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The Myth of the Hard Knocks Curse

Is inviting HBO to your camp really a season killer? Plus, the offseason stories that demand your attention.

As HBO searched far and wide this offseason to find an NFL team willing to appear on Hard Knocks, various arguments started to pop up justifying each team’s decision to pass on the popular training camp exposé. Some made more sense than others. It’s totally logical that teams in the hyper-secretive NFL would want to avoid revealing strategic wrinkles and weaknesses to a national audience. And it’s not hard to fathom that a young team like the Seahawks or Vikings might prefer to keep their maturing players strictly focused on football during camp.

One excuse stood out as questionable at best. Although organizations didn’t cite it as a key reason in turning down Hard Knocks, fan chatter about the possibility inevitably ended up considering the idea that there is a Hard Knocks curse. After all, nobody’s been on Hard Knocks and lived to tell the tale at the Super Bowl, despite an effort by the producers to pick possible candidates in 2008 (the Cowboys) and 2010 (the Jets).

Of course, failing to win the Super Bowl isn’t a fair baseline for a curse. If there really is a Hard Knocks curse, we’d expect to see teams consistently fail to reach the expectations they had heading into the show. It’s hard to establish that consistency with a mere handful teams having appeared on the program, but let’s look back at history and try to figure out whether there’s any evidence of a Hard Knocks curse.

2001: Baltimore Ravens

Previous season: 12-4, won Super Bowl
Hard Knocks season: 10-6, lost in divisional round of playoffs

OK, this already made us feel old. In 2001, Todd Heap was the naive first-round pick with the Tannehill-esque stunning wife; now, it’s impossible to describe Todd Heap without using the adjective “grizzled veteran.” (For more on this season of Hard Knocks, you can enjoy a running diary of Episode 1 by a certain proprietor of a certain website here.)

Is there any evidence of a Hard Knocks curse here? Not really. Yes, the Ravens didn’t repeat as Super Bowl champions, but is that the expected standard for Super Bowl champs? Of course not. They made it back to the playoffs and had a winning season, which is right in line with expectations. Want some math to back that up? From 1993 through 2010, 35 teams went 12-4. In the year after their 12-4 season, those teams won an average of … 9.9 games. Baltimore wasn’t cursed in their season after glory; they basically held serve with history.

If anything, the Ravens were cursed by making a poor decision at quarterback. They let Trent Dilfer go and replaced him with the famously sexy Elvis Grbac, who bombed in his lone year as a member of the Ravens before unexpectedly retiring. As you’ll see, teams on Hard Knocks and terrible quarterbacks seem to go together.

2002: Dallas Cowboys

Previous season: 5-11
Hard Knocks season: 5-11

How mortifying! Terrible team gets extra attention and stays terrible! If these Cowboys were cursed, it was by the fact that they started Chad Hutchinson and Quincy Carter at quarterback, not that Roy Williams got some extra television time. I guess it did launch Emmitt Smith’s television career. That was pretty bad. The Cowboys improved to 10-6 in 2003, a year removed from the cameras, but they also brought in Bill Parcells to coach and got an incredibly healthy year from their defense. Hard to see the curse exhibiting itself here.

2004: Jacksonville Jaguars

Previous season: 5-11
Hard Knocks season: 9-7

This wasn’t a true season of Hard Knocks, since it didn’t appear on HBO and instead aired on the NFL Network under another name. On the other hand, the NFL’s taken to referring to it as Hard Knocks in hindsight, so we’ll allow it. In either case, there’s no evidence of a curse here, as the Jaguars improved by four games, an improvement driven by an 8-3 record in games decided by a touchdown or less and superior play by quarterback Byron Leftwich.

2007: Kansas City Chiefs

Previous season: 9-7
Hard Knocks season: 4-12

Here’s the first example of a good team going on Hard Knocks and seeing their performance immediately go south. Were there signs that their five-game swing was coming before they appeared on Hard Knocks, though? Of course there were. Kansas City’s success in 2006 was driven by an amazing performance from backup quarterback Damon Huard, who threw just one interception in 244 pass attempts, the lowest interception rate ever produced by an NFL quarterback in 200 or more passes. Huard was given the starting job for 2007 and threw 11 picks in nine games before losing the gig to Brodie Croyle. The other offensive star on the team was Larry Johnson, who was run into the ground on a league-record 416 carries in 2006. Johnson was alternately injured and ineffective in 2007. We could have known that those likely regressions were coming before the Chiefs ever agreed to appear on HBO, and they drove a dramatic decline in the Chiefs’ offense, which went from 15th in points per game in 2006 to 31st in 2007. While the defense maintained their previous level of performance, it wasn’t enough to keep the team above .500. This was an issue with making terrible personnel choices, not deciding to appear on television.

2008: Dallas Cowboys

Previous season: 13-3, lost in divisional round of playoffs
Hard Knocks season: 9-7

This was the year where Tony Romo got hurt and Brad Johnson filled in as, arguably, the worst backup quarterback of the decade. Romo averaged 7.7 yards per attempt, completed 61.3 percent of his passes, and led an offensive juggernaut that averaged nearly 25 points per game with him at the helm, going 8-5 in the process. Johnson averaged 5.5 yards per pass, completed 52.6 percent of his passes, and averaged under 14 points in his three starts. And in the third start, those 14 points came from a defensive touchdown and a pass thrown by Brooks Bollinger after Johnson was benched. He was truly putrid.

If we’re looking for signs of a curse, though, this is the best example of a team on Hard Knocks failing to live up to their expectations. The 2008 Cowboys were expected to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender and, despite brief stretches of dominance, weren’t as good as advertised.

2009: Cincinnati Bengals

Previous season: 4-12
Hard Knocks season: 9-7, lost in wild-card round

And, well, here’s an equally relevant piece of information suggesting that there’s no such thing as a Hard Knocks curse. The Bengals were in a Dolphins-esque stupor when they appeared on the show, serving mostly as comic fodder before an undoubtedly dreadful season to come. And what happened? Why, they went 9-7 and made the playoffs! The most obvious reason why they improved, as you might suspect by now, was a dramatic improvement in the play of their quarterback. Carson Palmer spent most of the 2008 season on the sidelines with an elbow injury, forcing Ryan Fitzpatrick into the lineup for a 12-start stretch in which he averaged 5.5 yards per attempt and threw more interceptions than touchdowns. The Bengals promptly finished dead last in points scored. Palmer returned to the lineup in 2009 and started all 16 games. Not coincidentally, the offense got better, and with a young, talented defense, Cincinnati squeaked into the postseason. There, they lost to our most recent subjects …

2010: New York Jets

Previous season: 9-7, lost in AFC championship game
Hard Knocks season: 11-5, lost in AFC championship game

Yes, the Jets believed they were going to win a Super Bowl. They, from what I remember, expressed this sentiment on the show once or twice. Once you get past that and look at the numbers in black and white, could you really call their 2010 season a disappointment? They improved by two wins and made it to the exact same place where they’d been the previous campaign. Had the 2010 Jets gone the way of the 2008 Cowboys, there might be the slightest hint of a case for a Hard Knocks curse that created artificially high expectations for brash teams within striking distance of a Super Bowl. That falloff didn’t happen for the Jets, though, until 2011.

There’s no such thing as a Hard Knocks curse. If anything, the show itself has exhibited a curse of picking teams with awful quarterbacks in their recent past or immediate future. Fortunately, the Dolphins don’t have to worry — oh.

The Detector

The games might end in February and start up again in September, but the cottage industries of chatter and speculation that seem to fuel the NFL never stop. New roles! New schemes! New bodies! It’s all just useless information designed to fill column inches and occupy blogs until the season gets closer.

Well, what if that weren’t the case? Some of this inanity, after all, might contain a kernel of truth or serve as the first warning sign of a bigger story to come. Remember the endless stories about Peyton Manning’s neck last offseason? And the first leaks surrounding Peyton Hillis’s quest for a new contract? (In other news, last offseason was a bad time for Peytons in the NFL.) That’s why we’ve fired up The Detector, which will parse the various rumors and reports emanating from the league’s 32 organizations in an attempt to identify which actually deserve your attention.

We start in Atlanta, where Roddy White is telling extremely early fantasy drafters to chill.

Story: Roddy White’s role to decrease in Atlanta

Source: Roddy White

Reliability: Likely to occur. Outside of the part where White suggests that fourth option Harry Douglas will “work wonders in the slot,” his vision of the 2012 Falcons offense as a vessel for the Julio Jones breakout campaign is probably pretty accurate. There’s a pretty obvious comp for Jones, who showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie while struggling through nagging injuries: Lions superstar Calvin Johnson. Megatron caught 48 passes for 756 yards in 10 starts as a rookie; Jones had 54 catches for 959 yards in 13 starts. If you adjust those figures for the number of starts each player had, they roughly resemble each other; Megatron averaged 75.6 yards per start during his rookie year, and Jones averaged 73.8. In his second season, Johnson stayed healthy and had 78 catches for 1,331 receiving yards, with 12 scores. If Jones is to take that kind of leap, he’ll need to be thrown about 40 additional passes, and a good portion of those are likely to come off White’s ledger. White led the league with 180 targets in both 2010 and 2011, and while we’re often anxious to push our “regression toward the mean” agenda, here’s a clear example where the broader statistical logic jibes with the local politics.

Story: Adrian Peterson’s going to return — at 100 percent — in Week 1

Source: Adrian Peterson

Reliability: Very questionable. Peterson tore his ACL and MCL on Christmas Eve. Now, less than seven months later, he’s publicly announced that he expects to be back on the field for Minnesota’s Week 1 game against Jacksonville on September 9, and that he’ll be doing so at 100 percent. His logic, basically, is that he’s Adrian Peterson and that normal timetables of rehab and recovery don’t apply to him. On one hand, it’s hard to argue with Peterson suggesting that he’s a freak athlete capable of breaking the rules. He is Adrian Peterson, after all. On the other hand, though, Peterson’s history of recovering from injuries doesn’t suggest any sort of superhuman healing ability. When he broke his collarbone at Oklahoma, Peterson was expected to miss four to six weeks and ended up missing the next seven games. And last year, after suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 12, Peterson claimed that he would be back the following week and ended up missing three games, which is the traditional sort of recovery time frame for a high ankle sprain.

Wes Welker represents the most similar best-case time frame for Peterson here. Welker tore his ACL in Week 17 of the 2009 season, and while he was back for Week 1 of the 2010 campaign, he wasn’t the same player all year and saw a noticeable decline in his performance. Welker caught 86 passes for 848 yards during that 2010 season; in his four other years with the Patriots, Welker’s averaged 117 catches and 1,314 receiving yards. Like Welker, don’t be surprised if Peterson is able to make it back onto the field for Week 1. Just don’t expect him to be anything resembling 100 percent while he’s there.

Story: Maurice Jones-Drew looking “less explosive” than his former self

Source: Jaguars sources

Reliability: Unreliable. This is Contract Posturing 101. Jones-Drew led the league in rushing yards last year, and while he also was atop the carry leaderboard, he averaged a healthy 4.7 yards per carry on his 343 rushing attempts. And this all happened while Blaine Gabbert was under center and throwing to the likes of Chastin West and Jarett Dillard at wide receiver. What’s more plausible: That a then-26-year-old back with a history of mild workloads managed to somehow win the rushing title despite losing a step, or that the worst passing offense in the NFL pushed 10 guys into the box and kept him from making one or two enormous runs?

The reality is that Jones-Drew, despite his relatively small size, has never been a back who relies on breakaway speed in the open field. His longest run from last season was 56 yards, which is right in line with the rest of his career. He has runs of 74 and 80 yards on his résumé, but the 74-yarder was a total fluke against the Patriots that occurred when the New England defense thought Jones-Drew had touched the ground and stopped trying to tackle him, allowing him to run an additional 65 yards or so into the end zone without being bothered. When MJD was Fred Taylor’s backup, he was regarded as too frail to hold up under a heavy workload. Now that he’s proven he can do so, he’s suddenly less explosive than he once was? Come on.

Story: DeAngelo Hall to become the next Charles Woodson

Source: Redskins camp

Reliability: LOL. After years of giving up steady chunks of yardage in the service of the occasional interception, Hall will reportedly move away from the outside of the field and into the slot. There, he’ll blitz in both run and pass support and use his instincts to try and make game-changing plays in the middle of the field, a la Charles Woodson in Green Bay.

Where to begin? For one, sticking a cornerback who traditionally plays on the outside into the middle of the field does not turn that cornerback into Charles Woodson. Woodson’s got a unique mix of size, skills, and diagnostics that allow him to get into the right spot at the right time more often than not. Hall hasn’t shown those instincts on the outside, where his elite speed actually played up. Now, he’s going to exhibit fantastic timing in the middle of the field, a place where he hasn’t lined up as a pro? If the Dolphins put Reggie Bush at wideout and said he was the next Calvin Johnson, would that make any sense? That’s about what the Redskins are suggesting here. Washington has a fantastic pass rush, but with LaRon Landry leaving and the likes of Brandon Meriweather arriving to replace him, there are serious doubts about their ability to hold up in coverage. Washington would likely be best served by having their most competent cover corner — Hall — in a more familiar role on the outside. That’s where he’ll likely end up during the season.

Story: Jeff Otah’s knee already bothering him

Source: An MRI

Reliability: Very strong. If you’re a Panthers backer and wondering how Carolina might not live up to their playoff aspirations this year, this is a good place to start. Part of the logic in predicting a winning season for Carolina involves healthy seasons from a number of the players who went down with injuries that cost them most or all of the 2011 campaign, including Otah, who bookends a potentially dominant offensive line at right tackle.

Normally, it would be right to expect an injury-riddled team like Carolina to be healthier in 2012. This isn’t a normal set of injuries, though, and that could present yet another problem for our vaunted faith in regression toward the mean. The problem is that the guys who got hurt for the Panthers seem to keep getting hurt. Otah’s left knee forced him to miss the entire 2010 season and, along with a back injury, limited him to four games in 2011. He’s now missed more games than he’s actually played during his NFL career, and there’s no sign that his knee is anything resembling ready to go. And on the other side of the ball, where the Panthers are desperate to see a healthy season, question marks also arise. Defensive tackle Ron Edwards tore his biceps last August, missed the entire season, and was held out of organized team activities (OTAs) last month. Linebacker Thomas Davis is coming off his third ACL tear in three years, and while defensive leader Jon Beason only has a torn Achilles tendon in his injury history, it’s entirely likely that he will struggle to play at his previous level of performance after his injury. Fellow middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans suffered exactly that fate with the Texans last year after a similar injury. There were already reasons to doubt that the Panthers would be able to take a healthier step forward in 2012, and Otah’s sore knee might be the latest.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell