Tom E. Curran

The depressingly delicious possibility of Patriots on Hard Knocks

As if Bill Belichick needed any more motivation to get the Patriots into the playoffs this season...

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There are a mountain of reasons the Patriots need to make the postseason in 2023.

There’s an impatient owner. There’s a restless fanbase. Above all, that's what players and coaches are in the business for -- to chase titles. One other dollop to plop on the top of those? To stay the hell away from HBO's "Hard Knocks."

If the Patriots fail to make the postseason, they will -- for the FIRST TIME EVER -- be "Hard Knocks" eligible. A team is ineligible to appear if it has a first-year head coach, has made the playoffs in the previous two seasons or has hosted the show in the previous 10 years.

Never have the Patriots missed the playoffs two years in a row under Bill Belichick’s reign. But this year, with most sports books setting the total on Patriots wins at 7.5, the consensus is they’ll be idle in January.

Personally, I think 7.5 wins is absurdly low. But saddled with the third-toughest schedule (based on opponents’ 2022 winning percentage) and a suddenly daunting division, wins won’t be easy to come by. No layups.

If it came to pass, the Belichick Patriots would be the Hard Knocks Holy Grail for NFL Films.

You’d have Belichick on a two-year playoff drought having not won a playoff game since New England's 2018 Super Bowl win over the Rams. Don Shula’s total wins record would be in reach, but given the drought, there’d be increased speculation over how long the most successful coach in NFL history could hang on.

Spicing that up would be the presence on staff of his sons Steve and Brian, who have known nothing but this life since 2000 when they were and 13 and 9 years old, respectively. They lived every moment of their father becoming a legend and building a never-to-be-matched dynasty. They’ve became active and prominent members of it.

The tension of their knowing history was within reach but the fact that their father was now coaching without a net would be present. Unavoidably, there’d be reflection as to whether it was even appropriate for anyone but Bill Belichick to decide when he leaves the sidelines.

Obviously, we presume Belichick would want no part of the program. There are times he zigs when you’re sure he’d zag. The 2009 "A Football Life" and each of the "Do Your Job" documentaries were riveting NFL Films productions that Belichick cooperated in. But a preseason look behind the curtain where everyone can see the wizard at work? I don’t think he’d love it.

His boss might, however. If Robert Kraft’s team is coming off another playoff-free season, it would logically follow that interest and buzz is down. Hard Knocks could be a vehicle for Kraft to show fans how seriously he’s taking the slide while also delving into the Catch-22 position he’d be in with Belichick, the Shula record, doing right by the fans and doing right by Bill.

Then you’d have Mac Jones entering the final year of his rookie contract, presumably having not had his fifth-year option picked up. The Jones/Bill O’Brien tandem (presuming another year for O’Brien) would be fascinating.

The league has had a hell of a time getting any of the four eligible teams to agree to appear this season. It appears the Jets are going to be gently nudged/coerced/told they have to do it, though.

Which, of course, would only make it logical that if the Jets were forced by the league to do it in 2023, the Patriots should be the ones forced to do it in 2024. And if Roger Goodell, former Jets PR guy turned NFL Commissioner, resisted pushing the Patriots? Caterwauling about preferential treatment would rise from 31 NFL cities.

While you stew on the mixed blessing that a Patriots "Hard Knocks" appearance would be, here’s a well-done piece from The Athletic last summer detailing how the show all goes down.

I found this interesting:

“Hard Knocks” lets team officials review episodes before they air. If necessary, they can ask that conversations that unnecessarily embarrass a player or scenes that give away too much be removed. In addition, (former Buccaneers offensive coordinator Dirk) Koetter said that if an episode contains audio of a quarterback delivering a play call, the play shown with that audio will come from a different rep so that opponents can’t match terminology with footage.”

“But what happens is, you better find out who the decision maker is,” said former Cleveland coach Hue Jackson, featured in 2018, “because you may say something isn’t OK, and then somebody up the chain might say, 'Oh, that’s OK. Leave it in.'"

In other words, if Robert Kraft wanted to bigfoot a Belichick request that something be edited, he certainly could. Whether he would? Different story.

Chances are, Julian Edelman’s read on how the "Hard Knocks" edits would go (if it ever came to pass) are probably spot on.

"You can have Bill twirling his whistle. You can have that one," Edelman joked on The Rich Eisen Show last summer.

Just to reiterate, I think the Patriots are a playoff-caliber team and that the chance we’ll ever get to see that opening shot of early-morning sprinklers drenching the practice fields at Gillette are remote.

But if the team does miss the playoffs this year, it will be interesting to hear Belichick’s response when asked, preferably the day they’re eliminated. I nominate Mike Reiss to pose the question.

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