Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Night and Day

     Night and Day, Before and After, Zero and One, Off and On.
     There are many different ways to describe the nature of polar opposites.  Over the last four years, fans of the Arena Football team known as the Pittsburgh Power have experienced their unique version of polar opposites.
     After a debut season in 2011 that saw the fledgling franchise go 9-9 and just miss making the playoffs in their first year,  the Power spent the next two seasons  doing their best impression of the Children of Israel of Old Testament fame, only instead of wandering through the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land, the Power ended up wandering in circles through the AFL wilderness in search of the league's Promised Land.  In this case, respectability.  And instead of a pillar of cloud to lead them by day and a pillar of fire by night, the Power had two coaches that were in over their heads and management that acted as if they were making it up as they went along.
     2012 was an unprecedented year for the franchise, for all the wrong reasons.  The Arena Football League had labor problems and was facing a strike by its players over salary issues.  The Power picked up what they thought would be the quarterback that would lead them into the Promised Land of respectability, Kyle Rowley.  But Rowley didn't get a chance to play a down for the Black and Gold because he and the rest of the team were fired during a team meal at an Olive Garden just hours before their season opener in Orlando against the Predators. Power players were threatening to go out on strike,  but owner Matt Shaner launched a preemptive strike of his own by dropping the hammer on the team.
     Some of the players split from the union and returned to play the game with replacement players picking up the slack after being added to the team just minutes before kickoff.  Those who refused to come back including Rowley, were left in Orlando to fend for themselves in terms of finding a way back home.  All in all, an embarrassing moment for a league that was used to having their share of flubs and foul-ups.
     The Power won that ragtag game 40-26, then racked up three losses in a row until the return game in Pittsburgh against Orlando.  The Power spotted the Predators a 31 point lead, then proceeded to mount what was considered the greatest comeback in AFL history, defeating the Preds 57-54 in overtime.
    Any momentum the Power gained after that record breaking win went away when the team reeled off six straight losses, during which head coach Chris Siegfried was 'future endeavored' and replaced with Interim coach Derek Stingley.
    Then things really got weird.  The Power headed up to Cleveland to play the Gladiators...only the Glads didn't want to play.  They didn't even bother showing up.  The Cleveland players staged a one-day strike in support of the league's ongoing labor dispute, and the Power were the beneficiaries of a win without even having to break a sweat.  The 2-0 result remains the only game forfeited in the 27 year history of the Arena Football League.
     Alas, the Power limped through the rest of the season winning only 2 of their last 6 games, to finish their season 5-13.  Pittsburgh could never get any consistent quarterback play in 2012.  Four signal-callers rode the Power merry-go-round under center.  Who could forget such luminaries as: Bryan Randall; Andrico Hines;  Derek Cassidy and Bill Stull?  All of them had varying degrees of success behind the Power's Swiss cheese offensive line, but none of them lasted long enough to gain any rapport with the Power receiving core, which was more than up to the task, if only their quarterback could get them the ball consistently.
     As badly as the Power fared at quarterback, their placekicking situation was no better.  No less than five kickers tried their hand putting the ball through the narrow AFL goalposts for the Power, but none of them could latch on.   The league eventually got their labor matter settled.  But 2012 would go down as one of the more bizarre season's in the Power's rather short existence.  Power fans, a hardy bunch indeed thought that things couldn't possibly get any worse, at least on the field if not at the bargaining table.
     They were wrong.  2013 started with the Power dropping three straight games including a road loss to Chicago in which Pittsburgh could only muster a measly 14 points, the lowest offensive output in team history.  A win against New Orleans in week 4 started a run where the Power went 3 for 6, but after a 55-44 home win against the Gladiators, the Power wouldn't see another win for 43 days. In the seven game losing streak from June 1 to July 13, the Power defense gave up 59 points or more in six out of the seven losses, including a 68-54 loss to San Jose,  a 70-48 loss to Jacksonville, a 71-58 defeat at Cleveland, a 59-21 home loss to Philadelphia, and the lowlight of the season, a 78-20 beatdown at home against San Jose on national television.  The Power finished the season 4-14. A laughing stock and the butt of jokes all over the AFL.
     Pittsburgh's quarterback troubles continued in 2013.  One of the more unusual moves that caused no shortage of head-scratching and shoulder shrugging amongst the remaining Power faithful was the strange case of Jordan Jefferson.  A standout SEC champion at LSU,  the Power signed the 6'5" quarterback and proceeded to make him the starter.  Never mind the fact that Jefferson had never played Arena Football or any other form of indoor football before he got to the Power.  Somehow, the Power braintrust thought that putting this young man under center as a starter in a game he had never played before would be the ticket to success.  What were they thinking?
     Actually, he didn't do that badly completing 55% of his passes and going  108 out of 196 for 1190 yards, 19 touchdowns and 5 interceptions in 5 games for the Power,  but Jefferson had the misfortune of playing behind a porous offensive line.  He showed potential, but ultimately, he just wasn't the game-breaker the Power needed.  Other QB's who came to Pittsburgh and left with their tails between their legs were:  Steven Sheffield, Derek Cassidy, and one Shane Austin, who would end up going to Cleveland in 2014 and having much better results.
     In 2014, the Power management had had enough.  Suddenly they decided that the best course of action was to exercise what former President Bush  the Younger would call the "Nukular" option.  They would blow up the team and start all over.  Only five players from the 2013 debacle would remain.
     They took advantage of the breakup of the Utah Blaze and brought in wide receivers: Aaron Lesue, Shaun Kauleinamoku and quarterback Tommy Grady.  They traded popular receiver Mike Washington to Spokane and got in return quarterback-linebacker Arvell Nelson.  They scored D-back Virgil Gray from New Orleans.  These were just a few of the players that the Power brought in from all over the league.              Anyone that looked like they could contribute was snatched up.  But could all this new talent be molded into a team that could compete in the AFL?  The upcoming schedule looked imposing. Road games against the two-time defending champion Arizona Rattlers and the always dangerous Spokane Shock, a team with one of the best home field advantages in the league. An early season home game against a tough San Jose Sabercats squad.  Three games against the 2013 Arenabowl runnerups, the Philly Soul.  Were the Power going to be the goats of the league again?  Would this experiment be a success?
    The 2014 season started just like the 2013 season ended.  Cleveland handed the Power a 63-53 loss in the home opener.  Then the management did something that caused tongues to wag and heads to shake all over the league.  They gave Derek Stingley the heave-ho after just one game in the new season.   Surely the Power management had gone off their collective rocker. Who would fire their head coach one game into the season?  Madness!  What cheek!
    The Power then shook up the league with their hiring decision.  They brought in former Utah coach Ron James.  A veteran coach with lots of experience in the Arena league, James was familiar with Tommy Grady, having coached him while he was with the Blaze.  Clearly management was going all in on this move.
    And did that move pay off.  The Power rung up three wins in a row including a 48-47 squeaker at home against San Jose.  The Power defense held the hapless San Antonio Talons to only 17 points on the road in week 3.  And improved on that effort with a 56-14 pasting of the New Orleans Voodoo at home.  The Ron James era jumped off with a bang.  Power fans couldn't believe it.  What happened to stumbling, bumbling Power that couldn't protect their quarterback and whose defense gave up 60 and 70 points per game down the homestretch in 2013?  The first glimmers of hope began to surface at the Consol.  A team and a fan base that had little to cheer about since the Power's inception started to carefully get excited.  Then came a two game road trip against undefeated foes starting at the Snakepit in Phoenix and then a trip to division rival Cleveland.
    The Power put up 69 against the Rattlers, but even that lofty score wasn't enough to ensure victory.  But to score that many points against the defending champs was surely something the resurgent Power could feel good about.  The offense was clicking, the defense was dominant, it looked like the Power were surely on their way.  But the next week against Cleveland, the Power were held to their lowest point total of the season in a 55-28 loss to the Gladiators.  The team had lost two in a row.  In past seasons, a two game losing streak would have easily grown to six or seven, and a sure boot out of playoff contention.
    But the Power headed home to face a solid, but streaky Philadelphia Soul team that had opened with 4 straight road games and going 1-3.  The Soul were on a three game winning streak and looking for a fourth, when the Power handed them a 65-57 defeat, and they never looked back.
     Their loss to Cleveland was the last defeat the Power would experience for the rest of the regular season.  From May 3rd to August 3rd, the Power went on an unprecedented twelve game winning streak.  They outscored their opponents 691 to 509.  A team that barely averaged 40 points per game in 2013 was scoring a full two touchdowns better in 2014.  The defense had held opponents to under 40 points in 5 of the 12 wins.  The Power were showing dominance on both sides of the ball.  Instead of drives where Power fans held their breath, crossed their fingers and hoped for the best,  the team showed that when they got the ball, the chances of them scoring went from a probability to almost a certainty.  Grady showed a deadly accuracy that previous Power signal callers only hinted at, connecting on field length touch passes in the corners of the end zone as well as yard gaining frozen ropes over the middle.  And when the Power needed the tough yards down at the goal line, they counted on Tommy Taggart to tote the pig.  And he responded by  rumbling into the end zone 10 times in 2014.
     One thing that the Power could count on this season was the steadiness of its wide receiver corps.  When the team lost Aaron Lesue and Prechae Rodriguez early in the season, stalwarts like Shaun Kaleinomoku and James Shaw stepped in to pick up the slack.  Other replacements like Tyrone Goard, Rodney Wright, and Hank Edwards jumped in and picked up where their injured brothers left off.  The tremendous depth at wide receiver was a prime factor in the Power offense becoming one of the more consistent in the league.
    On the other side of the ball, the Power defense gained a reputation for being a swarming, aggressive group of ballhawks daring opposing quarterbacks to throw their way, posting 36 interceptions in 2014, 11 of which came from the far ranging former Arizona Rattler Virgil Gray, who fit right in as the Power Jack linebacker.  Brandon Freeman and Al Phillips also contributed to the defense's success in meaningful ways.        And this Power team could also go after quarterbacks too.  Jake Killeen, Curtis Young, and Pittsburgh's favorite cannibal, James Bryant brought 19.5 of the Power's 28 sacks to the party.  
     And we can't forget the men in the trenches either.  Centers Tony Narcisse and Keith Newell anchored a massive offensive line that kept Grady upright and injury-free in a season that saw quarterbacks all over the league go down.
     The defensive line was led by Jake Killeen and featured Maurice Fountain, Anthony Hoke and Curtis Young.  Those big boys tore into the opponents o-lines and made holes for the linebackers to haunt quarterbacks and running backs alike.   In a game where holding a team to under 40 points in a game was considered a good defensive effort, the Power held teams to under 30 points in 5 of the 18 games of the regular season.
     And for once, the Power had a kicking game.  Julian Rauch became Mr. Automatic for the Power connecting on all 5 of his field goals and 88.7% of his extra points.  Remember folks, that the goal posts in the AFL are half the width and five feet higher than in the NFL.  So unlike the outdoor game where an extra point is all but a given, in the Arena league, not so much.
     The Power made it to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history riding a 12 game winning streak and a 15-3 record.  Unfortunately the vagaries of the AFL's playoff structure had the Power going on the road for their conference semifinal against the Orlando Predators, despite the Preds having an inferior record.  The Power were 7-2 on the road this season, and were favored in the game.
     But the Power ran into a hot quarterback in the guise of former Power and current Predator signal-caller Bernard Morris, who legitimized his claim as one of the better QB's in the league by rushing and passing over, under, and around the Power's defense scoring 8 touchdowns,  4 rushing, and 4 passing.
     Tommy Grady looked off his game, spraying the ball all over the field, over and under throwing receivers all game long.  He completed 18 out of 30 passes for 240 yards and 7 touchdowns, and had at least two downs deep in Predator territory where all he had to do was literally walk into the end zone, but Grady doesn't run if he doesn't have to.
     The game never got out of control. Neither team lead by more than 14 points.  But the Power couldn't stop Orlando's running game, and didn't try to run at all.  Pittsburgh's offense outgained Orlando 240-221 passing, but the Preds rushed for 51 yards, while the Power had 0.  Orlando also had the edge in first downs and time of possession.
     By the time the game was over, the Power had lost their first game in three months and their most successful season to date was over.  But they had an 11 win turnaround, a 15-3 record, and a 12 game winning streak, and for the first time in the short history of the franchise, AFL pundits spoke of the Power, not as the punch line of a very bad joke, but with more than a little respect.  In that sense, the Power reached the Promised Land.
    But now the expectations for 2015 have been set.  And going 15-3 in 2014, while a laudable achievement, doesn't feed the bulldog.  Power fans and players got a taste of what winning feels like.  And now the hard work begins.  Trying to keep the core of this team together.  With the possible creation of an AFL franchise in Las Vegas, it's expected that some of the roster will not be wearing Black and Gold next season.    Some players will move on, bench warmers will try to find starting gigs, either here or elsewhere.   March is a long way off.  Some fans will still have questions in the back of their minds as to whether management will make the moves necessary to keep who they can and bring in capable replacements for the ones who'll leave.  Some wonder whether this season is just a one-off, and can the Power build on what they created.
     One thing is imperative.  The Power need to attract new fans.  It is no longer acceptable for a team like this, with the talent they have to be playing in front of only 5,000 to 6,000 fans.  The people who come out, myself included, have fallen in love with this team.  We've hung out with these guys in the post-game gatherings, and season ticket holder events.  We've met these guys up close and personal.  The fledgling fan club: Power Up!  hosted the team at a picnic at South Park back in June.  The players were happy to see that there were those who appreciated their efforts.  They engaged with the fan club and were entirely approachable.
   They're good guys, they love to meet the fans.  They put it all out on the field and we eat it up.  The atmosphere at a Power game is fun and family friendly.  You have nothing to fear bringing your kids to watch the Power.  Ticket prices are reasonable, the Consol is a great place to watch a game.  And now that the players have shown that they can compete with any team in the league, it's time for the management to step up and promote this team.  And also we fans who have drank the Power Kool-Aid hve to do our part also.   For you don't know what you have until it's gone.  I'm going all in with the Power, next week, I'm buying season tickets. And being that I put it out there in writing, I have to follow through.
     As I've gotten older, I've been less interested in the what the major pro sports teams in Pittsburgh are doing.  Ticket prices are through the roof, I'm not big on crowds, and frankly, the Pirates, Penguins and Steelers really don't need my support or the little bit of money I have.  I'm happy if and when they win, but I don't feel as connected or invested in them.  I won't lose sleep if the Big Three fell into the Ohio, and floated down past Cincinnati.
    But the second tier sports teams in Pittsburgh:  The Power; Passion, and Riverhounds, I've started to follow with much more interest.  Unlike the Big Three, they need the support of every fan they can attract. They don't get the media coverage that the Pirates, Steelers and Pens take for granted.  They have to fight for every inch of space in the newspapers, every second of airtime on television news.  To be more than just a box score in agate type or a quick mention just above the hunting and fishing articles and dirt track racing features.   I've always been one to root for the underdogs, the fighters, and scrappers that toil in the shadows of their more publicized cousins.  They don't take their place in the sports market for granted.  They have to fight to every butt in every seat they can get.  And I respect that, and will give them my support and my dollars.
    This Power season, I went to six of the team's nine home games, and God willing, I'll make an effort to see all the Power games in 2015.  I was privileged to see the previous Pittsburgh franchise in the AFL: The Gladiators play in the very first Arenabowl in Pittsburgh back in 1987.  And I hope that it won't be the last.


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