HBO's reality sports documentary series Hard Knocks airs its third episode of the 2018 season on Tuesday night. Developed by HBO Sports and NFL Films and narrated by the legendary Liev Schreiber — whose mother bought him a motorcycle for his 16th birthday "to promote fearlessness" — the series follows one NFL team for a few weeks each August, offering behind-the-scenes access to the team's personalities and preparation. This year's featured team is the Cleveland Browns, who didn't win any games last season.
Hard Knocks debuted in 2001 and revolutionized sports-based reality television. But like so many good things, skeptics began to wonder what was the catch. Rumors of a Hard Knocks curse gained steam after the 2007 Kansas City Chiefs and 2008 Dallas Cowboys respectively suffered five- and four-game declines in their Hard Knocks seasons, the latter felled by a spate of injuries to Tony Romo and other starters.
But whereas the Madden curse always felt ridiculous but believable in a fun and unscientific sort of way, the Hard Knocks curse really just felt ridiculous. One season after Dallas declined, the 2009 Cincinnati Bengals improved by six games and won the AFC North, and the season after that, the 2010 N.Y. Jets won 11 games and beat the Patriots in the Divisional Playoffs in Foxboro before losing in the AFC Championship.
Nevertheless, the Hard Knocks effect still makes some waves each summer. And while there have been "myth of the Hard Knocks curse" articles out there for a few years, none has done more than quickly skip through team by team. So I decided to take a current and comprehensive look — consolidating the results, looking beyond just one season, and analyzing potential effects on the betting markets as well.
The 2001 Ravens were the first of 14 teams to go behind the Hard Knocks camera. The 2004 Jaguars technically appeared on an NFL Network series called Inside Training Camp: Jaguars Summer — the title of which beams of the same brilliance and creativity of Noah's Arcade (Wayne's World, anyone?) — but that edition is retroactively listed with Hard Knocks on NFL Game Pass and Hulu, so I am including it here.
Only five of the 13 teams (38%) who have completed their Hard Knocks season saw their win totals decline relative to the season before — the 2001 Ravens, 2007 Chiefs, 2008 Cowboys, 2016 Rams, and 2017 Buccaneers. While the average dip for those Hard Knocks squads has been a pretty substantial 3.6 games, the relative infrequency of decline is all you really need to know to dispel the Hard Knocks curse.
Meanwhile, six Hard Knocks teams (46%) won more games in their Hard Knocks season than they did the year before, and two teams (15%), the 2002 Cowboys and 2015 Texans, equaled their prior season's win total. From 2009 through 2014, five straight Hard Knocks teams improved — ripe enough for a counter-narrative, perhaps, and yet the "Hard Knocks blessing" corner failed to gather any momentum at the time.
Through 2017, Hard Knocks teams had a cumulative record of 102-105-1 in the season prior to appearing on the show, and they had a record of 100-108-0 in the season after — about as balanced as can be.
I also widened my analysis beyond teams' performance in the seasons immediately before and after Hard Knocks, looking as far as three seasons forward and three seasons back. When we look ahead and compare teams' incremental gains or losses in the win column relative to the season before they appeared in Hard Knocks, we see a continuation of the same trend as above — meaning no trend at all.
Two seasons after Hard Knocks, five out of 12 teams (42%) improved by an average of 4.4 games compared to their pre-Hard Knocks season; four of 12 (33%) declined by an average of 3.8 games; and three out of 12 teams (25%) were in the exact same position they were in before letting the cameras in. Three seasons after Hard Knocks, six out of 11 teams (55%) improved and five teams (45%) declined — a pretty even split.
If we really want to sniff out a trend, then perhaps we can argue that Hard Knocks teams were sort of on the rise before they appeared on the show, peaked the season after, and declined from there. The chart below captures the 11 Hard Knocks teams that participated through 2015; it excludes the 2016 Rams and 2017 Bucs because they don't have complete "seasons after" data. (And the 2018 Browns don't have any.)
Three seasons prior to being featured, the average 2001 to 2015 Hard Knocks team had 7.4 wins and a 46.0% winning percentage. Only three out of the 11 teams were above .500 (27%). The season after appearing on the show, the average 2001 to 2015 Hard Knocks team had 8.3 wins and a 51.7% winning percentage, and seven out of 11 were above .500 (64%). That's the most trend-supportive stat in here.
But unfortunately for those in search of deeper meaning, these trends are muted by the (incomplete) addition of the 2016 Rams and 2017 Bucs. There's still a pre-Hard Knocks rise, of sorts, but the peak season becomes the season before the show, when the average Hard Knocks team wins 7.8 games.
While we're here, let's look at the relationship between Hard Knocks and the betting markets. Do Hard Knocks teams typically go over or under their Vegas win totals? Are their Super Bowl odds inflated or deflated by the fact that they're featured? Alas, as on the playing field, Hard Knocks is trend-less.
Seven of 13 Hard Knocks teams (54%) have gone under their Vegas win total in their Hard Knocks season by an average of 2.4 games; five (38%) have gone over by 1.8 games; and the 2012 Dolphins pushed. The 2017 Bucs. 2016 Rams, and 2014 Falcons were all noteworthy underperformers in recent seasons, but the 2013 Bengals, 2010 Jets, and 2009 Bengals punched the over in three of the four years prior to that.
Meanwhile, since 2009 — the earliest season for which I have Super Bowl odds from various points in the offseason — three out of nine Hard Knocks teams (33%) have seen their implied probability to win the Super Bowl increase after the show, five (55%) decreased, and one (11%) was unchanged. Rex Ryan and the 2010 Jets stand out for doubling their Super Bowl chances and delivering a very entertaining Hard Knocks.
There is no Hard Knocks curse, and there is no Hard Knocks anything, really. Some teams go up, some go down, some go over, some go under, some improve in the eyes of the public, others decline. All we're left with is an entertaining series — and the "dulcet tones" of its fearless raconteur, Issac Liev Schreiber.
The primary data source for this article was pro-football-reference.com. Data was compiled and analyzed by ELDORADO. All charts and graphics herein were created by ELDORADO.