Highlights from the latest “Hard Knocks” documentary with the Miami Dolphins

Catering to a wide audience from die-hard football fans to those only tuning in to the Super Bowl for the ads, the newest season of HBOs Hard Knocks features a deep dive into the Miami Dolphins and its standout players.
Catering to a wide audience from die-hard football fans to those only tuning in to the Super Bowl for the ads, the newest season of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” features a deep dive into the Miami Dolphins and its standout players.
Courtesy of HBO

For the 2023 NFL season, “Hard Knocks”—a collaboration between HBO and the NFL—featured the Miami Dolphins, arguably one of the greatest powerhouses in the NFL. Every NFL in-season, “Hard Knocks” follows one team exclusively—usually one with lack of success in recent playoff years—and produces episodes exhibiting a cohesive blend between the team members’ personal and professional lives. If you solely seek to acquire a comprehensive, technical foundation of football, “Hard Knocks” may not be for you. However, the “big picture” highlights of this nine-episode documentary were plentiful, emotionally raw and rich in value. Because of this, the show truly is a worthwhile watch.

“Hard Knocks” spotlights wide receiver Tyreek Hill, the 2023 reigning speed champion who consistently reinforces his renowned title as the “Cheetah.” Once the football snaps, Hill is instantly on the move. Those familiar with track and field can truly appreciate his explosiveness, sprint and drive, with viewers’ eyes darting back and forth in a feeble attempt to locate his position. If he gains possession of the ball, you can kiss him goodbye. Compared to other Dolphins players, Hill has already achieved great success during his eight-season NFL career. In 2020, he won the Super Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs; in 2022, he switched to the Dolphins after being “offered a contract…he simply couldn’t turn down.” He was a candidate for Offensive Player of the Year and achieved a franchise record of a whopping 1,799 receiving yards for the 2023 season. Now, alongside football, he dabbles in real estate with his wife, Keeta Vaccaro, and helps run The Speed Academy for children ages 6-17.

However, it is incredibly rare for a football player to end up in a position even remotely similar to Hill’s. Out of the entire pool of NCAA football players, only 1.6% will join the NFL. Even after “making it,” NFL football players experience a distinct intensity of physical and mental tribulation unbeknownst to many. The Dolphins are certainly no stranger to the brutality that comes with playing football at the highest level.

“Hard Knocks” follows linebacker Jaelan Phillips closely, detailing his extensive injuries during his career at UCLA, medical retirement after the 2018 college season and ultimately, his withdrawal from the university. From the perspective of those characterizing only the downsides of Phillips’ pre-professional career, Phillips being the Dolphins’ first round pick of the 2021 NFL draft was quite the surprise. At the start of the season, Phillips was killing it and “having the best year of his life.” He closely communicated with his teammates to tackle offensive plays and employed a seamless interplay of physical and intellectual schematics, sometimes even on the fly. On Nov. 24, the Dolphins took on the New York Jets. Per usual, Phillips was performing excellently alongside the rest of the Dolphins’ defense. Then, at the start of his pass rush, he tore his Achilles—a season-ending injury. We see him breaking down as he realizes what this means for his season. Although the Dolphins won 34-13, the entire team was heartbroken for Phillips. Fortunately, Phillips seems to be on track to recover in time for the August 2024 Dolphins training camp.

Interestingly, the Dolphins member who arguably took the documentary home was head coach Mike McDaniel. As stated in his own words, he is not your typical NFL head coach. Though his NFL trajectory seems “standard,” especially since he boasts an impressive coaching profile with the Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons and the San Francisco 49ers, he went through shocking blows earlier in his career. On his office wall, there is a pinned index card with the number 865–the number of days McDaniel had to wait before being given a second chance at his NFL career. In 2008, he was fired from his position as assistant coach with the Texans after being coined as unreliable, with his drinking issues being a major factor. After the incident, he went cold turkey and got sober in 2016. He steadily worked his way up in coaching once again—but this time with a clear and renewed mindset.

“Adversity is opportunity” is a phrase McDaniel uses often. He repeats it during regular team meetings held at the Dolphins’ auditorium, but especially when the Dolphins lose, a notable example being their massive 19-56 loss against the Baltimore Ravens. He makes sure to convey the lessons he’s learned to all his players, persistently encouraging them, making sure they’re performing at their best and pushing the message that mental stability is of greater importance than achievement on the field. Despite McDaniel’s rough trek, he remains a humorous and light-hearted individual, even jokingly telling players on camera: “I want you guys to be at your very best … so then you can be as rich as you can be … so that I can be rich.”

The Dolphins’ 2023 season came to an end on Jan. 13 when they lost 7-26 to the Chiefs during the Wild Card Round. Obviously, McDaniel isn’t backing down and neither is his team. When a team like the Dolphins has yet to tap into unexplored potential, there’s really no reason to slow down. Hopefully, the Dolphins emerge victorious for the 2024 season.

Whether you’re a football fanatic or only remotely interested in football on Super Bowl Sunday, “Hard Knocks” is the NFL documentary series viewers from all backgrounds will enjoy and potentially extract life lessons from. It could be as simple as “the number one thing we can do for ourselves is sleep,” or even the existential answer you’ve been waiting to hear. Only time will tell who “Hard Knocks” will feature next, but for now, you can watch all previous seasons on HBO and perhaps gain a greater appreciation for football and all it entails.

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