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HBO’s Hard Knocks is a fascinating real-time look at COVID-19 in the NFL

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NFL coaches grapple with two opponents, one of which can end their season before it begins

NFL Combine - Day 2
Los Angeles Chargers coach Anthony Lynn. “The team that handles this the best now is gonna have the best chance of winning that trophy.”
Photo: Getty

The premiere episode of Hard Knocks, HBO’s annual look inside NFL training camp, may begin with the most boring, un-telegenic 30 minutes of footage NFL Films has ever delivered. It’s still fascinating. And it’s still one of the best real-time documentaries about ongoing life in the COVID-19 pandemic.

I went into the first episode, which HBO Max made available on Tuesday, skeptical that the league will even play this year. Major League Baseball is already delivering an object lesson in how carrying on a season outside of a controlled “bubble” environment is borderline folly.

And that’s the National Pastime; football is the National Contact Sport, where there’s a legitimate worry about catching coronavirus at the bottom of a fumble pile. The Big Ten and Pac-12’s colleges, which develop a lot of the talent the pros use on Sundays, won’t play football at all this year. The NFL won’t play any pre-season games, not that they’ll really be missed. I’m resigned to the idea that Madden NFL 21 is gonna be the only football on my TV this year.

And yet, on Hard Knocks, Los Angeles Chargers coach Anthony Lynn frames the problem of the pandemic in such a pure football-coach way, with such a characteristic challenge-accepted attitude, that I can’t help but think the NFL will go on. Because hell, this might all work out to a strategic advantage for some clubs.

“The team that handles this the best now is gonna have the best chance of winning that trophy,” Lynn told his players in their camp’s first Zoom meeting, one of several that Hard Knocks peeks in on.

The man has a point. In normal years, the championship club is often the one that logs the fewest injuries, particularly at the most important positions. With the league’s COVID-19 protocol about a brick thick on paper, Lynn reasons that the team that follows it the most diligently and the most completely not only can play football this year, they can win it all.

“You have two opponents. You have your schedule, and you have COVID,” Lynn says in a call with the media. “Both game plans are equally important, COVID might be more important. Whoever shows the most personal responsibility and leadership, I believe they’ll have the advantage this year.”

Sean McVay, coach of the cross-town Rams (the two clubs are sharing a brand-new stadium this year) sees it the same way eventually, if not initially. As his camp opens, McVay dutifully organizes the outdoor meeting and weight areas and plans on facing the offense and defense in different directions while they’re under an enormous 70-yard tent. But for himself, personally, he seems a little casual about the risk the novel coronavirus poses.

In the latter half of the show, McVay gets religion. Terrell Lewis, a Rams rookie, tests positive for COVID-19. (The Chargers, meanwhile, get no positive results.) McVay at the next team meeting directs everyone to double down on their pandemic safety efforts. “I haven’t set a good example,” he admits. “I have to do a better job.”

The presentation of everything the teams are doing to remain safe while still getting on with their livelihoods — which they have a right to want as much as all of us want to do our jobs, too — really changed my tune on whether the NFL should even try to hold a season. From social-distancing floor markers with the team’s logo on them to instructions that players should open standing cooler doors with their feet to get Gatorade, the NFL is doing what the NFL does best: It’s tossing a zillion orders at 20-year-olds and demanding they follow every single one. You come away from the first episode of Hard Knocks thinking, shit, this league might be uniquely prepared to manage this.

(Of course, as I was writing this, Seattle cut a rookie defensive back caught trying to sneak a woman — dressed in Seahawks garb, no less — into the training camp hotel.)

Hard Knocks’ first episode isn’t all about the coronavirus. It checks off the typical dramas of practice-squad guys trying to hang on another week, the hard business of cutting the players who can’t, and big superstars like the Rams’ Jalen Ramsey and the Chargers’ Joey Bosa either seeking or signing for life-changing money in their next contract.

None of that makes me want to root for either team, though. Hard Knocks, in 15 seasons over the past two decades, usually following down-at-the-heels non-contenders, rarely gave me a good reason. Now I have one. I want to see the Chargers’ Justin Jones, who only trained with one person during the whole off-season, and spent the rest of his time at home, get to play football. I feel like he’s earned it. I’d like to see Anthony Lynn’s will-do optimism, and his commitment to the safety protocol, pay off with postseason success. They, and the Rams, are setting a good example for this league and others. And they’re acting as role models for the public, too.

The first episode of the 15th season of Hard Knocks launched on Aug. 12. New episodes arrive every Tuesday via HBO Max.