A Hail Mary In August?

I have been watching the current season of HARD KNOCKS, partially because I really love the way it continues to find storylines that take viewers deep into the lives and challenges of professional football players working exceptionally hard to educate themselves with complex strategies , most living in dormitories on college campuses apart from their loved ones, and sweltering amidst the heat and humidity that one typically encounters in July and August.  For me, the focus on the lesser known draft picks and veterans struggling to make the squad are the most engaging, and often provide the most emotionally charged scenes that keep me coming back.

But I’m hardly a typical viewer and fan, and these days, around HBO, it’s all about the numbers and, like most traditional television, trajectories are down.  So over the objections of many associated with the New York Jets, they forged ahead and devoted this season’s summer series to them anyhow, knowing full well that the media attention surrounding the arrival of Aaron Rodgers as the savoir of the much-maligned franchise in the number one market (let alone their headquarters) would be the strongest card they could play to stem the tide.

So while the season premiere that featured segments Rodgers’ triumphant strutting into the Jets’ Rochelle Park, New Jersey facility on Day One amidst a cheering sellout crowd and narrator Liev Schrieber being reverently referenced as the “Voice of God” by Rodgers “surprising” him with a visit where he landed by helicopter right in the middle of the practice fieldwent viral was a substantial +74% improvement over the opening episode of 2022, which featured the somewhat less appealing Detroit Lions and Jared Goff, episode 2, which merely featured the Jets shutting out the Carolina Panthers, saw a -21% decline, nominally above where 2022 started and more than a third below where the 2021 season began.

And these days, those involved with HBO original series know exactly how trigger-happy the new sheriff in their town, Yosemite Zas of the West, is.  Prior to the third episode of Season 2 of the scripted series WINNING TIMES that chronicles the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers, co-producer Jeff Pearlman all but begged for audiences to watch its third episode that aired Sunday night because he was concerned that declining ratings would give ol’ Yosemite all the ammunition he would need to kill the show entirely.  (Incidentially, based at least upon the preliminary live-plus-same-day overnights which the lovely and talented Rebecca Bunch of THE TV RATINGS GUIDE still dutifully compiles, that show did raise its audience for the second straight week, up a toral of +29% over the S2 premiere–albeit -47% below S1 season-to-date).

So please spare me any thought besides the desire to improve the current season’s viability that prompted the announcement that Rodgers will indeed see action in this coming Saturday night’s pre-season finale,  Jets coach Robert Saleh tried to put a football spin on it, as SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’s Wilton Jackson reported:

Saleh told reporters that starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the team’s final preseason game is valuable for New York’s preparation heading into the 2023 NFL season. 

Rodgers, who has not played at all so far this preseason, last appeared in a preseason game in ’18. Even more, the franchise has a record of preseason quarterback injuries against the Giants, including Chad Pennington in ’03 and Mark Sanchez in ’13. 

While there is a possibility that Rodgers—or any player—could get hurt during a game, Saleh believes that he cannot “coach scared” and playing the four-time MVP allows the team to build continuity heading into Week 1.

“…You can’t play scared,” Saleh said. “You can slip out of your car and have something happen to you. … Kansas City is playing their guys, Buffalo is playing their guys. It’s not uncommon. You can always play the hindsight game, the fearful game, but what’s in the best interest of our team is going out and playing some football together and preparing ourselves the best way we can for Sept. 11.”

Yeah, right.

There’s little chance that Rodgers will be on the field beyond the first quarter, possibly not even beyond the first offensive drive.  That’s essentially how long the likes of the teams the Jets are chasing are letting their true starting lineups see action.  And more than most of the defensive players that Giants coach Brian Daboli–you know, the New York pro football coach who DID make the playoffs in 2022–will be sending against Rodgers.

This, pure and simple, is what those in reality TV call a “created situation”–something pre-planned to allow something “organic” and promotable to happen.  Having Rodgers out there in what at least looks like game action will be good optics, and provide an updated tile for delayed viewers to want to click on should they be among the hundreds of thousands who will eventually watch the show in a manner not measured by the lovely Ms. Bunch.

If anything, Saleh may have wanted to tap into the significance that a game that is being played for bragging rights in The Big Apple has a long history of importance over and above a typical pre-season game.  The first time these teams ever played against each other in 1969 was a monumental and eventually career-altering event, as THE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS’ prolific Norm Miller wrote back in the day:

Broadway Joe and the Jets won the city of New York today in a poker game in New Haven. With all the prestige of the championship of the city as table stakes, Joe Namath and the Jets cleaned out the Giants and left ’em for broke, 37-14.

Before an SRO crowd of 70,874 at steaming Yale Bowl, the wise guy from Beaver Falls, Pa., made this first Fun City Bowl 60 minutes of misery for the fall guys in Giant uniforms.

In his best Super Bowl form, Namath hit on 14 of 16 passes for 188 yards and three touchdowns before trotting off the field with hands raised joyously in triumph after his third scoring toss with 7:10 left in the game.

And as YAHOO! Sports’ Curtis Rawls wrote decades later, there were repurcussions for the Giants who allowed this embarassment to occur on what was at the time their pre-season home away from home, minutes from the Fairfield College campus they conducted their training camp at:

The New York tabloids had a field day in the aftermath of that first meeting, jumping on the Jets’ bandwagon and piling on the Giants. They began calling for Allie Sherman’s scalp like the Giants fans in attendance at the Yale Bowl.

The Mara family did not like being an afterthought in the minds of New York football fans and fired Sherman one week before the start of the 1969 regular season. His record was 57-51-4, 0-3 in the postseason. Sherman’s .528 winning percentage is still fifth all-time among Giants’ head coaches who coached for at least five seasons.

Sherman, who famously said that the fans “paid their money and can do what they want” when chants of “Goodbye Allie” filled the Yale Bowl, was replaced by the popular Alex Webster, a former Giants running back.

Now I personally don’t think Rodgers will be on the field long enough for anything like that to occur, nor do I think the current generation of Maras are impulsive enough to make any moves, particularly after the surprising season they pulled off.

But what if it did?  Wow, maybe those numbers might inch up far enough for ol’ Yosemite to actually stop thinking about ending HARD KNOCKS after 20 seasons, as many fear is a possibility?

Probably not.  That’s something that only happens in scripted TV.



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