Hard Knocks comes to Los Angeles

Listen to this article

The TV show Los Angeles has been waiting for has finally arrived: “Hard Knocks: Training Camp With the Los Angeles Rams” aired last night and from the first moments of the first episode it is clear this is a Los Angeles Story as much as it is a football documentary. All the usual Los Angeles/Hollywood iconography shows up in the first few minutes and then throughout the show. And you can’t miss the palm trees in nearly every outdoor shot. A funny thing in itself because palm trees are not native to California.

Peter Nelson, HBO Sports Executive Vice President
Peter Nelson, HBO Sports
Executive Vice President

But that’s the thing about Southern California: there are a lot of things — especially residents — that are not native to California. You can find millions of football fans, but at least half of them will be fans of other teams, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, or the Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos or Green Bay Packers.

And so it’s fitting that this season we have a team that is a native Southern California entity, but moved away and is now back home — and at least for two seasons in their former home, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Question is: how many of these football fans will be Rams fans? Judging from the reaction so far, the team should be getting large crowds to their games. Maybe not enough to fill all 90,000-plus seats in the Coliseum, but enough to satisfy the team and the league.

The HBO and NFL Films series, Hard Knocks is in its 10th season since 2001, when it started with the Baltimore Ravens after they won the Super Bowl.

They were followed by the Dallas Cowboys, the Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, the Cowboys a second time, the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, the Bengals a second time, the Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans and this year, the Los Angeles Rams.

The most asked questions in Rams Training Camp are about rookie quarterback Jared Goff
The most asked questions in Rams Training Camp are about rookie quarterback Jared Goff

The show is taking a new turn, featuring for the first time a West Coast team and a franchise that has moved from one city, St. Louis, to another: Los Angeles. The first episode didn’t spend a lot of time in St. Louis, other than to show the offices closing up, so the focus of this team is on the Los Angeles side of the move.

Last pre-season the Rams spent some time in Oxnard with the Cowboys, training in Southern California. That gave local fans some fire in their bellies about their team coming home. A year ago it was still uncertain which team — or teams — would be moving to L.A.

The Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers were looking to move as well and many believed one or both of those teams would now be in L.A. But Rams owner Stan Kroenke bought some land for a new stadium and entertainment complex in Inglewood, on the site of the old Hollywood Park Racetrack and the NFL couldn’t ignore a commitment like that. It didn’t hurt to have the entire city of Inglewood — The City of Champions — behind the plan.

The Raiders and the Chargers have the option to join the Rams in the new stadium, once it is built, but at least in San Diego, the city and team are moving ahead with a downtown stadium to complement the convention center.

But the Rams got the okay from the league to move and they wasted no time.

Sports broadcaster Lindsay mcCormick
Sports broadcaster Lindsay mcCormick

The team started their California journey in Oxnard, where they practiced with the Cowboys a year ago. They did the OTA’s, Organized Team Activities, sort of like a warm up to training camp. But once those were over the Rams headed south to UC-Irvine, in Orange County. Training Camp got underway officially on July 30 and the next day the fans were invited to watch practice.

If ever there was a show for the fans about the inside story of NFL training Camp, Hard Knocks is it, but for fans that attend the practices in Irvine, they get a look at it in real time, up close with the chance for photographs, autographs and the occasional moment when mom and dad have to cover the ears of the young’uns.

That is no different with Hard Knocks. This is HBO. Players and coaches can drop F-bombs and other choice vocabulary — and they do, quite a bit, including head coach Jeff Fisher.

  • In daytime showings of the program HBO bleeps out all the vulgarities and obscenities.

If you watch Coach Fisher in the press conferences, he is an affable guy with a sense of humor. He laughs about not bringing up Jared Goff first, just to get those inevitable questions out of the way. He is constantly wearing sunglasses and he moves like he is from Southern California. It would not surprise me if he went surfing. But his passion is his home in Montana where he goes fly-fishing.

But still, Jeff Fisher is a southern California guy, more precisely an L.A. guy. He went to school in Los Angeles and then went to USC. He has talked several times about coming to Los Angeles Rams games when he was a kid. This is his town and it shows.

Head Coach Jeff Fisher with the quarterbacks
Head Coach Jeff Fisher with the quarterbacks

Jeff Fisher is a guy with a big heart. When Stedman Bailey was shot in the head last year Fisher was one of the people strongly pushing to make a place for the wide receiver on the team, whether or not Bailey would ever play again. As long as Jeff Fisher is head coach of the Rams, Stedman Bailey has a job in football.

But he’s a tough guy as well. He cut a promising young wide receiver that broke the rules by bringing a woman friend into the dorms the team is using during training camp. You don’t break the rules in Jeff Fisher’s training camp, at least not so flagrantly. Another wide receiver — a valued veteran — didn’t eat a proper lunch, resulting in severe cramping, and that prompted a team lecture from Fisher who explained how these little screw-ups that appeared to be harmless to the team, were indeed detrimental to the progression of every other player in camp.

It’s Fisher’s personality that will grab most of the attention in this season of Hard Knocks — it has to. He sets the tone for the team and he knows it. He runs this team and frankly it’s a “My Way or the Highway” deal with him. You’d think that was the case throughout the NFL, and for many teams it is, but from watching previous seasons of Hard Knocks it obviously isn’t. Win or lose, the primary responsibility rests on the shoulders of the head coach.

That’s not to say executives like Kroenke and General Manager Les Snead don’t have any input, but this is Fisher’s Training Camp. That was one of the developing storylines from the first episode. Once he learned rookie quarterback Jared Goff bought window fans for all the offensive players — but not the defense — he went about arranging to get air conditioners for every player. Oh yeah, the players arrived to accommodations that had no air conditioning, with a heat wave going on throughout Southern California.

Rams General Manager Les snead
Rams General Manager Les snead

Maybe the toughest man on the coaching staff is defensive line coach, Mike Waufle. He’s a former Marine with a bobble head Marine Corps Drill Instructor on his desk. He certainly talks like a Marine, telling his linemen — all of who are bigger than Waufle — they can give it a shot to try and [expletive deleted] him up. Mike Waufle is not a man to trifle with, especially in training camp.

The Jared Goff questions are paramount for most Rams fans. Just from watching this first episode, and some of the footage from training camp, if Goff fails it won’t be for lack of effort. The man is putting in the time to earn the starting quarterback position. On the flipside, Goff and the current starting QB Case Keenum get along. Clearly Keenum has the first chair in this ensemble.

Last season in six games, five as a starter, Keenum threw four touchdowns against one interception. He led the Rams to three consecutive wins over the Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the defending Super Bowl Champions (at the time), the Seattle Seahawks. Although most analysts don’t give Keenum much love, he knows how to play the pro game.

Keenum has been with the Houston Texans and St. Louis Rams — twice in each case.

Fisher and his assistants like Goff and can see him performing at the level they expected when Goff was the number one pick in the NFL Draft. In the first episode of Hard Knocks even the defensive coaches were impressed with Goff. On a lighter note: someone asked the young QB where the sun rises and sets and he didn’t know. Turns out a number of the Rams didn’t know, which must be a little embarrassing. It’s one of the most basic facts of our Earth and sun.

Former Rams running back Eric Dickerson
Former Rams running back Eric Dickerson

On the players’ day off Goff and other players went for a ride on the Goodyear Blimp and others went to The Wedge, considered the most dangerous surf break on the West Coast. It’s in Newport Beach and like all SoCal beaches the locals controlled the waves.

After watching the locals do it, some of these young Rams thought it was easy enough … but they didn’t even get knee deep after watching some impressive wipeouts. One actually called the fins “scuba shoes.” That’s kind of funny. Or watching wide receiver Tavon Austin play Pokémon Go with a young college student. And Aaron Donald, the greatest shirtless ping pong player in the NFL losing to a couple of college students. In Donald’s defense: he had a bad partner.

If you’re looking for a little more … humor and maybe a bit of controversy, at the Gold Carpet event before the premiere, former Rams great, running back Eric Dickerson told our reporter Claudia Gestro, “Training camp in our day,” referring to his generation (1983-93), “was real training camp. I don’t know, it’s kind of soft on these guys [now].”

For Angelenos and fans of the Rams, this is going to be a good season of Hard Knocks.

All photos and video by Claudia Gestro.
Top photo: former Rams kicker Mike Lansford and his wife Jill Haus-Lansford with Rams Cheerleaders.