After year off, HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks’ takes the field

Yes, it’s that time of year again.

With the NFL now officially underway, HBO returns to the gridiron as well with its seminal reality series “Hard Knocks,” which begins Tuesday. The program, which debuted in 2001, took a year off in 2011 when the labor strife eliminated much of the preseason.Ryan

HBO and the NFL have enlisted the Miami Dolphins as the under-the-microscope team ready to be get a hard look from TV audiences. The Dolphins, who have not exactly set the pro football world on fire in the last 30 years, could make for a compelling choice.

For “Hard Knocks” director Rob Gehring, what make makes the Dolphins intriguing is what makes any reality show better: A rivalry between contestants or, in this case, quarterbacks.

“This is the first time since the Kansas City Chiefs show (of ‘Hard Knocks’) that we’ve had a quarterback battle,” said Gehring. “The NFL is a quarterback league and to have them battle is good TV.”

Veteran David Garrard is going up against rookie Ryan Tannehill (above), and viewers who couldn’t have cared less about the Dolphins may want to stick around for all five episodes to see who wins the rights to start on opening day. Drama, whether it be on an island (“Survivor”) or a dance floor, is what keeps auds intrigued.

But beyond who’s taking snaps, what has made “Hard Knocks” so intriguing over the years are the unknown players who walk into training camp with a dream of making the team. And that’s what can make a director so enthused about each new season.

Philbin“You have an idea on who you want to keep tabs on, but any of the 90 players could be a character,” said Gehring, who works closely with the Dolphins in deciding where cameras will be set up, the access each player will have and all that goes into a TV production. “Each day we decide who will we follow today and where is the story. Our assistant director follows those stories and sees what to capture.

“Access is what’s important and you want to be inside with these guys. Teams have a structure of how information is disseminated. This is a show that gives insight you don’t get anywhere else.”

What Gehring and HBO are hoping for, besides intel not revealed on blogs, newspapers or sports radio, is someone to break out as a unique character. Maybe it’s not the most athletic player, but someone who the camera can’t stay away from. Two years ago, that person never put on a uniform. It was New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, whose foul mouth gave the show more buzz than ever before.

Gehring doesn’t expect that to happen again, of course. Especially as the Dolphins have a rookie coach Joe Philbin (above), who will likely be much more low key that Ryan.

“The Jets were such a terrific show and Rex was a great character, but you won’t have another Rex,” Gehring said.

So are the Dolphins ready to be exposed? Gehring said not only are they prepared, they are looking forward to the public scrutiny.

“Teams are very cooperative every year. They know what they’re buying into.”