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Do HBO and Hard Knocks Determine Part of the NFL Schedule?

We could debate the merits of HBO’s decision to feature the entire AFC North in its end-of-season version of Hard Knocks, but we won’t. Say this much: It hasn’t been done before.

That’s because HBO and the NFL never before decided to do it, nothing more. The network and the league set the parameters for Hard Knocks, after all, and you can tell by this year’s lineup (Hard Knocks: Offseason, Hard Knocks: Training Camp and Hard Knocks: In Season) that they’re running out of ways to keep things fresh.

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Featuring an entire division, especially one that includes longtime rivals, does help accomplish that. It doesn’t hurt that the Ravens, Browns, Steelers and Bengals all finished with winning records in 2023.

But let’s skip the rest of the gloss and get to the nubs of it: Is Hard Knocks the reason why the Steelers’ bizarrely back-loaded 2024 schedule looks the way it does?

And should a network get to call that big of a shot?

The league hasn’t said anything about Pittsburgh’s schedule, and HBO certainly won’t. But Steelers fans – and anyone interested in the AFC playoff picture – immediately took notice when the NFL’s 2024 slate was announced on May 15.

The Steelers’ schedule was never going to be cake; six games within the AFC North takes care of that. But the NFL placed all six of those games within the final eight weeks of the season. Pittsburgh’s other two games in that stretch? At Philadelphia, and home to the Super Bowl champion Chiefs on Christmas Day.

A schedule like that could build some drama into a series about four teams trying to outlast each other and make it into the post-season, wouldn’t it? And while we can’t outright say the NFL planned this into the mix, we can think it.

The Steelers have never appeared on the HBO series, as you probably know. There’s been a bit too much made of head coach Mike Tomlin’s reluctance to open up either himself or the locker room to the network’s cameras and boom mikes, but it’s true that Pittsburgh dodged the bullet for more than two decades – until now.

Tomlin isn’t the only coach who’d rather skip the intrusion. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said on The Adam Jones Podcast recently that he doesn’t watch the show, in part because it’s so obviously forced. “Everything’s put on,” Harbaugh said. “You got to put a microphone, and a camera in your face – people aren’t the same.” But he said he’ll tell his team to conduct business as usual, assuming that’s possible.

Tomlin and crew got a weird schedule in general, not only at the finish. The Steelers open with two straight on the road, which hasn’t happened to them in 25 years. I guess you could say they were due.

Week 2 happens to place them in Denver, the site of Steelers quarterback Russ Wilson’s bad breakup with Sean Peyton and the Broncos last offseason. They don’t get a divisional opponent until Week 11, two weeks beyond their bye. After that, it’s a broken-glass crawl to the finish.

“It’s probably not exactly how I would have drawn it up, but we’ve got to do the best we can,” team president Art Rooney II said. “A lot of the division games are at the end of the schedule, so it will be an interesting stretch there toward the end.”

That’s one way to put it. The Steelers went 5-1 versus the North last season, but they grabbed two of those wins within the season’s first five weeks. This year, not so much.

Tomlin hasn’t discussed any of this publicly, and nobody needs to feel sorry for either him or the franchise. They’ll get by. Close watchers of the Steelers noted that in the club’s announcement of the Hard Knocks news, not a single member of the organization was quoted, but beyond that it’s anybody’s guess other than the obvious, which is that –  like lots of teams – Pittsburgh probably views HBO as one of those things the NFL makes the franchise live with. Not everybody craves that stage.

The league always tries to build suspense into the season’s final several weeks, and TV ratings are the tail that wags the dog. No argument there. It’s common for divisional opponents to square off down the stretch, with a team often playing each of its division foes one more time over the final four or five weeks.

But that’s after they’ve already played their rivals once, usually much earlier in the year. Viewed in that light, meeting again toward the finish becomes a great way to gauge how much teams have changed through the season, and who’s left standing.

That is good drama, the kind we all want to see. This season’s Steelers schedule, on the other hand, smells like forced theater – weird, because it isn’t really necessary. But there we go again, overcomplicating things. It’s show business, kids.

Mark Kreidler
Mark Kreidlerhttps://barrettmedia.com
Mark Kreidler is a national award-winning writer whose work has appeared at ESPN, the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek and dozens of other publications. He's also a sports-talk veteran with stops in San Francisco and Sacramento, and the author of three books, including the bestselling "Four Days to Glory." More of his writing can be found at https://markkreidler.substack.com. He is also reachable on Twitter @MarkKreidler.

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