Eric Risberg / AP
Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Over the past year, the Raiders have produced a show called From the Ground Up that updates progress being made on their under-construction Las Vegas Stadium. Now fans will get a behind-the-scenes look into the team set to begin playing there next season.
HBO and NFL Films will feature the Raiders on this year’s Hard Knocks, the Emmy award-winning documentary series that annually follows a team through training camp and the preseason, beginning with the premiere at 10 p.m. Aug. 6.
“I think this could be the greatest introduction for many Vegas fans to this team,” says Ken Rodgers, Hard Knocks show head and vice president of NFL Films. “This is a team in transition in many ways, and the next stop is Las Vegas, so we consider it a real-time look at what you can hope to see for decades to come.”
When the Raiders were revealed as this year’s Hard Knocks team in June, many local fans asked, “Why not next year,” when the organization officially arrives in Las Vegas. That was never a part of the consideration, according to Rodgers, who also warns against expecting the show to cover much of the impending relocation.
HARD KNOCKS 2019
• On TV: Tuesdays, August 6-Sept. 3 on HBO
Raiders’ preseason schedule:
• August 10 vs. Rams
• August 15 @ Cardinals
• August 22 vs. Packers
• August 29 @ Seahawks
• Online: HBOgo.com
The five-episode run, he stressed, is not a reality show setting out to explore external storylines. For 13 seasons, it has followed a documentary format and will continue to be more concerned with chronicling what goes into getting an NFL team prepared for an upcoming year.
“This is a unique show in that it’s very present-tense,” Rodgers says. “There’s not a lot of history, not a lot of backstory. What happened this week is what’s on the show. So if players or coaches or front office staff are talking about Las Vegas and it’s a big storyline, it will certainly be on the show, but my guess is they’re more concentrating on what they can do to be a better football team.”
Fans aren’t the only ones who sometimes misunderstand Hard Knocks’ objective—the teams often do, too. Every season, franchises are reluctant to appear on the show but come around by the end of the process, Rodgers says.
The Raiders have certainly already fulfilled the oppositional phase. They were one of five teams available for HBO and NFL Films to select this year—the NFL provides exemptions to teams that either have a first-year head coach, made the playoffs in the past two years or already appeared on the show within the past decade—and initially, the Raiders publicly resisted.
Coach Jon Gruden tried to pass the assignment off on the Detroit Lions, while owner Mark Davis was also outspoken against the idea. “It would be disruptive,” Davis said at an owners meeting, according to Sports Illustrated. “We’ve got a lot of business to take care of, get ready for the season. I appreciate that they might think we’d be great TV, but we’ve got something to accomplish.”
Davis then reportedly joked that he would be tempted to fire coach Jon Gruden to dissuade the Raiders from being selected. At least he clearly understands why his team is enticing to cameras: It’s loaded with personalities.
Both Gruden and first-year general manager Mike Mayock spent years as popular television analysts before rejoining the NFL. Among players, Derek Carr is as fiery and animated as NFL quarterbacks come. The Raiders’ most prized free agent acquisitions on both sides of the ball, wide receiver Antonio Brown and linebacker Vontaze Burfict, were heated rivals for nearly a decade as members of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, respectively. The team will also lean heavily on three rookies drafted in the first round—Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell, Alabama running back Josh Jacobs and Mississippi State safety Jonathan Abram—to try to break a streak of 16 seasons without a playoff win.
“There are real stakes with this team,” Rodgers says. “There are a lot of positions up for grabs and a lot of urgency to get this right, get this roster where the coach and GM want it to be. More than their transitory location, it was how their roster was transitioning that, to us, made it a team that was really going to shine on Hard Knocks.”
Hard Knocks viewers can expect the star players to be profiled to some extent, but there are few guarantees for the rest of the roster. The show prides itself on finding the best stories, especially among players on the fringes of the roster. NFL teams are allowed to host 90 players at the start of the training camp but must cut down to a 53-man roster for the regular season.
The Raiders hold camp at a training complex in Napa, California, where a Hard Knocks crew of more than 30 arrives before the first team staffer gets to work each day and leaves after the last one departs. The Hard Knocks crew transfers video by the hour to NFL Films headquarters in Mount Laurel Township, New Jersey, where Rodgers oversees the whole operation and works with 25 editors.
Rodgers said each weekly one-hour episode is compiled from an average of 360 hours of footage. The process becomes easier when the featured team comes loaded with questions and narratives, and regardless of which town they call home, the Raiders fit the bill perfectly this year.
“Many teams’ main goal right now is not to suffer any injuries and stay the course if they were successful last year, maybe polish a little more here and there,” Rodgers said. “The Raiders don’t have that luxury. They’re in the middle of finding out who their team is, what their team is. That’s going to provide some great television.”
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.