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July 06, 2021

John McMullen: A ‘Hard Knock' at Lurie and the conventional-thinking Eagles

When you're struggling to win games, there are other ways to market your team and win fans — just ask the Cowboys

Eagles NFL

If you’re paying attention, the news that the Dallas Cowboys would be appearing on HBO’s "Hard Knocks" for a third time was hardly surprising.

The Cowboys were eligible and you can criticize that organization all you like for its lack of on-field efficacy since the bourbon-fueled divorce of Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson but business-wise the ‘Boys are No. 1 and second-place has never gotten within earshot.

Jones is like a first-responder when it comes to brand-building and the rest of the NFL runs in the other direction, desperate to escape the sanitizing glare of sunlight.

Forbes’ most recent NFL team valuations have the Cowboys on top, worth an estimated $5.7 billion, more than any other sports franchise in the world, never mind its peers.

That’s not changing with or without "Hard Knocks" of course, but Jones’ embrace of the show is a small window into why he’s so successful on the business side of the equation.

Jeffrey Lurie and the Eagles’ aren’t exactly hurting when it comes to finances — nor are any NFL owners, for that matter — but they are beholden to the CIA- or NSA-like mindset of the league that’s bent on secrecy to protect every potential inch of competitive advantage.

To be clear the Eagles weren’t even in the mix for "Hard Knocks" in 2021, the 16th incarnation of the show which has been losing steam rapidly in recent years.

Early in the run, it became abundantly clear that few organizations other than the Cowboys, who appeared on two of the first four seasons, wanted any part of the “disruption” of NFL Films boom mics so the league had to invent rules to ensure there are eligible teams that must participate each year if ordered to do so.

By 2013 the league announced that, in the absence of a team volunteering to participate in "Hard Knocks," certain teams could be forced to participate. The options this year, along with the Cowboys, were the Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, Denver Broncos, and New York Giants.

PhillyVoice reached out to the league to confirm if teams could still volunteer and no one seemed to even know, which basically highlights the current inertia of the process.

The Eagles got their get-out-of-jail-free card under two parts of the legislation — having a first-year head coach in Nick Sirianni and making the playoffs in at least one of the past two seasons (2019). The other eliminator is having participated in the previous 10 years and Lurie’s team has never been on “Hard Knocks,” although they did participate on Amazon’s “All or Nothing,” a similar show which aired in 2019.

Three strikes and you're out. Appearing was never considered because it didn't have to be.

This isn’t some Constitutional law, however, and “Hard Knocks” would have been great for an Eagles team in transition that has gone from marquee, prime-time staple to afterthoughts with only two starring roles scheduled in 2020, a mandated Thursday night affair against the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a Monday-nighter against, you guessed it, Jones’ Cowboys.

The harsh reality there is that Philadelphia is the one being carried by Tom Brady and Co. and its hated rival.

The one consistent theme surrounding the Eagles from national pundits throughout the offseason has been the belief that the team isn’t going to be relevant in 2021. Most of that is tethered to Sirianni, the rookie head coach who came across as overmatched in an introductory Zoom presser, and a first-year starting quarterback with a second-round draft pedigree in Jalen Hurts.

"I think it’s pretty much it," Newsday NFL columnist Bob Glauber admitted.  "... It is a league of coaches and quarterbacks. Questions about both of those for the Eagles and I don’t think those questions will be answered in a positive way until they can go out and prove that they can win games and win games consistently."

The quickest path and the only real path back to relevancy in the NFL is winning — but it could be kickstarted by highlighting that Sirianni isn’t some glorified cheerleader and Hurts is a legitimate prospect, not the placeholder for the real QB in 2022, on "Hard Knocks."

There is also no downside to it. No team has ever lost a game because of the show.

Former NFL Films producer Darren DeGaetano had a hand in the Cowboys’ first two appearances on the show and explained the goals of the production.

"We always tried to focus on individual player storylines," DeGaetano said. "A longshot rookie, popular veteran. [We] always did our best not to show too many X’s and O’s."

Like with most successful shows, the goal is the casual audience.

"[We were] appealing to a broader audience, not just football heads," DeGaetano noted. "Nowadays, teams have final cut so only what they want gets out."

In the larger scheme of things, "Hard Knocks" doesn’t matter. Pro sports is cyclical and the Eagles will regain prominence when they begin to play better again and reach the postseason.

From there, the prime-time matchups will return aplenty and life will return to normal for Lurie’s team, albeit with a failure to recognize an opportunity was even available to be missed for an organization that likes to think of itself as one of the more innovative in the league but is instead, a terribly conventional one which has its default setting programmed to groupthink more often than not.

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John McMullen is a contributor to, and covers the Eagles and the NFL for Sports Illustrated and JAKIB Media. He’s also the co-host of “Birds 365,” a daily streaming show covering the Eagles and the NFL and the host of “Extending the Play” on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at

Follow John on Twitter: @JFMcMullen