Whether the Dallas Cowboys go 0-17, 17-0 or something in between this year, they’re guaranteed to make history – sort of. The Cowboys will be the first team to appear on HBO’s series “Hard Knocks” three times after Dallas was selected to be featured on the hit show this summer.
The Cowboys were on “Hard Knocks” in 2002 and ‘08 when the show was still relatively early in its existence. The 2002 season was just the second in the show’s history after the Ravens were the focus of “Hard Knocks” in 2001, one year after winning the Super Bowl.
As fun as it will be for fans to watch Dak Prescott return from a gruesome ankle injury, Mike McCarthy lead Dallas in his second season and CeeDee Lamb hopefully blossom into a star receiver, teams that have been on “Hard Knocks” in the past have not fared all that well.
The Rams bucked that trend last year by going 10-6 and making the playoffs, and beating the Seahawks with a shorthanded starting lineup in the Wild-Card round of the postseason – a game that was played in Seattle, nonetheless. But their co-stars on the show, the Los Angeles Chargers, went 7-9 and missed the playoffs … again.
The Rams became the sixth team to make the playoffs in the season they were on “Hard Knocks,” and third to win a postseason game. No team has made the Super Bowl the year it was on the show.
Sorry in advance, Cowboys fans.
With their Super Bowl odds sitting at +4000 (15th-best in the NFL), Dallas is already a longshot to reach the big game. Being under the microscope in training camp and the preseason probably won’t help.
Here’s a look at how the last 16 teams have performed in the season they were on “Hard Knocks,” as well as their record the year prior.
2020: Rams (10-6)*
9-7 in 2019
2020: Chargers (7-9)
5-11 in 2019
2019: Raiders (7-9)
4-12 in 2018
2018: Browns (7-8-1)^
0-16 in 2017
2017: Buccaneers (5-11)
9-7 in 2016
2016: Rams (4-12)^
7-9 in 2015
2015: Texans (9-7)*
9-7 in 2014
2014: Falcons (6-10)^
4-12 in 2013
2013: Bengals (11-5)*+
10-6 in 2012
2012: Dolphins (7-9)
6-10 in 2011
2010: Jets (11-5)*
9-7 in 2009
2009: Bengals (10-6)*+
4-11-1 in 2008
2008: Cowboys (9-7)
13-3 in 2007
2007: Chiefs (4-12)
9-7 in 2006
2002: Cowboys (5-11)^
5-11 in 2001
2001: Ravens (10-6)*
12-4 in 2000
(* = made playoffs)
(+ = won division)
(^ = fired head coach)
With a relatively large sample size, let’s go by the numbers of “Hard Knocks” history and uncover some interesting (and important) trends from years past.
1 team made the conference championship
Of all the teams that have been on “Hard Knocks,” one team won multiple playoff games. The 2010 New York Jets, led by Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez. New York went 11-5, finished second in the AFC East and made a run to the AFC Championship Game after beating the Colts and Patriots in the first two rounds of the playoffs. HBO asked the Jets to return to the show in 2011, but they understandably declined – as did their record, going 8-8 that year.
2 teams won their division
Believe it or not, but only two of the 16 teams in “Hard Knocks” history have won their division: the Bengals in 2009, and the Bengals again in 2013. Of course, they never won a playoff game under Marvin Lewis, so they didn’t escape the Wild-Card round in either year, but at least they can say they were the only team in the show’s history to win their division. The Rams came close last year, as did the Ravens in 2001, but neither won their respective divisions.
3 teams won a playoff game
In the first season of “Hard Knocks,” the Ravens were coming off a Super Bowl win over the Giants and had high expectations for the 2001 season. Unfortunately, Jamal Lewis suffered a season-ending injury in camp and sunk Baltimore’s Super Bowl hopes. The Ravens still won a playoff game that year, but their run ended in the divisional round.
The 2020 Rams and 2010 Jets are the only other teams that won a playoff game in the season they were on “Hard Knocks.” This January, the Rams beat the Seahawks in the Wild-Card round on the road before losing to the Packers the following week.
4 teams fired their head coach
With HBO and NFL Films targeting teams that typically didn’t have success the year prior, coaches were often on the hot seat while appearing on the show. That has led to a handful of firings either during the season or immediately after.
In 2002, the Cowboys moved on from head coach Dave Campo in favor of Bill Parcells, who took over in 2003. Campo had three straight years with 5-11 records, so his firing wasn’t a huge surprise.
The Falcons fired Mike Smith after the 2014 season with Atlanta finishing 6-10, its second straight losing season.
The Rams moved on from Jeff Fisher toward the end of the 2016 season after he failed to finish a single year with a winning record, which opened the door for Sean McVay to come in as the head coach in 2017.
And finally, the Browns cut ties with Hue Jackson in October of the 2018 season after the team got off to a 2-5-1 start.
5 teams won six or fewer games
Plenty of teams have struggled in the season they appeared on “Hard Knocks.” Of the 16, five failed to win more than six games, with the 2016 Rams and ‘07 Chiefs tying for the worst record in the show’s history at 4-12.
The 2002 Cowboys and 2017 Buccaneers went 5-11, while the 2014 Falcons went 6-10. The Falcons were the only team among those five to actually have a better record than the year prior, improving from 4-12 to 6-10.
6 teams made the playoffs
Last season, the Rams became the sixth team to make the playoffs while appearing on “Hard Knocks.” They snapped a four-year streak of “Hard Knocks” teams missing the playoffs after there was actually a good stretch of performances from 2009-2015.
In that span, the 2009 Bengals, ‘10 Jets, ‘13 Bengals and ‘15 Texans all made the playoffs. So, in a span of six seasons of the show – there was no new season of “Hard Knocks” in 2011 – four teams made the playoffs.
The first team to make the postseason while on “Hard Knocks” was Baltimore in 2001.
7 teams had a winning record
Cowboys fans might be pleasantly surprised to find out nearly half the teams to appear on the show finished with a winning record. Those teams were as follows:
2001 Ravens (10-6)
2008 Cowboys (9-7)
2009 Bengals (10-6)
2010 Jets (11-5)
2013 Bengals (11-5)
2015 Texans (9-7)
2020 Rams (10-6)
No team has finished better than 11-5 after appearing on “Hard Knocks,” but there have been some quality teams that performed well after having the cameras around during training camp.
8 teams were selected after finishing above .500 the year prior
Beginning in 2014, if a team made the playoffs in the previous two years, had a first-year head coach or appeared on the show in the last 10 years, it was able to decline being on “Hard Knocks.” So, most of the best teams in the NFL have opted not to be featured on the series, which is understandable.
It’s primarily why the Patriots, Packers and Steelers have never appeared.
But HBO was still able to lure eight teams with a winning record the year prior to appear on the show. The Ravens, Chiefs, Cowboys, Jets, Bengals, Texans, Buccaneers and Rams were all selected to be on “Hard Knocks” one year after finishing above .500, so they weren’t afraid of what the spotlight might do to them after a successful season.
9 teams had an improved record
The Cowboys went 6-10 last year, their worst record since 2015 when they finished 4-12. It was a difficult season without Prescott for most of the year, as well as a number of offensive linemen going down with injuries.
Improving upon that unimpressive record is one goal for Dallas, but McCarthy wants to do more than just go 7-10 or 8-9.
Nine teams have been on “Hard Knocks” and actually improve their records from the year prior. The Bengals went from 4-11-1 in 2008 to 10-6 in ‘09, an impressive turnaround. The Jets improved from 9-7 in 2009 to 11-5 in ‘10 under Sanchez. The Dolphins won one more game in 2012 (7-9) than they did the year prior, while the Falcons improved by two wins in 2014 (6-10) after finishing 4-12 in ‘13.
It wasn’t hard for the Browns to improve upon their 0-16 record in 2017, as they went 7-8-1 while on “Hard Knocks” in ‘18. That began a three-year stretch of each team improving while on “Hard Knocks.” The Raiders went from 4-12 in 2018 to 7-9 in ‘19, the Chargers finished 7-9 last season after going 5-11 in 2019, and the Rams improved from 9-7 to 10-6 last year.