TELEVISION

HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks’ gives Jets fans an [expletive] earful of coaches’ backstage ill temper

New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers warms up during a practice at the NFL football team's training facility in Florham Park, N.J., Sunday, July 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)


In the time-honored spirit of "man bites dog," what stood out most from the second episode Aug. 15 of HBO's "Hard Knocks" were the relatively few moments of genuine unhappiness among the New York Jets.

Notably in that regard, viewers finally caught a glimpse of the grumpy side of Aaron Rodgers, and Jets Coach Robert Saleh was shown chewing out his offensive line in blunt, profane terms.

Saleh's torrent of foul language, following a rough day against the Carolina Panthers, displayed an aspect of personality rarely revealed publicly by a normally mild-mannered, upbeat head coach who tends to choose his words carefully during news conferences. However, after the Panthers' defense made the Jets' offense look discombobulated in a joint practice, Saleh let loose his frustration -- and in the process reminded viewers of how the behind-the-scenes access granted to "Hard Knocks" can make the show so compelling.

"Offense, it was our first [expletive] opportunity to change the stink that's been in this organization for a very long time on the offensive side of the ball," Saleh told his team at a film session. "You can have a Hall of Fame quarterback. You can have two $10 million-plus receivers. You can have a reigning offensive rookie of the year. You can have all kinds of skill in the running back room. None of it [expletive] matters until the big boys up front change who the [expletive] we are."

Also unhappy about the pressure put on Rodgers the day before by Carolina was, not surprisingly, the quarterback himself. At various points on the practice field, he was shown muttering, "Can we [expletive] block anybody up front?" and, "Why's he coming free?" Rodgers also chided his coaching staff for what he saw as instances of poor play-calling.

For the many fans in Green Bay and elsewhere waiting impatiently for the end of Rodgers' honeymoon with his new team, those scenes portended what Jets supporters might see if this season starts going off the rails. They also provided a small but tonally significant counterpoint to the Rodgers lovefest that made up the vast majority of the first episode of "Hard Knocks."

By the end of Episode 2, though, New York had gone on to provide Saleh and HBO with a nice narrative arc. The team rallied from the disappointing practice to turn the tables on the Panthers in their Saturday preseason game, as Jets defenders got to Carolina quarterbacks early and often in a 27-0 win. Along the way, viewers were treated to the following moments from before, during and after the exhibition contest:

Backup quarterback and game starter Zach Wilson saying he "got dad's approval with the swag," after Rodgers took note of his arm sleeve and the bandanna under Wilson's helmet.

Wilson, after barely missing a potential touchdown throw, saying that the ball was "wet" from sweat amid sweltering conditions, followed by Rodgers asking officials if a towel could be used to wipe off the balls.

Rookie Jets pass rusher Will McDonald beating Carolina blockers, including for his first sack, and making plays against the run. At one point he is told, "You're gonna be nice, boy," by Panthers offensive tackle Cameron Erving, a nine-year veteran.

On the Jets' final touchdown, a wide-open pass to rookie tight end Zach Kuntz, Rodgers on sideline laughingly says, "The guy who ran the wrong route got the ball. Run the wrong route -- get the ball."

While walking off the field after copious postgame greetings, Rodgers is told by a Jets staffer, "You know too many people." The 39-year-old quarterback replies, "I'm old."

MORE OF THE TEAM

The second episode again featured plenty of Rodgers, but HBO made more of a point of mixing in other Jets players, particularly McDonald and star defensive tackle Quinnen Williams.

"I love embarrassing people," McDonald said of his passion for football. The April draft's 15th overall pick added that his "style is unpredictable," after a camera crew followed him to a parlor where he got piercings on his eyebrow and nose.

Williams, the third overall pick in 2019 who was recently rewarded for an all-pro campaign last season with a four-year, $96 million contract extension, was complimented in the episode as "[expletive] different" by Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. When team owner Woody Johnson said of the contract to Saleh, "It's a lot of money," the coach replied that Williams was "the right person to give it to."

Williams was also shown engaging in trash talk with the Panthers and declaring of his own squad, "Some days you just need a slap in the mouth, know what I'm saying?" The latter comment came before his team's trip to South Carolina, after Jets-only practices were interrupted by several player-on-player skirmishes.