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Don’t buy into players’ hype based on Hard Knocks

HBO is producing drama, not a true-to-life documentary.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Training Camp Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, HBO gets a lot of people hyped up about a few unknown players on Hard Knocks. They’re so fun and charismatic, and the coaches praise them! The coaches seem to really like them! It’s all TV.

Hard truth: HBO can find ways to present almost every player on the roster in this way. When Dirk Koetter and Jason Licht were about to cut Evan Panfil, they talked extensively about how much they liked him. They still cut him. Coaches like many players, but ‘like’ is not enough to make a roster.

All of this to make a point about Riley Bullough, who’s being hyped up based on one episode of Hard Knocks where Dirk Koetter praised his leadership. The middle linebacker actually has a path to the 53-man roster or practice squad, given the team’s lack of depth at that position. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him make the roster.

But whether he will or won’t make the roster won’t really be something we can see on Hard Knocks alone. And it won’t just be about the vocal leadership Koetter praised: football players need to be good at playing football. You can be the most inspirational, shoutiest leader around, it won’t matter if you can’t actually play the game.

There’s one reason for this: HBO isn’t making Hard Knocks to actually present the realities of NFL training camps, but to get viewers—to tantalize them with drama and storylines. And that means manufacturing them from the raw footage they have—and they have a lot of that. HBO camera crews are everywhere around One Buc Place.

In creating those storylines, though, HBO doesn’t really know how they’ll end. They can have some indications from coaches and the front office, but even they don’t know whether Riley Bullough will make the roster at this point. HBO has had rising-star-narratives end with duds before—Geraldo Boldewijn in 2015 with the Atlanta Falcons comes to mind, for instance. It happens.

So instead of focusing on who the coaches talk about on Hard Knocks every week, we should be focusing on how they play on the field, both in training camp and in preseason. That’ll tell us a lot more about who’s in and who’s out. And see Hard Knocks for what it is: a glimpse behind the scenes, but mostly just TV drama.