Hot-Air Balloons and Horseback Riding: Breaking Down the First Episode of ‘Hard Knocks’

Hot-Air Balloons and Horseback Riding: Breaking Down the First Episode of ‘Hard Knocks’
Hot-Air Balloons and Horseback Riding: Breaking Down the First Episode of ‘Hard Knocks’

The Raiders have one more season to play in Oakland before they disembark for Las Vegas. This year, HBO’s Hard Knocks is following the Raiders through their preseason training camp, and we’ll be breaking down each episode. “There’s no whining in football,” the voice-over intones, “but every August football comes to wine country.” And how!

So: the 2019 Raiders. The 2019 Oakland Raiders, that is, though not for lack of trying: After one theoretically final period of bluster and threats to decamp to decidedly unlikely alternative locales (… Calgary???), the Silver and Black will play one final season in Oakland before leaving for their new, still-under-construction home in Las Vegas next year. Which for now means the Raiders are convening at training camp in the Napa Valley, where HBO’s Hard Knocks has promised to take us along for the ride.

Through the season’s first episode, that ride has been heavy on alternative transportation: Newly acquired receiver Antonio Brown arrived at camp via hot-air balloon. “Float like a butterfly,” the erstwhile Steeler informs the camera, “gettin’ ready to sting like [dramatic pause] A.B.”


In the meantime, the Raiders are hard at work. Mark Davis has not shaved. Guy Fieri lurks on the sideline, grill at the ready.

And so we begin with the season’s most pressing questions. Is head coach Jon Gruden’s obsession with Nathan Peterman for real? Is, um, Nathan Peterman for real? Is Derek Carr—soon-to-be neighbor of Gruden—wearing tanning oil? Will Gruden’s efforts to reinvent the Raiders pay off? Could “The Autumn Wind” be read out loud one more time? The world demands answers.

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This Week in Jon Gruden

Gruden got a pass on his first year at the reins of the Raiders: That 4-12 finish was ugly, sure, but the Gruden project was just getting underway. Now, in theory, his moves will begin to bear fruit. He’s acquired sought-after talent in Antonio Brown and brought in a fresh class of draft picks. And he’s got the coachspeak locked down, of course: “I’m not really into dreams anymore,” he tells his players. “I’m into fucking nightmares.”

Gruden prides himself on being an old-school coach, and nowhere is that more on display than with the Raiders’ extreme fondness for the dreaded seven-man sled, which former Raiders coach and legendary broadcaster John Madden turns up to wax poetic about. Should old-school not turn out to be a recipe for success in the modern NFL—well, there are only nine more years left on Gruden’s contract.

The Mystery of Antonio Brown’s Frostbitten Feet

On Tuesday afternoon, the world was shaken by the news that Brown’s rehabilitation of his foot problems has hit a snag: After entering a cryotherapy treatment without “the proper footwear,” Brown reportedly developed frostbite. Tragically, Hard Knocks did not address this, referring only to Brown’s “bad feet” to explain why he has not yet been able to fully participate in practice with the Raiders.

Brown’s children, in the meantime, would simply like to know where Ben Roethlisberger is:

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Gruden, whose offseason pursuit of Brown included deploying the non-denial denial of “I am not going to take the cheese on that one,” would doubtless like to see his star wide receiver on the field with his new team. So would the rest of us—and catching passes from Carr would, at the very least, probably help clear things up for his kids.

Golly, Those Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper Trades Sure Better Work Out

As you might recall, one of Gruden’s first orders of business was to trade star pass rusher Khalil Mack to the Bears just before the start of the season for a haul of draft picks, including a first-rounder in the 2019 draft. In October, he sent receiver Amari Cooper to the Cowboys for another 2019 first-round pick. How Gruden leverages that bevy of picks will become a defining feature of his Raiders tenure. In the first episode, we met the Raiders’ 27th draft pick, safety Johnathan Abram, who enters training camp with correspondingly lofty expectations.

Much of this week’s Hard Knocks was devoted to Abram, who combined horseback riding and “Old Town Road” karaoke in a vineyard. He also got a little too physical in an early practice, earning him a stern talking-to from Gruden. Abram then told his coach, “You can’t cut me.”


And, well, he’s right—whether he’s a disappointment or not, the Raiders have too much on the line to simply walk away from Abram, and he sure seems to know it. The safety also went out of his way to heckle Carr, who seems to be a perfectly nice guy but is consistently outclassed by better hangs, when the quarterback took the team out to dinner. But Carr did manage to teach him the correct pronunciation of “salmon,” so perhaps we all have room to grow.

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Heartbreak of the Week

Ronald Ollie, noted fan favorite from the first season of the Netflix documentary series Last Chance U, entered Raiders camp as an unsigned rookie. But after struggling in practice and missing an appointment with a trainer, he became Hard Knocks’ first 2019 casualty: Trainers swiftly cleaned out his locker then slotted fresh gear in its place for defensive tackle Ethan Westbrooks—who even took Ollie’s no. 63 jersey. Asked to explain the cut, Gruden said, “We’re in the business of getting better.” Brutal.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.

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