Hard Knocks season is upon us, folks. In celebration of the most-anticipated iteration in recent memory—thanks to this year's subject, the New York Jets—Esquire has been assigning highly subjective grades to each episode. To commemorate the penultimate episode, e've opted for a different format: superlatives.
The New York Jet Tony Soprano Would Most Disapprove Of: Robert Saleh
I've gotta say: The Sopranos moment was pretty damn good. The drive through the Holland Tunnel to Metlife Stadium, You woke up this morning / Got yourself a gun—is this the real Sopranos reboot we've been waiting for?—then, uh, Robert Saleh. He kind of ruins the moment. The man is mean-mugging like he just tossed a couple goons in the river. Tony Soprano would drag Saleh up and down the unholy state of New Jersey. Remember: Revenge is like serving cold cuts.
Most Deserving of a Spinoff: The Rookie Wide Receivers
Why did HBO wait until the season finale to show us the beautiful bromance between Jason Brownlee and Xavier Gipson? And why are we just learning about Jerome Kapp's backstory? As entertaining as The Life and Times of Aaron Rodgers has been, this is why I love Hard Knocks. Historically, the series has strived to show us what we don't see every Sunday: the guys who fight their entire lives for the chance to make an NFL roster, only to find themselves jobless in September. It's a bummer that we didn't get to spend more time with Brownlee, Gipson, and Kapp. The ping-pong game—which left the rookies literally rolling on the floor, laughing—warmed my heart.
Best Redemption Arc: Nathaniel Hackett
After the Denver Broncos fired Hackett—and the new Broncos coach, Sean Payton, trashed the poor guy to the media—the Jets' new offensive coordinator had the most to lose this season. Instead of hiding behind the cameras, Hackett showed off his wacky, weird, and Goldfinger-loving self. I'll say this: it's refreshing to see an NFL coach who isn't obsessed with lookin' cool and macho. (See: Robert Saleh.) Someone buy this man a Flowbee. He deserves it.
The Unsung Hero: Zach Wilson
There's not much to say here, but that's the point: the young quarterback was quietly sturdy throughout training camp. He didn't say anything out of line—let alone strange!—and genuinely seemed to learn from Rodgers. And once again: I'll defend the use of sweatbands until the day I die.
Most Rewatchable Moment: The Charcoochie Board Party
Every Hard Knocks season has a moment that your YouTube algorithm will recommend for the next 15 years. The last time the Jets appeared on Hard Knocks—during the 2010 season—Rex Ryan gave us, "Let's go eat a goddamn snack!" This year, HBO gifted us the Charcoochie Board Party. Tanzel Smart's Episode One flub turned into a running joke throughout the season, and it's Episode Four that sees the Jets lineman actually have their charcoochie board. Solomon Thomas even crafts a salami rose! Who knew.
Hard Knocks Season 20 MVP: Aaron Rodgers
Fine, fine. In the final minutes of Hard Knocks, A-Rod won me over. Really, he did it with one single moment of heroism. In New York's preseason game against the Giants, Rodgers flicks a pass across the field, shimmies away... and a rogue Giants lineman gives him a little push. Rodgers, the man who was simply soaking up vibes all summer, says, "I don't even know who you are, bro! I've never even heard of you!" You're right, Aaron: that was uncomebackwittable. Cheers to you.
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