Let's make it clear from the start, there won't be much joking in this recap. Most of the time, Hard Knocks is an avenue to giggle that strong safeties dress as turtles and grown men are scared of lightning, but not now. The final episode is the one where our hearts are torn.
The episode begins with a brilliant montage of the star players getting scolded. Andy Dalton doesn't throw his first option. AJ Green lands with his foot out of bounds. Geno Atkins gets pushed around and Vontaze Burfict misses a play. HBO shows that even the superstars aren't immune to the harsh punishment from mistakes.
But those mistakes won't determine their livelihood and careers. We move to the fabric company, where low-level workers meticulously remove the names of previously cut players from the Bengals jerseys. The players we've grown attached to over the past 4 weeks have fates that rely on a finite number of plays. Certain players remain in doubt...
If you want a backup quarterback would you rather have change-of-pace guy that can make plays running and using his athleticism or a worse Andy Dalton? The Bengals thought that was an easy question, too. Skelton was grateful for the opportunity, a theme we'll see often with these cuts. Perhaps he'll go make another legendary wide receiver irrelevant in his next gig. I imagine Larry Fitzgerald is exploring restraining orders right about now.
Adam "Pacman" Jones was previously known for making it rain in seedy strip clubs. I'd say the fact that he now references "Rookie of the Year"s Henry Rowengartner in relation to Sanzenbacher's name is a solid sign that he's settled down a little.
Dane Sanzenbacher was as reliable as a receiver could be this preseason. People are obsessed with wide receiver's verticals and 40 yard dash times, but sometimes all you need is a guy that hustles, gets open and catches everything he should. His game was so apparent, even his opposing cornerback on the Colts commented, "Woo I like the way you play, man. You gonna make this team." That Colts cornerback has a solid backup career as an Oracle. Sanzenbacher stays a Bengal.
It was apparent there was a serious fullback position battle the moment Orson Charles was moved from tight end. If the coaches change a player's position, it's because they want him to play. But he had to beat the Terminator.
John Conner is a repeat star of the show, since his days with the Jets. He was a beast then and a beast now. Every time it seemed he needed to fight for his position, the Terminator promptly destroyed a defender on his lead block. Every play he made looked perfect.
It didn't matter. "I just want to know the reasoning. Honestly, in my mind, I feel like I did everything to earn a spot on this team. I just want to know if I did something wrong," a crying Conner pleaded to his coach.
He did nothing wrong, just a man trying to make a living at a dying profession. The fullback is on its way to extinction so they kept the man who could play elsewhere. Orson left a humble voicemail to a man he knew deserved more, "Hey John. I just wanted to say I'm sorry. I'm happy we had a chance to meet and become great friends."
Terrence Stephens is the kind of guy that makes you wish Hard Knocks had more happy endings. The likable defensive tackle has been joking with Margus Hunt, singing for teammates, and working his butt off all camp. This week, he channeled his college dorm acoustic days and sang an appropriate, poignant song by John Mayer.
"Gravity, stay the hell away from me. And gravity, has taken better men than me. Now how can that be? Just keep me where the light is. Just keep me where the light is."
With how much Taylor Swift rags on John Mayer, who would've known he'd be able to boil down the National Football League to its very essence. Gravity took Stephens to the ground several times in his last game against Indy and eventually out of the NFL.
The Tale of Two Linebackers:
Bruce Taylor and Jason Dimanche were a couple peas from the same pod. Both were undrafted free agent rookies. Both share the same agent. Both were aspiring linebackers for the Bengals. And both of them were chasing the same dream.
Now they were sharing the same car ride to practice. "This might be our last ride bro," Dimanche said attempting an energetic narration for the camera. Then, more contemplatively, "This might be our last ride..." as he trailed off into reflection.
Linebackers coach Paul Guenther met with Bruce Taylor early in the week to explain how important the next game was for him. "You know I don't like to beat around the bush. This next game is more important for some than others. You know what I'm saying? You've got to make some plays this game."
It was an unfortunate play by another linebacker that opened the door for both. Emmanuel Lamur suffered a season ending injury rushing the quarterback early in the game, opening the door for the undrafted buddies.
Your phone is going to ring at the time for Cuts. If the person on the other line is Marvin Lewis, you're safe, if it's anybody else, then polish your resume.
Bruce Taylor was the recipient of such an unfortunate call. He was cut 3 days after his talk with his coach, a victim of the cruel roster restrictions in the NFL. Now Dimanche awaited to hear the voice opposite his on the phone.
Dimanche survived rookie camp, OTAs, training camp and an entire preseason, but looked as if he wouldn't be able to survive the wait. Clothes, blankets and pillow were strewn about the filthy hotel room. The phone began to ring, but HBO's clever cameramen thought it would be cute to mess with us and show every Bengals employee in front of their phone. A nervous Dimanche answered...
"Hey Jayson, it's Coach Marvin Lewis." A smile creeped on Dimanche's face. "I wanted to let you know that you've made the football team. You've made the 53 man squad, so congratulations." Jayson tried to put coherent words together, "Thank you, coach. I'm so... I'm just so... Thank you."
He screamed into a pillow, then "That was so scary!" in a genuinely ecstatic moment. Of course you've got to call mom now, Jayson. "I made the team," he said which was interrupted by "AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!" Hard Knocks just captured the two happiest moments of Jayson Dimanche's life.
Well, I guess Hard Knocks does have some happy endings, after all.