Commentary

'Hard Knocks' still resonates with Jets

A year after the HBO show aired, memories are fresh for Rex Ryan and Gang Green

Updated: August 27, 2011, 11:22 AM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

One year later, Rex Ryan still gets reminded of his hilarious "snack" line from the HBO series "Hard Knocks." In fact, he noticed many fans on his spring book tour wearing T-shirts with his name on the front and the quote splashed across the back:

"Let's get a g--damn snack!"

"I wish I was getting some of the residuals off those T-shirts," the New York Jets' coach said with a laugh.

The Ryan speech that spawned the famous line still resonates, evidenced by more than 300,000 views on YouTube. (There's a backstory, but we'll get to that later.) The reality show, a behind-the-scenes look at the Jets' training camp last summer in Cortland, N.Y., made a lasting impact.

The show comes up on occasion, like this week. With the Jets scheduled to practice Thursday night at Hofstra (it ended up being canceled because of rain), Ryan was asked about the great cheeseburger controversy from last summer.

Remember that episode?

Before practice, some of the defensive backs hit a nearby McDonald's and brought back burgers for the group, which devoured the fast food during the stretching period. Ryan found out and lashed into the team a few days later. Suddenly, the Jets were perceived by some to be an undisciplined outfit.

This time, Ryan joked that they would eat the cheeseburgers on the bus trip from New Jersey, avoiding any public embarrassment.

For five weekly episodes last summer, the Jets were must-see TV. The nation got to know some of the characters on the team, mainly Ryan, whose incessant cursing in team meetings and on the field drew the ire of former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy and sparked a controversy.

To this day, Ryan is bothered by the perception that he has a dirty mouth.

"I never cuss in interviews," he said. "I cussed there because it's a different environment. I would be hypocritical if I changed."

"Hard Knocks" wasn't a pleasant experience for running back Joe McKnight, whose rookie struggles became a storyline. In private meetings that became public, the coaches were hard on McKnight, questioning his toughness and focus. It was the precursor to a difficult season, one he's still trying to live down.

"Last summer was hell," McKnight said. "The 'Hard Knocks,' it got to me. I'm the type of person that likes to read all the blogs and what people are saying about me, and it wasn't anything good during 'Hard Knocks.' I started to believe what people were saying."

In his apartment in Philadelphia, a Temple wide receiver named Michael Campbell watched the show every week with great interest. He said the Jets' culture (a "rugged mentality," he called it) reminded him of his team at Temple. He felt an instant connection with the Jets, saying it was one of the reasons he picked them over the other teams that offered him a free-agent contract.

The Jets are known as a camera-loving team, but they don't particularly miss the 24/7 glare.

Asked if he's experiencing "Hard Knocks" withdrawal, GM Mike Tannenbaum said, "I most certainly am not. That's not how I roll."

Ryan: "Absolutely not."

After a pause, he backtracked a bit, saying, "It wasn't that bad. You never really noticed it. They had those little cameras all over the place. The only thing I noticed was the helicopter" -- a reference to a miniature chopper that flew over the practice field one day, filming.

One of the reasons why the Jets decided to do the show was to open their world to millions of strangers, to tell their story in what amounted to a weekly infomercial in prime time. The show, which won three Emmy Awards, increased the team's profile and helped market the Jets' brand.

"We believe we're a national team and 'Hard Knocks' exposed us to a national audience," said Matt Higgins, the Jets' executive vice president of business operations. "Wherever we go, on business trips, people will come up to [team owner] Woody [Johnson] and say, 'I fell in love with the Jets on "Hard Knocks."

"That's the greatest legacy of the show. We pulled back the curtain and it brought the Jets into everybody's living room. It had a tremendous impact on us."

Higgins said they didn't do the show to sell tickets, but he acknowledged it had an "immediate effect" on sales. When fans called in to buy tickets, they sometimes referenced "Hard Knocks," according to Higgins.

He has lost count of how many times he's heard fans recite the "snack" line or the "pizza" quote. The latter occurred when gruff special-teams coach Mike Westhoff chided a young linebacker named Brashton Satele, suggesting he "might want to open up his freakin' pizza shop in the Bronx and leave me alone."

Higgins said the Jets will consider "Hard Knocks" in future years, if asked. For now, the cameras are gone, but the players still have ways to keep their fans up to speed on behind-the-scenes stuff.

"It's a little weird not having the cameras always around, but we make up for it with our Twitter battles," center Nick Mangold said. "We let people in that way."

But Twitter won't produce any classic moments like the "snack" line, which Ryan later used while speaking at a coaching clinic in Alabama. The original line came on the eve of a preseason game, a fiery speech in which Ryan ripped the team.

Backstory: There's always a team snack after Ryan's meeting.

"I always end everything with, 'Now let's go eat a snack,'" he said. "That time, something else popped out."

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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