Your New Springtime Tradition

The Arena Football League readies to kick off their 28th season. 

by Brandon Rush | @brandonrush | Brandon@3PSMag.com

***This article originally appeared in the March edition of Three Point Stance Magazine. To subscribe to the magazine visit https://3psmag.com/subscribe/ 

For years I’ve never understood why people hate on the Arena Football League.

Critics dismiss the validity of the game because of its defense limiting rules and pinball/video game type scoring, but have you seen major college football or the NFL lately? The outdoor game at times resembles flag football thanks in large part to defensive restrictions making it virtually impossible to play the game the way it is meant to be, yet it still pulls in monster television ratings. When TCU and Baylor play to a 62-58 final score and 1267 yards, people lose their minds in amazement.

So why does a sport, based on one we know and love that features everything the outdoor game is dying for, played at a time we are impatiently waiting for ANY kind of football, not get a fair shake in our sports viewing landscape? This game is made for non-stop excitement, it is not made for smash mouth, it is pinball football. That’s the point.

Full discretion here, I feel like I grew up in the Arena League. I was a season ticket holder, I got my start in sports as an intern for an AFL team, before spending a handful of seasons as a radio play-by-play announcer and media relations director. I love this game, and I think if given a chance, you can too.

Hopefully by the end of this piece, I will have convinced you to at least give the league a two or three week audition to fill your football fix by introducing you to the rivalries, the faces, the names, and the intrigue into America’s most understood minor league.

First, a few items that hurt. Yes, the AFL is a minor league. There are no delusions of grandeur here, even as much as Ron Jaworski would like it, Marcus Mariota is not going to spurn the NFL in favor of playing for Jaws’ Philadelphia Soul.

Once upon a time it seemed like the NFL wanted the Arena League to be its minor league feeder system. With NFL team owners like Jerry Jones and Arthur Blank buying into the AFL and placing teams in NFL established cities, but many of those franchises have since moved or ceased operations.

Above all, I believe there are three things that have hampered the leagues continued growth; inconsistent ownership/franchise stability, lack of players graduating to the NFL, and the knock off leagues.

Since the leagues inception in 1987 there has only once been consecutive seasons with the same number of teams. Starting with four teams in that inaugural year, the AFL grew to 12 teams by the 1992 campaign and as many as 19 teams in 2001, 2004, and 2007. It has been a roll of the dice every offseason to figure out who will – or won’t – be back.

Forty six franchises have gone defunct since its meager beginnings. Forty. Six. From Alabama to Portland, Los Angeles to Toronto. Even after the AFL cancelled the 2009 season due to labor issues between the league and the players union, they absorbed franchises from its own minor league (af2 – or as it was affectionately known “The Deuce”), the non-major markets barely survived the financial side of stepping up in rank.

Six ArenaBowl winning franchises are no more. That hurts.

Next strike against the league has been the perceived lack of graduation of players who go from the Arena League to the NFL. It seems like a weekly occurrence to see a player be signed to a practice squad or get camp invites, and it’s also as common to see guys who didn’t survive camp, or are on the outside looking in end up in the Arena League. But to the uniformed, people think Kurt Warner is the only player to ever play in the AFL and the NFL, and that could not be further from the truth. While Warner may end up as the only player in both the AFL and Pro Football Hall of Fame, he is not the only one who has made an impact at the next level.

Jay Feely, Matt Bryant, Rashied Davis, Lincoln Kennedy, Tommy Maddox, Oronde Gadsden, and Mike Vanderjagt all spent time in the AFL. Even a pair of NFL head coaches have spent time in the league, Saints head coach Sean Payton played in the AFL in 1987, and Redskins head coach Jay Gruden was a star quarterback before becoming a decorated coach in the league.

Lastly, the knockoff leagues have soiled the work of the Arena Football League. The south and Midwest are littered with “Alphabet Leagues” (AIF, IFL, PIFL, CIFL and many others that have folded) that have the same basic concept of the AFL but because they tweak a rule here and change a rule there, the Alphabet Leagues thrive on micro markets and swindle fans, players, and personnel. It is not unheard of for a player, coach, radio guy, or arena staff to not get a paycheck because some schmuck who inherited money from his parents decided he wanted to be a football owner but has zero business sense and can’t manage a payroll. Yes, I myself am still owed a paycheck or five from a said schmuck and yes, I am still bitter.

Sad part is, some of the Alphabet Leagues are just as poorly run and unscrupulous as some of its owners. The fans and players suffer the most, and cities that were once AFL or af2 franchises barely support the product often advertised as “Arena Football.”

Now finally, on to the good, and there is plenty of it.

There are stars, dynasties, rivalries, and storylines that will make the 2015 season worth watching.

THE TEAMS
The 2015 Arena Football League season will feature 12 teams, in balanced conferences and divisions (something that hasn’t happened in what feels like forever) focused on regional matchups and rivalries. There are seven teams in NFL markets, six franchises who have previously won ArenaBowl championships, and one new franchise (with a rookie head coach).

If you are new to the Arena Football League, and need a team to pull for here are a few things to consider.

If you like dynasties, the AFL has had their share, but the current big dog on the block is the Arizona Rattlers. Winners of three straight titles, Arizona has to enter the season as the odds on favorite to win an unprecedented fourth championship.

If you like teams who are traditional powers and are always in the championship hunt, consider the Philadelphia Soul, Orlando Predators, Tampa Bay Storm, or San Jose Sabercats. These four teams have 11 ArenaBowl titles between them, but haven’t won one since 2008.

If you like an over achieving team, consider the Cleveland Gladiators. Since 1997 they have called three different cities home (East Rutherford, NJ & Las Vegas, NV), and prior to the 2014 season were 107-142 in their history before finishing the 2014 regular season 17-1, earning the right to host ArenaBowl XXVII. The Cardiac Kids won a handful of games on the final play of the contest to keep their undefeted regular season intact.

If you like newer franchises who have already had success, consider the Jacksonville Sharks or the Spokane Shock. Both have won titles, since joining the AFL, the Shock though are the only former af2 team to graduate to the AFL and win a championship.

If you want a newer team that has not yet had success, look at a pair of west coast teams, the Portland Thunder or the Los Angeles KISS. Two teams separated by two very different ownership groups. The Thunder are owned by businessman and developer Terry Emmert, where Los Angeles is majority owned by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS fame.

If you love teams that have a great in-arena atmosphere, uniforms, team name and environment, look at the New Orleans VooDoo. Though not as successful as their first run in the AFL, if you would rather look good than play good

Finally, if you want to go into an Arena Football League season with a fresh slate, consider the expansion Las Vegas Outlaws. The Outlaws are partially owned by Motley Crue singer Vince Neil and feature a rookie head coach in former league MVP/ArenaBowl XXIV MVP, and future AFL Hall of Famer Aaron Garcia. Garcia has been part of twelve different AFL teams as a player or coach in his 21 years in the league.

THE STARS
Arizona Rattlers quarterback Nick Davila is among the best to ever play the game. Fresh off his third consecutive ArenaBowl championship victory and fourth straight appearance, the “Latin Laser” has thrown for 569 touchdowns in his five AFL seasons. His number one target for the last few seasons has been wide receiver Rod Windsor. While quiet, Windsor is a killer on the field. In four seasons teamed up with Davila, Windsor has amassed 7467 yards and 169 touchdowns.

Tommy Grady has bounced around the AFL since 2010, had produced monster numbers, just ends up being on teams who have gone belly up. Jacksonville recently acquired the 2013 league MVP after the Pittsburgh Power franchise went dormant. Grady has put up numbers that rival Davila’s with less talent around him. Grady has thrown for over 22,000 yards and 512 touchdowns in 4.5 years as a starter.

Derrick Ross is not only a man, he is the man when it comes to rushing the football in the Arena Football League. Running the ball in the AFL is not a focal point of the offense, but with Ross’ ability, defensive coordinators have the be ready for “The Boss”. In four seasons in the AFL, Ross already owns numerous league records including the most rushing yards in AFL History, the top three single season rushing marks, and by the end of the 2015 season will have the record for the most rushing touchdowns in AFL history.

The Arena Football League is a quarterback and wide receiver centric league. The aforementioned Windsor is near the top of a deep talent pool of targets in this league that light up scoreboards sometimes four to seven times a night.

Among the best are LA’s Donovan Morgan (140cat, 1867yds, 37tds for LA in 2014), Cleveland’s Dominick Goodman (156cat, 1671yds, 34tds in 2014), Jacksonville’s Tiger Jones (114cat, 1611yds, 33tds for Philly in 2014), and Orlando’s Greg Carr (114cat, 1440yds, 36tds for Orlando in 2014). Philadelphia’s quarterback Dan Raudabaugh will have a pair of deadly new targets in 2015 with the additions of 2014 Cutters Wide Receiver of the Year Marco Thomas (151 catches, 1946 yards, 39 touchdowns for Iowa in 2014) and Shawn Kauleinamoku (124cat, 1359yds, 19tds in Pittsburgh in 2014).

With all the numbers posted on any given night, don’t think for a moment that there is not any talent on the defensive side of the ball.

Led by the 2014 Defensive Lineman of the Year James Ruffin (Spokane – DE), Beau Bell (Philadelphia – LB), and Riddell Defensive Player of the Year Jason Stewart (San Jose – NG) who were all voted by the players to the Top 10 players in all of the league.

Other studs to watch for include Arizona DE Cliff Dukes and DB Rayshaun Kizer, San Jose LB Francis Maka and DB’s Ken Fontenette and David Hyland, Jacksonville DB Terrance Sanders (who also is among one of the most dangerous kick returners in the AFL), and Orlando LB Terence Moore.

THE RIVALRIES
There are a few good rivalries in the Arena Football League, but none can match the hatred and passion than the War on I-4. That 84 mile stretch of Interstate 4 connecting Orlando to Tampa gets traversed a couple times a season and is well attended by fans of both teams making the trek. The teams have met 55 times since 1991, including eight times in the playoffs, and twice in the ArenaBowl. Orlando leads the all-time series 28-27.

Other rivalries include Arizona vs San Jose, and with Los Angeles and Las Vegas occupying a close proximity and the fact they feature rockstar owners, don’t be shocked if these matchups quickly breed a rivalry.

THE STORYLINES
Can Arizona win a 4th straight ArenaBowl? The Rattlers have played in four straight, no team has ever played in five consecutive.
Was the 19-1 season (8-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less) for Cleveland a case of a team that wore Cinderella’s slipper for five months, or was it finally a signaling that the Gladiators have turned the corner?
Jacksonville crashed the AFL party in 2010, earning the number one seed in the American Conference before being upset by Orlando, only to return the following year to take home an ArenaBowl title. After missing the playoffs in 2014, the Sharks brought in seven players with All-Arena credentials on their resumes, and with the American Conference up for grabs, can the sharks make it back?
Can Los Angeles put a dismal 2014 season behind them to live up to the hype?
Will expansion team Las Vegas be able to contend with a rookie head coach?

So, with all this wealth of information bestowed upon you, how do you get to watch the game? Thanks to some outstanding work by former AFL Commissioner Jerry Kurz, rebuilding the leagues image has been bolstered by a pair of television contracts on major networks. Both ESPN and CBS Sports have stepped up to be the leagues broadcast partners. Coupled with the networks of ESPN2, ESPNEWS, CBS Sports Network, and ESPN3’s streaming options more than 100 regular season games will be available to the viewing public.

So on the threshold of an 18 game regular season, what is going to happen?

Arizona runs the National Conference, they are the most complete team, have the most experience, and the best coaching staff, and will appear in their fifth consecutive ArenaBowl.

The American Conference is kind of a crap shoot. I believe the moves Jacksonville has made have put them towards the top of the heap, but don’t sleep on Philadelphia or Cleveland. Any of these teams could come away with the conference championship.

It’s March, the draft is still a month away, and let’s face it, you are hungry for some football. Give it a few weeks, watch the games and I promise you, you will fall in love.

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