SportsPulse: The NFL season is finally here. Here’s how our writers see the season playing out with their bold predictions and who will be holding the Lombardi trophy in Miami.
USA TODAY”Hard Knocks” season finales cut right to the chase.There’s no filler, just football. Players on the roster bubble get one last shot to make an impression in preseason Game 4, which takes place just hours before the start of the dreaded and frantic cut down from the 90-man training camp roster to the final 53.NFL dreams that germinate during childhood can die in this short and agonizing period of time. It’s that hook that makes “Hard Knocks” so enthralling. Introduce an audience to a player they might be very compelled to root for, only to have said player’s career hang in the balance in the finale. Keelan Doss was an easy player to root for. An Alameda, California, native who played collegiately at UC-Davis, Doss was an undrafted rookie free agent pickup for the Oakland Raiders. He appeared to have a legitimate chance to make the final 53-man roster. However, in the preseason finale against the Seattle Seahawks, Doss drops some passes (which prompts Jon Gruden to yell — presumably — at Mike Mayock through his headset: “Hey Mayock, can you find some guys who can catch, please?”). Doss gets the message. He finishes the game with six catches for 63 yards. After the game, Gruden tells the wide receiver: “I just yell at you because I’m your biggest fan.” Less than 48 hours later, Doss is released. He opts to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars to be on their practice squad.”That was your storyline. That was not my storyline,” Gruden told reporters on Monday when asked about Doss. “Just so we’re on the same page, he did a heck of a job. We tried to keep him on the practice squad. He felt he had a better opportunity to make the team in Jacksonville. So we hate to see him go. We’re happy for his future.”He’s a big story on the TV show. But that’s not the reality that we saw on tape.”HARD KNOCKS EPISODE 4 RECAP: Shortened field had Jon Gruden seethingHARD KNOCKS EPISODE 3 RECAP: Antonio Brown really hates NFL’s updated helmetsHARD KNOCKS EPISODE 2 RECAP: Antonio Brown shows off burned feetHARD KNOCKS EPISODE 1 RECAP: Jon Gruden ends NFL dreams earlyLuke Willson, Jason Cabinda also cutTwo other roster bubble players who were followed by NFL Films’ cameras for the past month also were among the 37 players released.Tight end Luke Willson was among the first players to get cut, getting released on Friday. Oakland kept three tight ends on the 53-man roster — Darren Waller, Foster Moreau and Derek Carrier — and another on the practice squad — Eric Saubert. “Kinda feel like a piece of (expletive). It’s tough. It sucks. Fortunate to be on the other side for a while,” says Willson, who’s spent six seasons in the NFL. “I still think I got some ball left in me.”For Willson, there’s the hope of getting picked up by another team. There’s also the option to play in a start-up league such as the XFL to keep the NFL hopes alive. Or, perhaps, after six seasons, it might be the end.”For real, you have an expiration date on your career, and when it comes you better be prepared for it because it hits you like a ton of bricks,” says Raiders defensive line coach Brentson Buckner, who spent 12 seasons in the NFL playing for four different teams.Linebacker Jason Cabinda was the odd man out when the Raiders opted to keep just five linebackers on the final 53-man roster. Cabinda isn’t team-less for long, as the Detroit Lions quickly add him to their practice squad.In all, the Raiders keep 12 rookies on the final 53-man roster.Gruden is excited about the young, promising team: “We’re building the foundation of something (expletive) great.”Highlights from the 14th season of “Hard Knocks”: Star of the show: Antonio BrownFor better or for worse, the wild drama surrounding new Raiders receiver Antonio Brown got a plethora of air time on “Hard Knocks.” A big reason for this was how candid Brown was about his situation(s). He let the NFL Films cameras show his cryotherapy-damaged feet and almost an entire episode was dedicated to Brown’s crazy saga — from having to wear a league-mandated helmet (“This lid? This lid ugly as (expletive) yo.”) to his work to get back on the practice field (“Got my (expletive) new skin. Got my socks back. I’m on my way back, baby.”) to Gruden’s unwavering support for his new receiver (“Thanks for supporting me coach. My (expletive) head, the feet. You’ve been the constant supporter.”).By the season finale, Brown’s feet look much improved and he’s settled on a new, futuristic-looking helmet (“That boy look like a Power Ranger,” says receiver Keon Hatcher).The show ends with a dramatic pool workout featuring Brown, in which he was working with a medicine ball, riding a stationary bike and catching footballs from a JUGS machine. It actually looked like a fun workout.Thanks for watching! Wave goodbye to #HardKnocks 2019 🌊 pic.twitter.com/bqmSFC7eNr— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) September 4, 2019Quote of the show: Jon GrudenJon Gruden is good in front of the cameras, so it should surprise nobody that the Raiders’ head coach had a number of good zingers during this season’s “Hard Knocks.”From his “I’m not really into dreams, anymore. I’m into (expletive) nightmares” speech to open Episode 1 to his “Knock on wood if you’re with me” slogan, Gruden provided plenty of good material. But, the winner has to be what Gruden said about receiver Keelan Doss in Episode 2 before the team’s preseason opener against the Los Angeles Rams: “I’m more excited to see you play than I am to see my wife, and I haven’t seen her in two weeks.”Gruden cut Doss on Saturday.Honorable mention: “Tom Brady’s 42 years old? He’s older than my daddy! Tom Brady could have been my daddy.” — Rookie safety Johnathan Abram.Best musical choice: Reinvented ‘Autumn Wind’When you have an iconic NFL franchise on “Hard Knocks,” you have to pull out all the stops. Mashing NFL Films’ famous “Autumn Wind” poem with David Robidoux’s “Hard Knocks” theme was really a nice touch.Honorable mention: Gruden considers Metallica’s “Wherever I May Roam” to be a “great way to start the day.” Totally agree.More coming from HBO and NFL FilmsOn Tuesday, a new collaboration between HBO and NFL Films was announced: A documentary featuring New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban. “Belichick & Saban: The Art of Coaching” will air on Dec. 10, and explore the relationship between the most successful active NFL and college football coaches. The two coaches go way back. If you’ve seen “A Football Life: Cleveland ’95” — which is excellent — you’ll recall that Saban was defensive coordinator under Belichick during his first four seasons as head coach of the Cleveland Browns.Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jim Reineking on Twitter @jimreineking.AutoplayShow ThumbnailsShow CaptionsLast SlideNext SlideIf you love talking football, we have the perfect spot for you. Join our Facebook Group, The Ruling Off the Field, to engage in friendly debate and conversation with fellow football fans and our NFL insiders.