There's little chance HBO's camera crews will set foot inside the Rams' Earth City practice facility this offseason. It's a shame. The 2014 Rams would make the perfect subject for the cable channel's annual documentary series Hard Knocks, a program that stands alone in delivering the kind of access-rich football stories normally stifled by the NFL's image-obsessed coaches and executives.
Head coach Jeff Fisher told the Post-Dispatch Monday it was "probably unlikely" that Hard Knocks would land in St. Louis, but that's ultimately not his call: A 2013 contract between HBO and the NFL means the league can force an eligible team to participate in the show.
Though Oprah's TV network caved to Fisher's pressure and postponed its planned documentary series on Michael Sam, the NFL should ignore Fisher's protests and choose the Rams for Hard Knocks. Here are four reasons why:
1. Suddenly, we care about the Rams.
For those not familiar with the show, Hard Knocks presents an inside look at an NFL training camp. As with the previous eight seasons, the episodes will follow hopeful rookies as they compete for a spot on the final 53-man roster while the veterans and starters try to solidify their own spots. It's like reality TV, but with more hitting, more pressure and no chance of Juan Pablo making an appearance.
Unlike the ultra-managed stagecraft that pervades media coverage on the NFL, the show gives football fans an intimate perspective. Rather than listening to players mumble "I just want to contribute to the team" for the thousandth time during post-game interviews, Hard Knocks focuses on the human moments between the players and coaches. We want to get to know the Rams the way Cincinnati Bengals fans did last season, like when a defensive tackle sang a melancholic rendition of John Mayer's "Gravity" after finding out he'd been cut. We want to see Fisher fire up his players the way New York Jets fans did in 2010, when head coach Rex "Let's eat a goddamn snack" Ryan delivered the single greatest motivational speech in sports history.
2. Hard Knocks loves underdogs.
The Rams are stuck at the bottom of the hardest division in football. The path to the playoffs this season will go through last year's Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks, the brutally dominant San Francisco 49ers and the scrappy Arizona Cardinals. All had better records last year than the Rams, a team that hasn't sniffed the playoffs since 2004.
However, the upshot is that the Rams are stacked with new talent from multiple high draft picks and headed by a man who knows first-hand how easily coaches can be fired in this league. The pressure will be on during this training camp, where Fisher and his staff will eventually cut the roster from 80 to 90 hopeful players down to the final 53. Hard Knocks excels at revealing the pressure of an NFL training camp, and it would find more than enough dramatic fodder on the Rams.
Continue for more reasons why Hard Knocks should visit St. Louis, including Michael Sam.
3. Hard Knocks is the right kind of "distraction."
Fisher's concern over "distractions" halted the Michael Sam documentary series on Oprah's TV network, but "distractions" is usually a word NFL coaches use when they simply don't want to deal with the media. There's little reason to believe that adding an outside camera crew to the mix would hurt the Rams' chances on the field. Over the past eight seasons of Hard Knocks, four of the subject teams made it to the playoffs during the ensuing season.
Indeed, NFL teams are increasingly isolating and managing its players. Press conferences and interviews are stilted, soundbite-filled affairs from athletes who are taught to distrust reporters. In reality, If Fisher wants to whip his men into shape, cameras won't stop him. If a player hates the cameras, like the Bengals' James Harrison did last year, that's great too. It's just another human side of football we'd never get to see outside of Hard Knocks.
Thank you to the St. Louis Rams and the whole city of St. Louis. I'm using every once of this to achieve greatness!! pic.twitter.com/QESdOJVzsw— Michael Sam (@MichaelSamNFL) May 10, 2014
4. Michael Sam.
Of course, the "distraction" Fisher is most concerned about is rookie defensive end Michael Sam, whose sexual orientation brought heavy scrutiny, hand-wringing and homophobic tweets to the team's doorstep. That scrutiny doesn't appear to be weakening anytime soon.
Which is why the NFL should let the cameras in. Drafting Sam wasn't a knee-jerk decision from Fisher or Rams owner Stan Kroenke; they picked Sam for his football value. But players such as Sam -- raw but talented, filled with potential -- are exactly the kind of players Hard Knocks excels at profiling. Each of the show's seasons are filled with guys similar to Mizzou's favorite son: Sixth and seventh round picks and undrafted free agents who are simply trying to prove they belong on a team, let alone starting a game.
To be blunt, it's very possible Sam won't make the Rams' active roster, and even if he does he'll likely wind up on special-teams duty or the practice squad. So instead of letting his journey play out behind the overly managed facade of the Rams' media handlers, why not let the public in? Why not let Sam the football player show us what he's got on the field?
Hard Knocks grants the NFL an opportunity to show us a side of football that's above macho aphorisms or fantasy-sports statistics, and we want to see that side of the Rams. As for Sam, the league's first openly gay player doesn't need any more protection or hiding. He's ready.
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