The Spool / Reviews
Hard Knocks: Offseason with the New York Giants leaves the locker room for the front office
The long-running doc series shifts its focus to a more serious tone and what happens with management with intriguing results.
NetworkHBO
8.3
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Confession time. I’m a New York Giants fan. And a third-generation one at that. So when I heard that they’d be the team featured in Hard Knocks: Offseason, I did not find myself especially enthusiastic. Even casual fans of the now 23-year-old series can tell you that many, if not most, teams don’t exactly cover themselves in glory. And for an organization like the Giants, traditionally one of the most buttoned-up of the NFL franchises, it seemed an especially odd fit. However, I’m a lifelong Giants fan, so as they go, so do I.

What’s immediately apparent in the two episodes screened for critics is the addendum of Offseason at the end of the series title is not merely cosmetic. While the show has traditionally focused its lens on the sidelines and field during preseason, Hard Knocks: Offseason posts itself in the hallways and at the desks of the front office. Yes, viewers glimpse the occasional player or prospect. Indeed, the coach, in this case Brian Daboll, remains an important part of the story. However, the “star” of the proceedings is General Manager Joe Schoen as he and his team attempt to build a squad that will erase the sting of going 6 and 11 in the 2023-24 season.

As a central figure, Schoen is a fairly laid-back focal point. His stories do reveal an intense dedication to work and frugality. A tale of driving for hours after accepting the Giants job with nothing but two peanut butter sandwiches for sustenance is particularly informative. However, at least so far, all external signs of excess seem sublimated beneath a loose, laconic management style. There’s no mutiny visible or afoot, so he seems to command respect. He just doesn’t do it by bloviating about the building or thundering in the face of his staff.

Hard Knocks Offseason with the New York Giants (HBO) joe-schoen-senior-vice-president-and-general-manager
Joe Schoen, Senior Vice President and General Manager, takes a call during the Draft. (Matt Swensen/HBO)

As a fan, that’s reassuring. As a viewer, on the other hand, it dials down the drama in a way that might be a no-go for some. It moves Hard Knocks: Offseason away from its “reality television with more impressive productions values” traditions into something more akin to riding along with the wonks. If the audience is here for insight on how football teams manage talent from the moment a season ends, this season will hit the spot nicely. For those who prefer red meat in their TV diet, the switch-up may frustrate and disappoint.

This isn’t to say the show is dull or devoid of personality, though. For one, Liev Schreiber lends his voice to the proceedings as the omniscient narrator. A Lower East Side kid and current resident of Manhattan, his gruff intonation reflects the New York of it all well. He’s quiet and understated in the part, which fits the Giants’ self-concept and presentation. However, he handles the occasional tumbles into poetic language that almost any NFL property must occasionally traffic in. He’s admittedly never as blustery as the voice of NFL Films John Facenda. Nevertheless, Schreiber finds the right rhythm and cadence to adapt Facenda’s style to something a little more hushed.

Hard Knocks Offseason with the New York Giants (HBO) dennis-hickey-assistant-director-of-player-personnel-new-york-giants
Dennis Hickey, Assistant Director of Player Personnel, crunches numbers. (Matt Swensen/HBO)

Additionally, while Schoen isn’t prone to nonsense, that doesn’t mean he or his staff aren’t interesting. In the second episode, in particular, the scouts get a chance to shine. They attend The Combine, the first big event of the offseason. It’s a prospective player meat market in which the athletes perform feats of ability and answer questions of both character and memorization. Meanwhile, their every move and word is carved up and analyzed by every team’s scout corps.

While the whole thing is decidedly serious, the Giants team has terrific chemistry. Particularly delightful is everyone giving Daboll a hard time for his insistence that he could definitely run the 40-yard dash in under 7 seconds, especially if he’s running toward chicken wings. A close second is their post-Combine steak dinner that finds them needling one another and openly question the accuracy of one player’s record-setting run.

Hard Knocks Offseason with the New York Giants (HBO) Brandon Brown and Joe Schoen
Assistant General Manager Brandon Brown and Senior VP and General Manager Joe Schoen talk strategy. (Matt Swensen/HBO)

The biggest example of how Schoen himself can be an ironically riveting presence in Hard Knocks: Offseason comes from a free agent situation. The first two episodes repeatedly return to how the Giants will handle the possible departure of running back Saquon Barkley. Barkley was obviously the G-men’s most effective offensive weapon over the past few years. Unfortunately, being 27 and a running back in the NFL is a precarious situation for both player and team. His past productivity entitles him to a significant salary bump. On the other hand, running backs are one of the high-profile positions with the shortest shelf lives. It turns out getting tackled, hard, nearly every time you touch the ball and then laying underneath a human pile isn’t the best for one’s body.

How Schoen navigates that tension is fascinating in the sheer lack of emotion. It all culminates in a reasonable and cordial phone call between the GM and the RB. It is also so utterly empty of anyone saying what they really feel. It’s impossible to listen to without feeling your skin crawl. It’s remarkable how divorced it is from the stakes at hand for both men. If you just read their words, you might conclude they were discussing something as minor as meeting up for dinner.

Thus, despite my initial trepidation, I came away from the two episodes screened feeling relatively happy with the Giants’ participation. Again, though, that’s my fan hat. As a work of television, this is a “serious” show more likely to appeal to people in the process. Those seeking something a bit more purely entertainment-oriented may long for a more Jets-style season.

Hard Knocks: Offseason with the New York Giants’ first episode hit the line July 2 on HBO. Further episodes air every Tuesday.

Hard Knocks: Offseason with the New York Giants Trailer:

NetworkHBO