Sports | December 23, 2021 10:43 am

Why NFL Films Chose the Colts for HBO’s First In-Season “Hard Knocks”

NFL Films senior coordinating producer Keith Cossrow takes us under the helmet of the Emmy-winning weekly series

Colts linebacker Darius Leonard and teammates celebrate his interception of a Mac Jones pass
Colts linebacker Darius Leonard and teammates celebrate his interception of a Mac Jones pass. Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty
Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty

Listed behind legendary quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady and ahead of star QBs Patrick Mahomes and Matthew Stafford on the odds list for winning the NFL’s MVP award this season is running back Jonathan Taylor.

Not to be confused with a certain former Home Improvement child star, Taylor currently leads the NFL in rushing attempts (270), rushing yards (1,518) and rushing touchdowns (17), and has scored a touchdown in 11 straight games for the Indianapolis Colts, who currently sit in the first Wild Card position in a crowded AFC playoffs picture. But the man known as JT is still far from a household name outside of Indy, Wisconsin (where he played college ball) and the fantasy football community.

But on the first in-season edition of HBO’s Emmy-winning weekly NFL series Hard Knocks, Taylor will surely become a known commodity, as he is one of the stars of the show as well as a huge reason why producers at NFL Films wanted to feature the Colts for the first time in the long-running program’s history.

“The first line of the script about him in the first episode [in November] I think, was, ‘Jonathan Taylor’s the best running back you’ve never heard of.’ A month later, that sounds ridiculous. He might be the MVP,” NFL Films senior coordinating producer Keith Cossrow tells InsideHook. “You see a kid like him blowing up and becoming a superstar, and he’s just the most authentic guy you could ever put in that seat. He’s not caught up in it at all. He’s just doing his thing. It’s really neat to catch a guy on his way up like that and to see a guy become a superstar in real-time.”

Cossrow, who has worked on multiple other seasons of Hard Knocks and also helped build Amazon’s All or Nothing sports docuseries, says having Taylor and some of his Indianapolis teammates mic’d up during previous filming for NFL Films helped him answer a key question he ponders when considering potential subjects: “Do I want to hang out with these people?”

“Shows I stop watching I’m generally like, ‘I don’t find any of these people funny and I’m not having any fun being around or hanging out with them, so I don’t need to spend any more time in their televised presence,’” he says. “I think the Colts are a group of people that are really fun to hang out with. They fit the bill in a lot of ways. That’s really exciting for us because we know we’re going to have a story to tell about these guys that is worth telling each week. They’re not just fun people, and they’re not just good on camera. They’re the kind of people you want to tell a story about.”

In addition to Taylor, NFL Films producers were intrigued by the chance to highlight up-and-coming stars like offensive tackle Quentin Nelson, linebacker Darius Leonard and defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.

“We had noticed over the last couple of years that the Colts have several of the best players in football. We knew these guys were really great personalities and usually guys who are really fun to wire in games are pretty great in a show like Hard Knocks,” Cossrow says. “That gave us an inkling that this team would be a lot of fun to do a show with. [Colts head coach] Frank Reich is a really special guy in his own right. He might be the most normal person in the NFL. He’s coached, he’s played and he is totally unaffected by everything. He’s really a special guy. I think he was interested in the opportunity to showcase this team and I think [Colts general manager] Chris Ballard was interested in the opportunity to showcase this group of players. Colts ownership was interested in the opportunity to showcase what they view as a really positive culture and a great group of people. They were into it and they understood what they were getting into. It’s always a combination of timing, luck and the right set of circumstances.”

Producers at NFL Films work on an episode of "Hard Knocks" on HBO
Producers at NFL Films work on an episode of “Hard Knocks” on HBO.
NFL Films

Before the show hit the air, it seemed like the circumstances might actually have been wrong, as the Colts got off to a 1-4 start. But the team has gone 7-3 since that rough beginning, and now sits at 8-6 and in contention for a playoff spot following a turnaround that was captured for posterity by the constantly running cameras and mics of the Hard Knocks crew.

“We had come to an agreement with the Colts over the summer, and then we were working it out with HBO. In our first call with HBO about this, we said, ‘We think they’re going to be really good if they can get through the first five weeks of their schedule.’ We knew that this was as brutal a start of a season as you could possibly have in the NFL,” Cossrow says. “We are not great prognosticators, but that is in fact what happened here. Since they were 0-3, they’ve lost three games. They had double-digit leads in all three. We expected them to be as good as anybody and expected they’d be in a position to compete for a postseason spot and here we are. It’s really exciting to see.”

And as long as the Colts are playing this season, Cossrow and the rest of the Hard Knocks crew will be there documenting it — and rooting for Indianapolis.

“If the Colts are in the Super Bowl then there will be a Super Bowl episode of Hard Knocks. This goes for as long as the Colts go and we couldn’t be more excited to be doing it,” he says. “It’s a privilege we don’t take lightly. We live and die every Sunday with the team. It’s a uniquely gut-wrenching experience to go through. I have a team I grew up rooting for whose colors I bleed. But this is a different kind of emotional investment … You get to know these people when you’re making a show that’s this immersive and you care about them and want them to succeed. You can’t help it. We tell the story objectively, but you can’t help it but root for them.”

Maybe after this season of Hard Knocks concludes, whenever that is, more of America will feel the same way.

Weekly episodes of Hard Knocks debut on Wednesdays and the series is available on HBO and to stream on HBO Max.