‘Hard Knocks’ Episode 4 highlights pain of training camp

Bishop Sankey (20) is tackled by Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman (77) during a Week 3 preseason game. Hageman boosted his game after hearing negative remarks from the coaching staff the week prior.

Dale Zanine

There are often times when being part of an NFL team looks like a lot of fun. Scoring touchdowns, making a big play, the brotherhood of a locker room and the fame and fortune that comes with success in the league; those all look great.

When HBO aired the fourth episode of "Hard Knocks" on Tuesday, few moments involving the joys of football life were portrayed. This most recent installment revolved almost entirely around the pain and suffering of training camp.

Last week’s episode left off directly after Atlanta’s 25-point loss to Houston in the second week of preseason play. Episode 4 began in Flowery Branch, Ga., at the team’s facility, with the fallout from the Falcons’ poor performance.

The Falcons didn’t play well on special teams in Houston. In fact, a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown, and a block of an attempted field goal, made the unit’s performance ugly. Keith Armstrong, Atlanta’s special teams coordinator, held nothing back as he critiqued the team in a meeting.

Armstrong, with voice raised and expletives flying, went play-by-play and called out the members of his unit that failed to perform up to his standards. Rookies Devonta Freeman, Jacques Smith, Ra’Shede Hageman and Dez Southward were all specifically called out. As was veteran Malliciah Goodman, who didn’t look at all happy to be in the crosshairs.

With fervor, Armstong told his men he wasn’t holding anything back. And he wasn’t holding anyone’s hand either.

"That’s one man talking to another man," screamed Armstrong during his tirade in a special teams’ meeting. "I’m not in the bathroom talking behind your back. Talking about, I’m a man. I’m coming to talk right in your face. And I’m telling you, do it the way I tell you to do it."

Hageman felt more wrath in a defensive line meeting from Bryan Cox, Atlanta’s new defensive line coach.

The scene started with Hageman saying that he didn’t want to watch any more film. He was obviously flustered. Apparently Cox had been going at him pretty hard over his performance. Cox felt like Hageman needed to see more.

"You need to watch this sh–, because it’s embarrassing," said Cox. "I want you to see how f–king pitiful you look."

Cox questioned Hageman’s pride and character, likened his play to high-school level intensity and told the rookie his play just wasn’t good enough.

Armstrong and Cox aren’t just criticizing their players for the fun of it. This is training camp, and every moment is a teaching moment. The coaching staff is trying to find the 53 best players for Atlanta’s final roster, and each individual position coach needs the best players to be on the field. If Armstrong and Cox are going hard at a particular player, it’s being done to teach or inspire, oftentimes both.

With an impressive and physical tackle on special teams the next week against Tennessee, apparently Goodman took his criticism to heart. Hageman made a sound tackle on the edge against the Titans, and got to the quarterback for a sack later in the game. He showed what he could do when he was dialed in.

It’s not all negativity spilling from the coaches.

Armstrong was the first on the field to praise his unit against the Titans. Atlanta played much better on special teams in Week 3 of the preseason. Cox was very vocal too, in a positive way. He even told Hageman in the same team meeting he was berating him, that he felt the rookie was "going to be a very good player."

Guys that have likely sewn up roster spots, like Hageman, but still need to hear the criticism–and encouragement–got that. But as camp is nearing its final stages, and the regular season approaches, the Falcons must trim their roster down by 37 players to get to a 53-man roster. Episode 4 of "Hard Knocks" displayed the pain of some of those finding out their time was done in Atlanta.

Of the 10 players who were waived the day after Atlanta played Tennessee in Week 3 of the preseason, "Hard Knocks" gave quarterback Jeff Mathews the most air time.

Mathews was well thought of, but as was heard from his one-on-one session with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, just wasn’t mastering what he needed to master. On a roster with Matt Ryan at the top of the depth chart, and two quarterbacks ahead, Mathews needed to be perfect.

He wasn’t.

One of the overly voyeuristic moments of "Hard Knocks" is watching how players react to being cut. Some, like Mathews, don’t say much and leave quickly, getting the moment over like ripping a bandage off a healed wound. Head coach Mike Smith noted that every player handles it differently.

Most players thanked Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff as they were being let go. The Falcons have be highly praised in recent years as a top-notch football team, and organization from the top down, and Smith and Dimitroff heard that from the guys being cut. No one exploded at the news, no one was overly animated.

Maybe the first group of cuts, in the back of their minds, knew what was happening and that made the process go easier. Maybe Atlanta just is that much of a respected entity, and time spent in camp with the Falcons is beneficial no matter what. Or maybe the tougher cuts are yet to come. The team still has to go from 75 players to 53 next week.

As the final roster starts to take shape, the angles being shown on "Hard Knocks" are going to be less-and-less about the highs of adjusting to camp, and more about the personal pain of being let go. Football is a business, you’ll hear that repeatedly when a player is traded or cut during the season.

But "Hard Knocks" shows all too well, that the business of football is personal. While training camp is excruciatingly tough on the players from a physical standpoint, the mental anguish might be tougher. Especially for the third of the camp roster that fails to make the team.