The season premiere of Hard Knocks — HBO’s critically acclaimed reality TV show that explores the exhausting, intense world of NFL training camps — is Tuesday night, and Dolphins coach Joe Philbin is a bit nervous.
But not for the reasons you would expect.
Philbin isn’t particularly concerned that the show, with its focus this year on Miami’s pro football team, will expose some great secret or flaw that will give his opponents a leg up. Instead, he is worried about grossing out the program’s millions of viewers.
Over the summer, Philbin sat down for a one-on-one shortly after treatment for skin cancer (non-life-threatening, to be clear) that left his face red and swollen.
“Am I scared? Yeah, I’m scared of me on TV,” Philbin said with a chuckle last week. “I’m not scared about the information leakage. I’m not even worried about that one bit.”
Like it or not, HBO — and NFL Films, which produces the five-episode documentary — is about to make Philbin a star.
For the first time in the series’ seven seasons, Hard Knocks features a team with a first-time head coach. Philbin’s journey from a largely anonymous coordinator in Green Bay to the face of one of the NFL’s legacy franchises is a natural major story line, said Rob Gehring, the show’s director.
“It’s certainly been illuminating to see what he goes through,” said Gehring, whose show will air Tuesdays at 10 p.m. “He now has to worry about things like fencing and signage, as opposed to just coaching.
“There’s a lot more demands on his time, which he is getting used to. It’s neat for me to see.”
Same goes for Dolphins fans and reporters who still are just getting to know Philbin, the eighth coach in team history. The show, which condenses some 300 hours of footage each week into a glossy, 52-minute product, will give them that chance.
Philbin is more professorial than fire-breathing and certainly is a change of pace from the last coach featured on Hard Knocks. That was the Jets’ colorful general, Rex Ryan, whose signature moment in the 2010 season was berating his team with a string of naughty words during a meeting, then signing off by screaming, “Let’s go get a [expletive] snack!”
Meanwhile, Gehring, whose crew is allowed unprecedented access, hasn’t heard Philbin utter a single curse word yet, although he has raised his voice when warranted. Philbin will come across as stern but trusting of his lieutenants to do their jobs without micromanagement, Gehring added.
That’s not to say the show will lack for characters.
Any team with Chad Johnson, Miami’s say-anything wide receiver who last week joked with reporters about his illicit partying with Kiss bassist Gene Simmons, will be entertaining.
Gehring acknowledged what many assumed — that Johnson will be a central player in the series. Hard Knocks will also focus on the team’s three-way quarterback battle, which Gehring said is as close behind closed doors as the team represents publicly.
“I’ve personally never viewed this as a reality show,” Gehring said. “It’s a documentary series. We’re trying to document what we’re seeing here. They understand you’re not trying to be salacious or gratuitous.”
As for the show’s primary subjects, the players, they’ve had to adjust to camera crews following their every move.
For running back Reggie Bush, it’s a bit of a nuisance, but that might be because the novelty of a reality TV life has long worn off. He lived through it once before during his much-publicized courtship of celebutante Kim Kardashian.
“If I get a chance to watch it, I’ll watch it,” Bush said, nonplussed.
But for lesser-knowns like defensive end Jared Odrick and center Mike Pouncey, it’s a chance to let their personalities shine through. NFL Films has shadowed both so far.
At the time of this interview, Gehring didn’t actually know what will be in Tuesday’s premiere — he won’t see it until Monday night. He just oversees the shooting of the show and then feeds it back to the NFL Films headquarters in New Jersey for editing.
In years past, the show was shot on HDCAM, and crew members on the ground had to ship video tapes back daily. But for the first time, Hard Knocks is using digital memory cards, allowing Gehring to instantly feed footage the same day it has been shot.
When Gehring finally does get a chance to watch, he will make sure that the few areas the Dolphins have restricted — like not airing anything that would put them at a competitive disadvantage or that might violate medical privacy restrictions — do not appear on TV. But there has been no team veto over any footage that might have put a player or coach in less than the best light, at least not as of Friday.
“They don’t have final say, and I’m very careful about that, but they do have final approval,” Gehring said. “But they will put their eyes on it Monday night.”
That means, like it or not, Philbin will have to come face-to-face with himself soon enough.• After a day off Sunday, the Dolphins return to practice Monday.
The morning session, held at Nova Southeastern University, begins at 8:40 a.m. and is open to the public.