On the 2010 New York Jets, you don't want to be called "kid." "Old man" is fine, as would be any number of expletive-heavy strings of words. But "kid" — that's a death knell. That means you can be easily infantilized, a polite way of saying you have a long way to go.
That's especially true on a team facing the level of expectation of this one, widely considered to be a Super Bowl contender, after a loss in the conference championship last season. The choice of the Jets as the focus of "Hard Knocks," the annual docuseries created in partnership between HBO and NFL Films that follows an NFL team in the period leading to the regular season, only highlights the pressure the team faces. Whether the Jets shine or flounder, there will be more than the usual number of cameras there to capture it.
But for a team with a voluble head coach, Rex Ryan (who has promised a Super Bowl victory); a superstar holdout, cornerback Darrelle Revis; and a quarterback with model looks, Mark Sanchez, dominating the sports pages every day, there's little room left for suspense. Why would you need to give additional narrative structure to a team so compelling in real time?
As a result, "Hard Knocks: Training Camp With the New York Jets" (HBO, 10 p.m. Wednesdays) suffers for the potency of its subjects. It's easy to be entranced by this team in real life, but to have them bound by the conventions of instant documentary — a format more considered than reality television but without the patience afforded by hindsight — is only a hindrance. (Each week's show revisits roughly the previous week's activity.)
These are characters who, refracted through the highly stylized lens of NFL Films, have been slightly stripped of their heroic stature. Over the past four-plus decades, NFL Films has learned how to film the sport and its stars in almost pornographic detail.
"Hard Knocks" is a weekly advertisement for the Jets, of course, but more so for football itself. The stars here aren't Sanchez or Tomlinson or Holmes or Gholston but glistening biceps and artfully synchronized practice drills. Even though some players are spotlighted, an air of interchangeability hangs over the series; it could be the Dolphins facing a conundrum at fullback or the Panthers who struggle with cutting eager rookies early in training camp.
The most amusing details captured on this show, which runs for two more weeks, are the ones that probably aren't particular to the Jets: a system of petty fines for even pettier infractions (though it seems as if Ryan's snack fines might stack up, even if he did lose 50 pounds in the off-season — his commitment to pretzel M&Ms seems emphatic).
More so than any player, Ryan is an obvious star, an easy candidate for a post-retirement life as a TV analyst, talk-show host or sitcom anchor. He jokingly does a bed check in Revis' empty room. He guffaws easily when shown the entries to a snarky online caption contest for a photo of him looking particularly elated. He swears relentlessly but not maliciously. He groans about "cruising the Baltic with my in-laws" in the off-season.
Most importantly, while all the players around him are overexerting themselves, he appears relaxed, which is surprisingly compelling to watch.
For all its immersion and despite the omnipresence of cameras — even stationary ones, presumably designed to catch the athletes and coaches in natural state — "Hard Knocks" is interested in a glossy route to glory, leaving plenty of stories hinted at but not fleshed out.
Will Revis ever consent to be on camera, even if he can't commit to a new contract? (He's captured here only in absentia — the Jets' general manager seen speaking with the star player's agent on the phone, or a folder with his name on it that goes unclaimed.) Does veteran fullback Tony Richardson resent essentially having to train the player who appears to be his eventual replacement, John Conner? Can Sanchez, in only his second year as a pro, become the leader a championship team really requires, or will he remain the sometimes gleaming, sometime sulky young man who regularly appears to expect to be called "kid" at the next bad throw?