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HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks’ starts preparing for Raiders

Updated July 20, 2019 - 4:30 pm

ALAMEDA, Calif. — For “Hard Knocks” creators, this is a difficult period.

The wait.

An NFL Films crew visited Derek Carr’s home Thursday in the East Bay, recording footage of the Raiders quarterback as training camp nears. More filming has transpired elsewhere, such as Napa, to prepare some of the earliest shots in the HBO program’s Aug. 6 season debut.

But in mid-July, cameras can capture only so much.

“It’s a little frustrating,” said Ken Rodgers, an NFL Films vice president and coordinating producer who works as “Hard Knocks” showrunner. “We sort of feel like football players on a Saturday. We just want the game to start.”

From New Jersey, Rodgers remotely will oversee a 32-person, Napa-based team documenting the Raiders’ training camp and preseason. The NFL club, which did not volunteer for the five-episode series, boasts a breadth of storylines and personalities befitting the platform. Rodgers assured that football nonetheless will be at the show’s heart.

In the six-week period between minicamp and when rookies report to training camp Tuesday and veterans arrive Friday, it might have been tempting to work substantially ahead.

NFL Films could steer the first episode’s narrative and thus save itself from the frantic weekly race to edit thousands of hours of footage before a Tuesday airtime. It could sit with guard Richie Incognito, whose intertwined bout with mental health and legal issues produced a two-game suspension to start 2019, for an expansive interview.

It could do something similar with rookie defensive lineman Ronald Ollie, a charismatic roster underdog and former star of “Last Chance U” on Netflix. It could lean on wide receiver Antonio Brown and linebacker Vontaze Burfict or follow around coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock.

Slap on some meeting and practice footage. Arrange for Liev Schreiber to narrate.

Call it a show.

Although these personalities are largely what inspired a loud clamor this spring for the Raiders to be selected for the show, “Hard Knocks” is not about personalities — at least entirely. The show prides itself on documenting camp storylines as they develop without subjective commentary.

By definition, such footage must derive heavily from camp.

So, while fair to expect maybe a scene or montage capturing Brown’s training habits similar to the attention Cleveland Browns wide receiver Jarvis Landry received in the 2018 “Hard Knocks” debut, only so much content will be predetermined. Rodgers prefers to allow Gruden’s team meetings and practices to deliver the thesis statement and tone for what’s to come.

“You can’t prepare to tell the story,” Rodgers said. “Authors outline a book. Filmmakers have storyboards. That’s impossible on ‘Hard Knocks.’ You can think all you want, but what happens on a daily basis is so unpredictable that you get a little frustrated in July.

“You want to be doing work to make August easier, and there is no amount of thinking about stories that really influences how much you work in August. What happens every day is beyond our control.”

Raiders in Napa

“Hard Knocks” did not follow the Raiders last year.

Had it, amid defensive end Khalil Mack’s holdout, the thesis would have involved Gruden’s deeply personal pledge to resurrect the Raiders. His romanticism toward this task and football in general might have lent “Hard Knocks” to paint a picture of how the Raiders’ mystique, while not an obvious fit amid the backdrop of vineyards and romantic retreats, pairs oddly well with Wine Country under Gruden.

Some of this thesis still applies in 2019.

Gruden is merely entering his second season on the job. He is now accompanied by Mayock, who similarly waited patiently before transitioning from a broadcast booth to the NFL. They share the task of restoring a franchise with one winning season in 16 years.

“I’m attracted to this team because it’s a great football story,” Rodgers said. “The personalities will be there. That’s always helpful in terms of being a storyteller. But Jon Gruden isn’t a ‘Monday Night Football’ analyst anymore, and Mike Mayock isn’t a TV analyst for NFL Network anymore. They are football men trying to turn around a football team that has a lot of questions in terms of roster spots.

“This isn’t a team done making its transition between philosophies in coaching staff, and it’s not one that’s just starting. We’re witnessing a team that is 100 percent focused on improving on the football field. To me, the personalities come along with ‘Hard Knocks,’ but I believe this is going to be one of the most football-oriented years that we’ve ever had because the stakes are very high at so many positions across the roster.”

To that end, “Hard Knocks” will proceed accordingly.

Brown is sure to attract attention. So will Incognito, Burfict, Gruden and Mayock. The same likely goes for Ollie and others, a case for airtime easy to build for those such as rookie defensive end Maxx Crosby — a former member of a rap group in high school who freestyle rapped inside the locker room on at least one occasion this spring— and Mandarin-speaking linebacker James Cowser.

But there is also the position battle at tight end, where Darren Waller can heighten his comeback from substance abuse and seize a valuable opportunity to succeed Jared Cook.

There are battles at myriad positions, everywhere from cornerback, left guard and backup quarterback to punter and long snapper. Rookie wide receiver Keelan Doss attended high school a 10-minute drive from Raiders headquarters in Alameda and is contending for a 53-man roster spot.

Cameras on camp

The Raiders are scheduled to relocate from Oakland to Las Vegas in 2020.

Rodgers anticipates Las Vegas — when owner Mark Davis or other team officials visit the city — could make an appearance, but otherwise, relatively little time will be spent there or in Oakland since the Raiders largely practice in Napa, play one preseason game in Oakland, one in Canada and two more between Glendale, Arizona, and Seattle.

Gruden, considered among the game’s most loyal students, is romantic about football and the Raiders.

So is NFL Films.

“I think people are expecting a reality show,” Rodgers said. “This sometimes gets called a reality show, but it’s a documentary program that stands back and watches what’s happening, and what’s going to be happening in Napa Valley isn’t high jinks and all that.

“It will be football. It has to be because this team needs to work very hard to get to where it needs to be. I think that’s a storyline that people don’t expect right now, but once they see the show, they’ll see this team is serious about football.”

More Raiders: Follow at reviewjournal.com/Raiders and @NFLinVegas on Twitter.

Contact reporter Michael Gehlken at mgehlken@reviewjournal.com. Follow @GehlkenNFL on Twitter.

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