect.
And with what was probably the highlight of his summer, O'Brien got the best of the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
J.J. Watt erred like a mere mortal (And then was, well, J.J. Watt)
Watt said that, despite numerous attempts from his head coach, he had never jumped offsides during practice. O'Brien promised he'd mess up eventually -- "we're going to get you," he taunted -- and then Watt did, in fact, jump offsides. He even had to run a lap, much to the delight of his teammates.
Other than that minor mistake, Watt proved that he's still probably 99 percent superhuman. In one workout, he flipped 1,000-pound tires -- 65 times in one day.
And after the defense got chewed out by Crennel, Watt took over the huddle and challenged his teammates to do better. But Watt also challenged himself, and then practiced under the lights with just company of a tackling dummy -- and a crowd of adoring fans. He stuck around for more than an hour after his solo practice to sign autographs and talk to the fans, and even apologized to them for being sweaty.
But we also found one person Watt hasn't won over: Washington wide receiver Pierre Garcon, who exchanged words with Watt during the teams' joint practice.
DeAndre Hopkins is gonna ball out this year
With longtime Texan Andre Johnson signing with the Colts in the offseason, Houston has a wide receiver hole to fill. DeAndre Hopkins was the team's top receiver last season, and if there were any doubts that he'd be able to lead the way once again without Johnson's presence, the highlights of Hopkins in the episode should lay those to rest.
Not only did he snag one-handed catches and run crisp routes, but after Washington's DeAngelo Hall got in his face, Hopkins responded by breaking Hall's ankles:
So yeah, Hopkins looks ready to be whichever quarterback's No. 1 target. Just don't ask him to return punts. Jerry Rice didn't.
The QB battle competition is zzzzzzzzzzz so far
The only real lull in the premiere came when the quarterback competition took center stage. We didn't get much insight into the battle: Either Hoyer or Mallett will start and no one is really ahead in the race. In a nutshell:
Just to show how easy it is to overlook these guys, when the Texans traveled to Virginia, the equipment staff forgot to pack the quarterback jerseys. Hoyer especially seemed perturbed having to wear a Washington jersey.
Breaking news: Injuries suck
O'Brien dropped his sixth F-bomb of the episode when he found out that running back Arian Foster injured his groin, and then talked to the team about how even though it was a bummer, injuries are a part of life in the NFL and other players have to step up.
Linebacker Reshard Cliett, a sixth-round pick, also became the latest rookie to tear his ACL before the season has even started, joining fellow first-year players Dante Fowler, Jeff Heuerman and JaCorey Shepherd. O'Brien, though, was optimistic that Cliett would be back and ready to contribute in 2016.
Line of the night
It's a tie between:
"I puked on the ball" - center Ben Jones
And the city of Richmond's new spokesman, Johnathan Joseph, with some O'Brien-esque language
If the Texans can get their season off to the same kind of promising start, then they might just make it back to the playoffs this year. They just have to figure out what to do about the quarterback position first.
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