By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) Rick Rolling a press conference. Twerking. Switching to a 3-4 defense.
These were all things former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith would be found doing before he would agree to let his team participate in HBO’s annual chronicling of an NFL training camp, “Hard Knocks.”
The Lovie Era Bears were the epitome of clandestine. It was almost as if you could hear the inner monologue of staff and front office going “Na na na na na na na na Leader.” We were not allowed to peek in except for what we saw on game days, most practices, and TheDemocraticPeoplesRepublicOfChicagoBears.com.
Every year someone would float the question at Smith or former general manager Jerry Angelo, and every year that person would get a look like he or she didn’t replace the toilet paper roll at the Halas Hall bathroom.
“We have no interest in airing what goes on behind closed doors to the public and on a TV show,” Angelo once said. “We try to keep everything that goes on in house within our football family and we do not want to air our laundry to the world. We have plenty of exposure to our fans through the media but participating in a show such as ‘Hard Knocks’ is not something we have interest in doing.”
But we are amid a sort of Renaissance in Bears franchise history. Current head coach Marc Trestman and current general manager Phil Emery are just as stiff as Smith and Angelo, at least personality-wise, but what they lack in being fun at parties they make up for in being actually interesting and seemingly candid when they talk in public.
They also are subservient to a newish rule passed by the NFL that can force a team to allow HBO into its meeting rooms and mic up players and staff almost everywhere on team property except that toilet paperless bathroom. While such a rule might have made Smith actually curse had it been in place two years ago, the New School Bears don’t necessary have a resist-at-all-costs attitude toward the show.
“To me, it’s all about football,” Emery has said. “Personally, no [on being on ‘Hard Knocks’], but if that was in the best interest of the club, I’m sure we would all consider it. If that helped bring the Chicago Bears, particularly to our fans in Chicago, we would consider it.”
And regardless of the overall attitude of this incarnation of the Bears organization, the NFL and HBO should find training camp in Bourbonnais maybe the most videogenic in all the league, or at least of the eight teams—Bears, Bills, Cardinals, Giants, Jaguars, Raiders, Rams, and Steelers—that can be subject to the league forcing the show on them based on the criteria set forth last October. Consider if you will:
The Chicago market
No-brainer here. The Bears represent the third-biggest market in the country in the most TV-consumed sport. Only the Giants have more fans of those eight listed above, but what the hell is interesting about the Giants? What new Manningface we might see?
Trestman and Emery
Neither is especially witty from what I’ve heard so far, but they are refreshing in that they don’t treat media and fans like you should just be happy to be here. They give actual answers to questions (which sometimes leads to press conferences that Martin Scorsese finds long), and those answers are usually outside the box as far as footballspeak is concerned.
Plus, both guys are extremely progressive with modern statistical analytics. Emery is as adaptable to the times as any GM in the league and has said how the team consults modern sabermetric-style football analysis and has people on staff who crunch and apply those numbers to player evaluation. Old School scouting and eye tests are still part of Halas Hall, but gone are the days where only what you saw through the cigar smoke measured a player.
Trestman has long had a reputation of taking unique approaches to get the most out of his players, and it has continued with the Bears. And if Trestman is as candid talking football to the media already, imagine what his otherwise-private team meetings would be like if we could see and hear them. Who wouldn’t want to hear the process among the swivel chairs between Jay Cutler and him? Speaking of…
Cutler would be the focal point of the HBO season because he’s Jay Cutler, and many people love to hate him for irrational reasons, and some people find him an interesting enigma of a personality. Many a teammate has testified to Cutler’s work ethic and leadership behind closed doors. While he tries to guard it in formal interviews, he has a really sharp sense of humor that absolutely has to manifest itself in private. Kyle Long has said that only two of his teammates genuinely frighten him—Julius Peppers and Cutler. The QB has a celebrity wife. And after a dud like Andy Dalton from the 2013 season, no doubt HBO suits would salivate at the prospect of getting an unfiltered Cutler on camera.
“Hard Knocks” or not, the Bears retaining their defensive coordinator after a historically awful defensive season—one that most definitely kept the team out of the playoffs—will be a major storyline going into camp, and previous seasons of the series have shown that it is not afraid to put a focus on interesting assistant coaches (or at least ones with interesting stories surrounding them). What is Tucker going to do to remedy the orphanage fire he oversaw in 2013 while on thin ice this coming season? What about the ever-pestering questions about the Bears switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, especially with a few recent coaching staff additions that may suggest a gravitation to some sort of hybrid?
You’ve heard him on 670 The Score discussing children’s books and cartoons and art. He loves Harry Potter and hates The Muppets. The Black Unicorn is one of sport’s most unique personalities. And he is exactly the kind of guy “Hard Knocks” audiences eat up and talk about the day after viewing. Don’t think, too, that Bennett isn’t keenly aware of the lingering perception fans of the show probably still have of him outside of Chicago from when he was a rookie on the Cowboys and came off as immature and maybe not cut out for the league. Surely he and HBO would be looking to showcase the growth of what has become one of the league’s best tight ends.
The “supporting cast”
The Bears as whole are a really interesting, fun group of guys. Veterans couldn’t stop talking about the rookie Long, his mouth in the locker room, his antics during pregame warm-ups, etc. Brandon Marshall is not only one of the game’s best receivers but a man that outspokenly struggles with mental illness while also being a really cerebral player and person. Robbie Gould has a spot in politics waiting for him when he’s finished kicking. I would bet that Charles Tillman isn’t returning, but if he did, Bears fans know he’s one of the best interviews the team has ever had.
Team leader Lance Briggs strikes me as someone who’d be very wary of the HBO cameras. Maybe not as intensely as James Harrison hated the show’s presence last year, but to see the veteran in the winter of his career mentor a roster that poised to contend in 2014 is something I’d very much like to watch. 56-year-old longsnapper Patrick Mannelly already co-hosts “Bears All Access” on 670 The Score and has the background (franchise leader in games and seasons played, appeared in the original “Brian’s Song”) and camera-friendliness the show loves. And who knows what the rookie class will bring?
Yes, there would probably be some gratuitous Chicago stereotypes mixed in with pizza and politics, and there couldn’t possibly be a national chronicling of the current Bears without feeding the meatballs and out-of-town ignorance some narratives about the specters of Mike Ditka and Brian Urlacher, but I’m betting the 2014 Chicago Bears would be an immensely interesting team to document, maybe producing “Hard Knocks” best season ever.
Let’s hope the iron fist of Roger Goodell works out in our favor for once.
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