Aaron Rodgers’ Hard Knocks debut cements his status as football’s biggest weirdo

The New York Jets are the team everyone is talking about this summer, thanks to a busy offseason and higher expectations than the fan base has had in years. It’s also the team HBO has decided to follow for its annual Hard Knocks docuseries.

Along with an excellent 2022 rookie class ready to take on an even bigger role in the team, the Jets have the distinctly strange privilege of being the new home of elite quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers is not only one of the NFL’s best players, but also one of its weirdest dudes, with behavior that ranges from the somewhat silly (a four-day stay in a pitch-black cave to figure out whether he wanted to keep playing pro football) to the downright unethical (misleading NFL officials about his COVID vaccination status). As it turns out, that combination makes for a fascinating Hard Knocks season right off the bat.

Like most seasons of Hard Knocks, the 2023 iteration starts by introducing the audience to some of the team’s most exciting players, who we’ll be following over the next few weeks. Unlike previous seasons, where the show is more about the entire team, there’s no attempt at all to hide the fact that this year is the Aaron Rodgers show. And everyone, from the stands full of fans who come out to watch his first practice to his new teammates, has a ticket.

Rodgers is the lens through which every other part of this season of Hard Knocks is focused. Coaches and teammates are often introduced to the viewer when they first meet Rodgers — sometimes by saying that they’ve been fans of his since elementary school. Other times we get side conversations from groups of players talking about their admiration for their new QB both on and off the field: “Whatever they say about Aaron Rodgers on TV is a lie,” as defensive lineman Al Woods puts it.

Rodgers shaking hands with Bryce Young the new quaterback for the Carolina Panthers
Rodgers shaking hands with Bryce Young.
Photo: Halverson/Getty Images

Even when the show is focused on someone else entirely, Rodgers is always bound to come up, one way or another. In the second episode, a magic show culminates in a trick that surprisingly includes the team’s star QB, throwing the whole team into pandemonium as the magician claims to read Rodgers’ mind — an implication Rodgers doesn’t seem to take kindly to.

This dynamic is at its funniest when Rodgers goes on a long tangent about new offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, who also coached the star quarterback when he was a Green Bay Packer. According to Rodgers, Hackett likens almost everything in practice to Austin Powers in Goldmember, somehow. As it turns out, the somewhat former Broncos head coach loves the movie, and is convinced it’s a seminal text on how to play football — right down to renaming the Red Zone the Gold Zone.

Similarly strange and hilarious is Rodgers’ unabashed love of Hard Knocks narrator Liev Schreiber, who actually appears in the show in a training camp visit for the first time in its 17-season history. Schreiber, who Rodgers can’t stop calling “the voice of God,” strolls around camp, seeming to have both a great and very awkward time, wandering around the field as people mostly avoid him. Meanwhile, Rodgers spends the better part of several minutes following coach Hackett around, insisting he introduce himself to Schreiber.

It’s both extremely funny behavior, and somehow (even more hilariously) doesn’t do a damn thing to humanize Rodgers or distract from his offseason headlines, which included things like the previously mentioned cave retreat and being a very public proponent of psychedelic drug use. It does, however, make for excellent television.

Even more interesting than Rodgers’ continued antics, however, are the storylines from some of the other players the show highlights. The first episode’s real standout is cornerback Sauce Gardner, who left college early last year to play in the NFL and immediately became one of the best in the league at his position. The one caveat to his early departure from the University of Cincinnati was that he promised his grandma that he’d return to school and graduate, a ceremony we get to see in the show.

Sauce Gardner talking to Jets teammates at the Hall of Fame game against the Cleveland Browns
Gardner talking to teammates during the 2023 Hall of Fame Game.
Photo: Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The show finds just as much good-natured heart in Sauce’s time on the field as off, though. This is most clearly shown in his competitive rivalry and friendship with fellow outstanding second-year player Garrett Wilson. Wilson plays wide receiver for the Jets, meaning the two spend all of practice lining up against each other and every play going one on one, practically trading back and forth who wins each play.

Wilson and Gardner, along with a few other Jets, provide welcome breaks from the Rodgers circus, and help keep Hard Knocks’ latest season focused on football. One thing the show hasn’t focused much on yet are the peripheral players desperate to make the team’s final roster. While those stories often make up some of the best and most compelling drama of Hard Knocks, it so far feels like the focus on stars is keeping them on the sidelines. But with only two episodes down, there’s still plenty of time to give smaller players their due. And more importantly, the Aaron Rodgers show is entertaining enough on its own so far.