Bengals latest to take 'Hard Knocks'

AP Photo/Al Behrman

Running back Giovani Bernard was the target of jokes early in "Hard Knocks."

The return of the NFL season also means the return of one of the best shows on television, "Hard Knocks." Over the past seven seasons the documentary series, produced by HBO and NFL Films, has proven to be must-see reality TV.

It's got more absurdly funny situations than "The Jersey Shore" (i.e. Jets punter Steve Weatherford buying the entire team shake weights) and features catchier catch phrases than "Honey Boo Boo" (Ochocinco's "Kiss the baby," Rex Ryan's "Let's get a goddamn snack").

It's got more profanity-laced outbursts than a "Top Chef" Quickfire (Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff), more "You are the father!"-type moments than an episode of "Maury" (Antonio Cromartie trying to remember the names of all of his kids) and more dead-eyed, blindsided moments of rejection than "The Bachelor" (Vontae Davis being traded by the Dolphins, the Chiefs' Casey Printers getting cut).

"Hard Knocks" gives football fans a closer look at the players and coaches they watch on Sundays and a rare peek inside the locker rooms, practice fields, hotels and training rooms that these guys call home.

The eighth season of the show, which premiered Tuesday night, takes us back to Cincinnati for a second look at the Bengals, who were the focus of season five. The first episode sets up a new batch of compelling characters, memorable lines and tough-to-watch moments.

Spotlight stealers

Hue Jackson: The Bengals running backs coach, formerly the head man in Oakland, establishes himself as a "Hard Knocks" star early on in episode one. He provides levity, poking fun at rookie running back Giovani Bernard for driving his girlfriend's mother's minivan to camp, blowing kisses to players during practice and wandering through defensive drills, distracting players and earning the ire of fellow coaches.

Jackson also brings sage advice garnered from over a dozen years coaching in the pros. "The draft don't mean nothing now," he counsels the rookies the night before camp starts. "You gotta bring your 'A' game. There are a bunch of grown men who are going to fight you to keep their jobs, and your job is to take their jobs. People think training camp is a feel-good session. It's not. It's a grind."

Giovani Bernard: The target of Jackson's jokes early in the episode, the diminutive rookie running back was a second-round selection for Cincy in this year's draft. From driving that Dodge Odyssey minivan around to writing his girlfriend love notes, getting hot tub partiers at his new apartment to yell "Who Dey!" and gamely bouncing right back up from every hit in practice, he's sure to be a fan favorite.

Comic relief

Adam (don't call me Pacman anymore) Jones: The cornerback's camp gets off to a dubious start when he runs out of gas two blocks from the stadium.

Bruce Taylor: The rookie linebacker talks a big game heading into the conditioning test, but has to tuck his tail between his legs when the sprints get the best of him. "I can't get up," he says sheepishly, seemingly glued to a chair in the locker room. "Every time I stand up, I be about to fall."

Taylor Mays: The Bengals safety gets caught up in the details when he noses in on a throwaway conversation about enviable superpowers. "If I'm invisible, I can travel anywhere I want," says a teammate. "But you still have to go through security."

Room checks: When curfew hits, the coaches make the rounds to ensure that guys are in their rooms. Whether it's stealing their snacks or telling them to kick out the girls and get to bed, it's a great look at how training camp sometimes resembles summer camp.

A different world

The Oklahoma Drill: Just when these guys look ready for s'mores and arts 'n crafts, "Hard Knocks" reminds you that Bengals camp is nothing like your beloved Camp Tamawakee. At the end of one practice, the whole team circles around for The Oklahoma Drill, football's answer to a bare-knuckles brawl. As you watch guy after guy get pulled, twisted and thrown to the ground, you're reminded just how tough this job can be.

Notable quotables

AP Photo/Al Behrman

James Harrison comes to the Bengals from the Steelers and will make sure his views are known.

James Harrison: The simply terrifying linebacker, formerly of the Steelers, is in his first season with the Bengals, but he already looks perfectly at home, talking back to his coaches and making life miserable for the "Hard Knocks" crew. He's constantly mean-mugging, flashing the bird and closing doors in camera people's faces -- and he isn't any easier on his teammates, either.

"We don't touch the merchandise. Ever. Not without pads," Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden tells Harrison after he makes contact with star wide receiver A.J. Green in one of the team's first practices.

"The merchandise is gonna get touched," Harrison replies, coolly. "I ain't gonna kill him, but I ain't gonna let him get the job done because that mean I ain't doing mine."

"Just relax," Gruden warns, but it's clear who's really in charge around here.

"Understand?" says Harrison, not backing down. "Do we understand each other? That's all I need to know."

Gruden, no doubt hoping to live to see another day, acquiesces. "We do. I'm sorry … but seriously, don't hurt this [redacted] guy."

Hard Knock life

Larry Black: There have been many heartbreaking moments in past seasons of "Hard Knocks," but few have been tougher to watch than the training camp injury to undrafted free agent Black. The promising young defensive tackle dislocated his ankle early in camp, ending his season before he ever got a chance to earn his spot.

Watching the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Black crying on the trainer's table while he tells his parents about the injury, you're left wondering if he'll ever get another chance. This rare look at how any given moment can be the end of a season or even a career for an NFL player -- this is what makes "Hard Knocks" special.

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