... AND THINGS STARTED SO WELL, TOO. Ugh.
The result of Saturday night's game between the Manchester Wolves and Quad City Steamwheelers was bad enough, but we'll get back to that in a bit. First, though, I want to extend my best wishes to my favorite player on the Wolves squad, wide receiver Emery Sammons.
Remember at the end of last year's NFL regular season, when the Cleveland Browns mowed over glorious Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger? Remember how it took like 15 minutes for the medical staff to get Big Ben all set up and then carted off the field? And everyone was really worried but still somewhat hopeful when Big Ben gave the thumbs-up sign as he was taken away?
Well, it was pretty much the same deal tonight at the Verizon Wireless Arena. Late in the first half, Mr Sammons was going for a pass reception about midfield when he had a bad collision with a Quad City* defender and -- most unfortunately -- the side wall. Mr Sammons, whose head collided with the wall, was then down for the count.
You know things are bad when the paramedics come out, and both teams' benches empty and every player goes to kneel around their injured comrade, and you can see the ambulance is ready and waiting to go to the hospital.
But we did learn a spot of good news soon afterwards. According to no less than Wolves beat reporter Ian Clark -- who writes about football for a living -- the fuss was taken as a cautionary measure:
Sammons left the game on a stretcher late in the second (quarter) after taking a hard hit along the boards. Sammons gave the crowd a thumbs-up as he was carted off, drawing a large cheer (and sigh of relief) from the crowd.
"When he left, he was talking to me. It's not his neck or anything. It was precautionary," (Wolves Coach Danton) Barto said. "He was worried about calling his mom to let her know he was all right."
Still, according to the team, Sammons was undergoing CAT scans for a head injury last night, which I hope only means they're checking to see if he had a concussion, and not something more serious. Still, I am hopeful Mr Sammons will be all right and hope he will make a quick recovery.
I have it on good authority Mr Sammons is a nice guy, and having watched him play for the Wolves I know he is quite talented. Should the Arena Football League return next year, I have to think the guy's in line for a promotion -- and if not in "Arena One," then perhaps one of the second-tier gridiron leagues that may or may not launch soon.
Now, as for the game itself ... well, let's cue Jim Mora.
Along those lines, let me start by saying Manchester's 50-48 loss to an iffy Steamwheelers** squad should not be blamed on the defense. I mean, at least one of our players had a career night. Defensive lineman Bryan Robinson had, by my count, three sacks -- one of which resulted in a forced fumble and consequent Manchester touchdown. And generally speaking, the defense played pretty well, even though Quad City scored quite a bit and beat them on a few big plays.
So it may not have been an exceptional defensive performance overall, but it should have been more than enough for the Wolves' offense to step up and get the job done. It wasn't. Defense wins championships, even in arenaball, but in arenaball you need your offense to keep firing.
Where does one start with this? Near the end of the third quarter, Manchester was leading 42-28. Near the end of the fourth quarter, Manchester was down 48-42 and the team was fighting for its life. It was an absolutely stunning collapse and the offense is to blame for it. I mean, if I can borrow from Coach Mora, the Wolves gave this game away. It sucked. There is no polite way to put it.
Let's just look at the fourth quarter. Manchester was up 42-35 and had the ball: one more score and the team would have enough breathing room to make victory relatively certain. What happened? Quarterback James Pinkney -- who is usually pretty darn good -- threw up a ridiculous pass into the field of play, which was easily picked off. This soon led to a Quad City touchdown. Then, when a miracle of miracles happens -- Manchester blocks the point-after attempt, and keeps the lead -- the offense goes and blows it again.
On Manchester's very next possession, Quad City managed to tackle Pinkney in Manchester's endzone, resulting in a safety. (Manchester also committed a holding penalty in the endzone on the play, making the safety certain). Suddenly, Quad City was up 43-42 and even worse, had the ball again. Gee, that's just great.
That led to another touchdown, and Manchester had about a minute to push it down the field for an equalizer. But even after scoring one, the Wolves needed a two-point conversion to send it into overtime. They went for a running play. It got stuffed.
With the loss, Manchester now falls to 3-3 while Quad City goes to 4-2. More importantly, though, it also means Manchester finds themselves in a tough spot when it comes to playoff positioning.
Due to bad planning, Manchester is in the same division as the evil Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers, who are one of the best teams in the league, and also evil. Not only are they 6-1, they have already beaten us twice on their home turf -- where, being evil, they almost never lose -- and have plenty of games in which they'll run roughshod over hapless opponents.
This situation basically means the Wolves have to play in top form for the entire rest of the season if they want any chance of winning the American Conference's East Division. Already, the Wolves are placed sixth in the conference and the team has got to start gaining ground if it wants any hope of playing at home in the playoffs. Winning the division almost seems like a pipe dream at this point, because evil Wilkes-Barre/Scranton already has a 3 1/2 game lead with 11 games to go. The only things going for us at this point are these:
1) WBS does have to play three teams as good as they are down the line, and
2) their luck has to run out some time.
Of course, along with that, Manchester does have two chances to exact revenge against evil Wilkes-Barre/Scranton later in the season, and it may be they can take advantage of those. The Wolves can also do well if they blow the doors off Albany and Youngstown*** in the seven remaining games they have against those teams. Sweeping both squads, which is not outside the realm of possibility, would give Manchester at least 10 wins.
I am hopeful, of course, the Wolves can turn things around. It is worth noting that in the past two weeks, they have lost their games by a total of five points. It is also worth noting the team is kicking itself and is not at all happy about losing these games. I am confident they'll be good and angry when they play Albany next week, and I expect Coach Barto will make them good and angry after practice.
Other than that, though, going to the game itself was fun as always, and I look forward to returning in two weeks when we play Youngstown. Yeah. Manchester's going to have a tune-up waiting for them!
* Yes, I know the region is known as the Quad Cities. The name of the team is "Quad City." Why? How the hell should I know? They're from Iowa, for God's sake.
** Yes, I know it sounds like a funny name, but it is "Steamwheelers" and not "Steamrollers." A steamwheeler is essentially a steam-fired paddleboat. Don't ask me why they named the team after a paddleboat. They're from Iowa, for God's sake.
*** Yes, I know the Thunder are actually named after the "Mahoning Valley" and not the city of Youngstown, Ohio, where they play. But you know what? They're from Youngstown, and they should have the guts to stand up and say they're from Youngstown. I'm serious. A Youngstown team deserves to be named after Youngstown; anything else and it sounds like the team is embarrassed to say where they're from. Since I think that's crap, I call them Youngstown.
OH, YES. FOOTBALL IS BACK! Sure it's indoors; sure it's on a 50-yard field. But football is back -- and winning football, no less. I am pleased to report the Manchester Wolves (2-1) ran roughshod over the hapless Albany Firebirds (0-4) in Manchester tonight, beating Albany by an impressive 74-53 margin in af2 action. A strong second-half performance put the Wolves over the top. Considering how things went last year, when the Wolves started out the season 1-6, this game is a very good omen for the rest of the season.
What's that, you say? But Bennnnnnnnnn. It's Albany! Of course the Wolves beat Albany! Well, I agree there is something to that. Albany may have changed its name, and changed its colors, but they're still Albany. They're still sloppy. They're still prone to committing innumerable penalties, many of them stupid. And they're still not getting the job done.
And one very nice thing about watching Manchester play Albany is that the teams don't like each other very much. I mean, dig this: our kicker got an unnecessary roughness penalty. As a matter of course, I don't approve of those types of penalties, but that's kind of cool. The kicker, stepping up!
But I don't want to take away from the job the Wolves did tonight, for they came out in the second half and opened an industrial-sized can of whoopass on the New York squad. Despite the score, this was not an easy win for the home team; and although it is always fun to beat up on Albany, the upstate squad has gotten better since last year. Perhaps their best player, wide receiver Christian Wise, was a force to be reckoned with. More than once, he made an impressive catch. More than once, he bedeviled our special teams. And he and Albany came out of the gate and delivered a series of blows that had the Wolves rocking back on their feet.
For instance, on the first play of the game, Wise scored a touchdown on a long bomb in which he managed to outrun our defender, defensive back Al Phillips. That was somewhat disconcerting. Things got even more alarming when, after Manchester recovered an on-side kick attempt, Albany's defense managed to sack our quarterback, James Pinkney, on the ensuing drive. One of their players recovered the ball for a quick rush to the endzone. Suddenly, Manchester was down 14-0 and it looked like it would be a long night.
But Manchester didn't give up. Things got off to a good start with our kick returner, T.C. Myers. Myers put in a great performance during the game and I am glad to see him back from last year. Last year, he was a defensive back, but he is fabulous as a kick returner -- good decision, Coach Barto! -- and I think he has real potential to make it to the next level. Myers is quick and fast and small, and all those things make him a difficult target for opponents. On his first run back, Myers brought it out near midfield, and during the game he showed flashes of brilliance. On more than one occasion, he would have racked up six points had he escaped his last adversary, and with time he will improve. He is an asset to the Wolves' squad and the fans like him too.
Anyway, after a quick touchdown pass to wide receiver Emery Sammons, it was 14-6, with a missed extra point. On Albany's next sequence, they weren't able to move the ball -- on one instance, Albany quarterback Adam Bednarik threw the ball straight at the umpire, who was beaned accordingly. After Albany missed a field goal try deep in their own territory -- arenaball's substitute for a punt -- Manchester managed to rack up six points with a throw to wide receiver Steven Savoy. 14-13, Albany.
Albany came back with a quick touchdown on a kick return. One thing that Manchester must work on is its special teams defense, 'cause Albany bedeviled us pretty much the whole night on long kickoffs. On this particular play, Albany ran it out to about midfield, when it appeared Wise fumbled the ball -- only to have it recovered by Albany's Alvin Jackson. Jackson, on the ground, realized he hadn't been touched and the whistle hadn't blown -- so he got up and ran off before Manchester's players knew what happened. Albany 21, Manchester 13. Soon after, Savoy got another TD catch and it was 21-20 at the end of one.
Things settled down in a rather uneventful second quarter, and at half time the score was Albany 30, Manchester 26. Our kicker, Chris Koepplin, would redeem himself in the second half, but he was uneven in the first, going 2-4 on extra points.
For that matter, the whole team redeemed itself in the second half. At the start of the third quarter, Albany was up, 30-26. At the end of the third quarter, Albany was down 50-37. Not only did Manchester's offense run like clockwork, the special teams and defense came through too. At one point, defensive back Antwan Stewart managed to recover a wild kickoff in the endzone for a score, and on the next play, defensive back Brandon Isaac made an interception deep in Albany territory.
They kept it up into the fourth quarter, and eventually it was 60-37. But the fireworks didn't stop there. Stewart again came through with an impressive on-side kick recovery that he ran back into Albany's endzone, throwing six more points on the board. Albany tried to make a comeback, but it was too late, and the coup de grace was delivered at the game's end, when Albany kept calling time outs despite the outcome being all but certain. On the final play of the game, Pinkney delivered a rocket to Savoy in the endzone. The crowd cheered, the extra point was kicked, and the final was 74-53.
So all in all, this was a good game, and Manchester should be pleased with how it performed. But there were clearly things on which the squad must work. From my vantage point, Coach Barto often had a look on his face that indicated he was thinking something along the lines of, "Good grief." The special teams, again, need improving and our pass coverage wasn't as good as one could have hoped.
But I'll say this -- this team is a heck of a lot better than it was last year, and that's a good sign. Last year's squad nearly made it to the Arena Cup game and this year's squad clearly has the potential to do just as well. So the rest of the season will be great fun to watch!
Oh, I nearly forgot. The dance team is back this year. The dance team ... wow. They were almost -- but only almost -- enough to distract me from the game!
DON'T WRITE OFF the Arena Football League just yet. At least, that's the conclusion I've come to after poring through news reports that have -- perhaps a bit prematurely -- proclaimed the "Arena One" league may soon go the way of the dodo bird. Supposedly, the league's future is in doubt after a major potential investor backed out of a deal to fund the league to the tune of $100 million, and several teams are in reputed financial distress. Adding fuel to this panicked talk is the fact the league's schedule, free agency and New Orleans dispersal draft have been delayed; the fact no permanent commissioner has been appointed; and the fact the economy sucks eggs. But I still think it's too soon to write the thing off for dead.
That said, running an AFL team is expensive, and so reports some teams are experiencing financial headaches does not surprise me. Consider the costs of overhead, for one thing. You have to rent out the arena, pay your front-office staff, pay your football staff, pay for travel costs, arrange travel accommodations, buy equipment, pay league fees, advertise like a banshee and give away bunches of free tcotchkes to your season-ticket holders. All these things are expensive, even the free tcotchkes. Those T-shirts don't print themselves, you know.
Notice how we haven't even gotten to player salaries yet -- although player salaries are undoubtedly a big deal, and are likely at the heart of the league's troubles. In 2009 the salary cap for each team will be just shy of $2.1 million, according to the AFL's contract with its players' union. What is less well known is that the teams also have a minimum compensation floor they must pay their players -- and for 2009, that is just north of $1.8 million. So although a player can make as little as $32,000 a year (and get things like housing benefits) while playing in the AFL, the minimum salary distribution drives up the costs for star players, who can make six figures.
Such sums would be fine if teams had ancillary revenues, particularly television revenues. But teams supposedly get very little in the way of revenues from the AFL-ESPN deal, according to published reports. So that probably leaves teams with gate revenues and local sponsorships as their main revenue generators. That's a doable proposition in the minor leagues, but probably not so much in a semi-major league like the AFL.
Yet I remain hopeful this situation can be resolved. Faced with teams going into bankruptcy -- a lose-lose situation for everyone -- I would think the AFLPA would be willing to work on the salary cap and minimum salary distribution issues, and be willing to accept lower compensation. But this will only happen if the players feel they're being dealt with on the straight and narrow and have the ability to share in future gains.
That said, it seems pretty clear the AFL has one shot to get this right. The public-relations damages stemming from this whole affair are increasing daily, and recovering from them will take a lot of work. People won't buy tickets for games they think they may not get to see -- and regardless of whether that fear has any basis in reality, perception is king.
Also, since there is a market for spring football, the AFL has to act fast to prevent other potential competitors from taking the field. Even one lost season would be a death knell for the league, as people's attention went elsewhere and savvy entrepreneurs imagined ways to capitalize on its absence.
Which leads us to the bright side of this whole mess, such as it is. The lower leagues for arena football aren't affected by this at all, and will gleefully plow ahead regardless of the turmoil facing Arena One. Should the AFL fail, it should mean an influx of talent to these leagues, and better games resulting from it. So there's that, I guess. But even though every cloud has a silver lining, you've still got to deal with a storm -- and I just hope a downpour for the AFL isn't in the forecast.
The Pittsburgh Steelers
have a bye date this Sunday --
now what do I do?
Like the cold desert
gray before the sun rises
the weekend looks bleak.
I HAVE A love-hate relationship with the bye week in American football. There is no denying the bye week has its advantages; after all, it allows teams that have been beaten up in the weeks beforehand to recover from their injuries, and allows them to prepare for the hard weeks ahead. For fans, it also offers them a respite – as one colleague at the office said, it does relieve the pressure a bit from rooting for one's team; one can sit back and watch whatever games one wants without having a stake in the outcome. On the other hand, though, the bye week has its disadvantages too.
For instance, the bye week reduces the number of football games being played each weekend over several weeks of the football season. This consequently reduces the chance one will be able to watch quality football on television. Even worse, if the games are good, they will almost certainly involve teams one hates. This has put me in a situation where tomorrow, I have to ... I have to ... God! I have to root for Peyton Manning!
Bleah! Bleah! Bleah! I can't believe I have to root for Rocket Arm and his gang of idiots! But I must, because they're playing the one team in the league I despise even more than the Indianapolis Colts – the Baltimore Ravens. But since that thought is too disturbing to contemplate further – and the morons had best win, or I shall be quite cross – I thought of the perfect way to get around thinking about this until tomorrow afternoon.
Namely, I figured I'd write a post about all the other goings on in football – but football that's a level or two (or three) down the professional league pyramid. After all, up in Canada, the season is still going on strong and no one down here even knows it. (It might have helped if the Canadians had managed to secure a decent television deal, but that is neither here nor there). And although arena football will not start again until next spring, it's not like nothing is going on. There's even news a bit further down the league pyramid. Although I may be one of the few people in America taking note of this during the month of October, hey, someone has to do so. So why not me?
CFL UPDATE. You thought we had parity in the NFL. Boy.
OK, so dig this. There are eight teams in the CFL, right? FIVE OF THEM have nine wins – and five or six losses, depending if they've played so far this weekend. With records like that, it's understandable that these are the best teams in the league. But here's the real amazing thing – ALL FOUR teams in the Western Division have nine wins! All four!
Fortunately my team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, are one of the 9-5 teams, and are tied for first place in the division. Also, because of the CFL's “crossover rule” -- which is what happens when you have eight teams in a league – all four teams in the Western Division are almost certain to make the playoffs, barring the Winnipeg Blue Bombers going on a super hot streak and one of the western teams completely collapsing. We'll see if the Riders can gain an edge on Monday when they play the Calgary Stampeders. The Rant will be listening to the game at 4:30 p.m. Eastern time via CKRM-AM. The Rant would also like to take this opportunity to wish all of our Canadian readers a Happy Thanksgiving, which for some reason you celebrate in October. OK.
AFL UPDATE. There's little going on in the Arena Football League at this point. OK, there's nothing going on in the AFL. That's not unusual at this time of year. Keep an eye out for free agency, trades and other fun stuff coming up soon. Barring an absolute disaster, The Rant WILL go back home to Michigan yet again this spring to watch the Grand Rapids Rampage play.
AF2 UPDATE. I always find the off-season for the af2 more interesting. In part, this is because the af2, being a minor league, is a bit more fluid than the AFL. Not only do players get promoted (in some cases, all the way to the NFL) and relegated (usually out of football), there are sometimes team changes as well, as the league expands and contracts.
The af2 really is a fascinating case study for people interested in the business of sport. You can really see what makes teams succeed and fail by looking at how they run their operations. The Manchester Wolves, for instance, got profiled in Forbes a while back for their success. The Spokane Shock have also done fantastically well, as have the Iowa Barnstormers.
Anyway, the news so far is that we'll have at least one new team – the Milwaukee Iron – and perhaps more: a team in Buffalo could start this year as well. The league lost three teams at the end of 2008: in Daytona Beach, Fla., Lubbock, Tex., and Austin, Tex. This will make for some interesting times come spring, as I'm thinking the league will make divisional realignments as a result of team changes. But we'll see.
INDOOR FOOTBALL. I'm guessing we have a new contender for the league most worthy of the “af3” sobriquet. A merger of the United Indoor Football league and the Intense Football League, and the addition of some teams formerly in the Continental Indoor Football League, has created the new Indoor Football League. I love it. It's modern-era football with an old-time Twenties feel to it. It's so much fun to go to games like this – where players are striving for the big time, where local crowds turn out to support local teams, where families can actually see games without breaking the bank. It is nice to see a strong indoor league emerge in the nation's football-mad heartland.
Folks, here's what you need to know. 24 teams – most of these in Texas and the Great Plains, but also in Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York. Two teams in Alaska. Alaska. I love it! Two teams that have the same nickname – the (Alaska) Wild and the (Witchita) Wild. One team named the Ruff Riders – they're in Abilene. I'd buy a season ticket just knowing all that, especially if I could see a wild Wild-Wild matchup. It'll be interesting to see how this all turns out but I certainly wish these folks all the best.
THE BIG CONCLUSION. If you got this far, you get a reward! (Provided you're a man ages 18-34).
You see, as I close, I think it's important to turn our attention to ... well, this. Go on, give it a look! Unless you're at work. In that case, make a note of it for later. For those of you who are at work and can't click on the link ... well, it's the Lingerie Football League.
No, I am not joking. It is real. Articles on it have appeared in reputable news outlets. Games will reportedly air on cable television next year – and cleverly, on Friday nights, when no other football worth watching is aired.
Readers are correct in surmising this football league will consist of the following:
* pretty girls
* pretty girls playing football
* pretty girls playing football while not wearing much of anything
When the league launches – as it appears it will – it will be interesting to see how they handle things. For instance, I would think you would have to play in spring and summer, if only because there are teams in Chicago and New England, and as much as I like the idea of bad-weather football, that would be particularly uncomfortable for the players. I can't imagine the league would ruin things by playing indoors – that's just not football – but we shall see.
I am confident the league will realize the importance of quality football to win over fans. Yes, you may think I am joking, but look. I'm a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. The team I root for famously fired its cheerleaders. Not only that, Pittsburgh fired its cheerleaders after one of them asked the team if the squad could wear racier outfits. So let's not underestimate the importance of smash-mouth blue-collar football played in really bad weather, because that's what the game is all about – no matter if the players happen to be pretty model-types.
That said, if they're playing games when the only thing else on television is baseball, and I'm single and not in a relationship, I'd be open to watching a game or two.
THE FOLLOWING WILL SERVE as an apt summary of the game between the Manchester Wolves and the Tennessee Valley Vipers this evening in Huntsville, Ala.:
As you may have guessed, Manchester wasn't driving the General Lee.
When the first half was over, the score was 28-14 -- not bad, considering we were down 21-0 at the end of the first quarter. Manchester turned over the ball twice during the half, and couldn't capitalize on a late Bradly Chavez interception in the closing minute. Our opening drive in the third quarter looked promising until our quarterback, Brian Jones, threw an absolute lulu of an interception. Tennessee Valley then marched down the field and we were again down three scores. Somehow, though, Manchester stopped the Vipers twice on offense, and we capitalized. Halfway through the fourth quarter, we were only down 35-28. Then, when Al Phillips made a great interception, it looked like we could tie it up -- until Jones fumbled on the very next play. The Vipers recovered. Ugh.
With some smart play calling into the mix, the Vipers were able to run down the clock and kick a field goal. With 52 seconds remaining, the Vipers were up 38-28. But on the enusing kickoff, the ball bounced off the crossbar and the Vipers recovered, punching it in for a touchdown on the next play. Ugh.
Final score: Tennessee Valley 45, Manchester 35.
There's always next year.
That's something I hope the team can take away from what really was a magical turnaround and a heck of a run for the Arena Cup. To go from a 1-6 record in the first seven weeks to an overall record of 9-7, and then to knock off not only the South Georgia Wildcats and the Green Bay Blizzard in the playoffs, was a hell of an accomplishment. It's one that should be celebrated and recognized. Although tonight's game didn't go the way we had hoped, the season can only be considered a success, and something to build on for next year.
Although I am certainly disappointed -- the team was so close, and yet so far -- the Wolves are not a team in which I can be disappointed. Not when their players are playing for love of the game, $250 per week and a shot at the Arena Football League or even the NFL (a Wolves linebacker in 2007, Maurice Fountain, went to the AFL in 2008 and just signed with the Miami Dolphins). Although I would love for the team to someday win the Arena Cup, I'm happy to have some good football during the off-season. So here's to next year, the quest and plenty of good football yet to come.
(What's that? Hazzard County was in Georgia? Eh. It's close enough).
LOYAL RANT READERS will recall my absolute joy when, somehow, someway, the Manchester Wolves -- my city's minor-league arena football team -- beat the South Georgia Wildcats in the first round of this year's af2 playoffs. Not only did we win, we won after a last minute of play that was perhaps the most exciting minute of arena football I've ever watched. Well -- THEY DID IT AGAIN! The Wolves beat the Green Bay Blizzard! The Wolves beat the Green Bay Blizzard!
And I thought last week was exciting. Holy Toledo, this was even better. So dig this: with less than a minute left, the Green Bay Blizzard have scored a touchdown to go ahead 54-47. That gives us roughly 46 seconds to march the ball down the field and in the endzone to tie it all up. With no time outs left, we're under the gun. Well, lo and behold, we're able to advance the ball down into Green Bay territory, and with 7.2 seconds left, we've got enough time for roughly one more play. With 17 yards to the endzone, we were completely behind the eight ball. But Brian Jones, our new quarterback -- who was our starting quarterback before he got sidelined with injury in April -- takes the snap, heads back, and after a few seconds hits wide receiver Emery Sammons in the endzone for the equalizer!
Then Sammons ran into the trombone player. No, wait. Anyway, so now comes the extra point attempt, which would have sent the game into overtime if good. But ... hey. We're not going to try the extra point. We're going for a two-point conversion to win the ball game. Oh God oh God oh God. The try goes ... and the pass is incomplete off the back wall. NOOOO -- but there's a penalty! It's on Green Bay! One more try! It's a running play. Jones walks into the endzone! Manchester's up 55-54!
But with 1.2 seconds left, Green Bay still gets to receive a kickoff and try to return it for a score. Their return man is Steve "Speedy" Gonzalez, who played for the Wolves before getting a promotion to the Philadelphia Soul. In a word, the guy's dangerous. But the unthinkable doesn't happen -- and Manchester wins! Manchester wins! WOW!
Even more amazing, we are not facing Wilkes-Barre Scranton in the conference final. Somehow, WBS lost at home (!) to the Tennessee Valley Vipers, of Huntsville, Ala. So now we're heading down to the Yellowhammer State to see if we can make our way to the ArenaCup game. I do not know what a yellowhammer is but I do know Tennessee Valley is a very tough team. They beat Wilkes-Barre at home. That's an accomplishment that can't be understated. But if we can beat South Georgia and Green Bay on the road we can beat these guys too.
Amazingly, the playoff situation as it stands now gives us an outside chance to host the ArenaCup game -- which would be downright cool. However, it's an outside chance. Not only would we have to win, so would the Amarillo Dusters. I put our chances of beating Tennessee Valley as pretty good. Amarillo's chances of beating the Spokane Shock, the best team in the entire league ... well, they're slim. But if Manchester makes it, that will hopefully mean some sort of television coverage, so we'll see. I don't want to put the cart before the horse, though -- so let's go to Alabama and bring home a victory.
THEY DID IT! THEY DID IT! My city's minor-league arena football team, the Manchester Wolves, the seventh seed in the af2 playoffs, beat the No. 2-seeded South Georgia Wildcats! I can't believe it! They did it! What a game! I have never seen a more exciting fourth quarter in arena football. Holy Toledo!
I can only imagine what it was like in person down in Albany, Ga. As it happened, I watched it on my computer here at home, using the af2's particularly spiffy television feed. What an exciting last few minutes. Here's how it went down. With four minutes or so to go, Manchester is driving down the field, down 42-39 to the Wildcats. Quarterback James Pinkney throws a neat pass to wide receiver Emery Sammons, who caught the ball at about the five yard line. It wasn't clear what happened next -- whether the ball popped out after Sammons was down or he was stripped of it -- but suddenly, the officials ruled it was a fumble and South Georgia recovered it in the endzone.
Uh oh, I thought to myself. Now we're in trouble. It had been a tough go all night, and the Wildcats now had the upper hand. A few plays later, they seemed well on their way to scoring and getting a crucial two-possession lead. But thanks to some beautiful defensive play, we stopped them on downs. Now, we had the momentum again and had the ball on our nine-yard line. After heading back down the field, Pinkney threw a tough pass to Sammons, and the ball bounced off Sammons' fingertips, took a crazy jump, and one of the South Georgia cornerbacks somehow managed to intercept the ball with about a minute on the clock. Now, we're doomed! I thought.
All South Georgia had to do was get positive yardage and they would have been able to run out the clock. On the very next play, they fumbled the ball on the snap. The Wolves recovered on what looked to be the South Georgia four-yard-line. Oh. My. God. Then the South Georgia center complained to the officials, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Half the distance. Then South Georgia's coach got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Half the distance again!
A touchdown came soon after, and we were up, 46-42. But there were 56 seconds left on the clock, and with the one-minute timing rules in effect, scoring would have been pretty easy for the Wildcats. But boy did the Wolves step up. Not only did South Georgia have to use all four downs to get a first down, on the next play their quarterback screwed up spiking the ball. Don't ask me how that turned into a fumble, but suddenly, the Wildcats had to use their last time out. Then, again, the Wolves stopped them on downs. All we had to do was run out the clock, and we were able to do so thanks to a defensive penalty.
Oh. My. God. We beat South Georgia. A team that had won seven games in a row. A team that beat league-best Spokane in Spokane. A team that won the American Conference's South Division title. We beat them. You can't ask for more than that.
Now, on to Green Bay and victory!
AFTER THE MANCHESTER WOLVES (9-7) finished off their season with an impressive and exciting 46-45 win over the Corpus Christi Sharks (8-8), I was scanning the headlines on ArenaFan and found a rather interesting story about the Albany Conquest. As in, the team's for sale. As in, the team's for sale for just a quarter of a million dollars.
Hmmmmm. Let's see ... oh, drat. I don't have the money with me. Well, let's look at my books, then -- oh, drat. I'm short. Plus, even if I did have a quarter of a million dollars, that wouldn't be enough money to rescue the Conquest. To do it right you would need at least a million bucks on top of that. Sadly, the Conquest is a money-losing franchise and so you would need a lot of capital to right the ship.
But I do think it could be done. Albany has some particular hurdles that must be overcome, but they can be overcome with the right amount of grit and hustle, by which I mean salesmanship. First, though, let's look at some numbers.
It costs about $1 milion -- now, perhaps $1.1 million or $1.2 million -- to run an af2 franchise for a year. That we know, based on a Forbes magazine story written a few years ago which featured my team, the glorious (and profitable!) Manchester Wolves. It is possible you could get away with less but since you don't want to cut corners, you should expect to pay that kind of money. So let's settle on an expense figure of $1.1 million.
This consequently means that you need revenues of at least $1.1 million to avoid nasty calls from your bankers. So how do you get $1.1 million in revenues? Well, let's look at the revenue breakdown. According to the Forbes article, 47 pc of revenue for a typical af2 team comes from ticket sales, 33 pc from corporate sponsorship, 10 pc from merchandise and concessions, 9 pc from radio and television advertising, and 1 pc from "other." Broken out for our example, that means selling $517,000 worth of tickets, getting $366,666 in corporate dollars, $110,000 from merchandise and concessions, and roughly $100,000 from radio and television.
The two big areas where a front office can do well are on the ticket and corporate sides. Everything else will follow.
Now the corporate dollars require salesmanship. Your corporate sponsors want value for money. How do you do that? Sell ads and tickets. Sell naming rights to the field. Sell ads on jerseys. Sell ads on the padding. Sell ads on the banners around the field. Do business in-kind: you feed my players one night a week, I promote you during each game and invite people to eat at Joe's with the team. Throw in some free tickets as incentives for companies -- they can be used as free morale-boosters for the troops. You provide free stuff for giveaways and we'll promote the hell out of it. Give away gasoline. Give away a car. But promote, promote, promote.
Let's break it down even further when it comes to ticket sales. There are eight home games in a season, meaning one would need $64,625 in ticket sales per game for that portion of the break-even price. An Albany Conquest season ticket holder this year paid anywhere from $33.75 to $9 per game for a ticket, depending on location, with most going for $16 each. If we assume the really good seats cancel out the endzone seats, let's say the average is $16 each. Thus, if the team could sell 4,039 season tickets, they'd break even on that component right from the get-go. The average overall attendance in Albany the past year was about 3,700, according to ArenaFan.
There are two problems I see with the Conquest's strategy as is. First, they've made many of the tickets too cheap. Second, there are no discounts for youth or seniors -- at least, none that I saw on their tickets page. Both these things are serious errors in my mind and will be difficult to correct. After all, since you've devalued the tickets (and the team isn't all that good) you have little power to increase prices. Second, in not discounting tickets for youth and seniors, you're creating a mental barrier for potential buyers.
So how does one fix this? Volume. Raise the adult prices a little bit -- there's some breathing room there. For instance, the single-game sideline seats could be sold for $20 instead of $18 without too much blowback. But youth tickets could be sold for $10 and senior tickets for $15. Be ruthless in cutting prices for kids. Kids mean adults. That's the iron-clad equation of minor-league sports. Kids mean adults.
Let's say you have a family of four wanting to buy sideline tickets for a season. This year, they would have paid $512 for season tickets. Now, I don't know about you, but to me $512 is a lot of money. Here's a better idea. Sell the adult tickets for $18 each (a $2 increase over now) and sell the kids' tickets for $5 each. That brings in $368 -- not too much less -- but your family of four is going to think, "Wow. Football games for the kids cheap." The kids will be happy, which makes the parents happy, and it's good for everyone. (The Wolves offered really cheap youth season tickets this year, and I thought it was particularly inspired).
If you were able to attract just 50 new families with this pricing scheme, it would translate to $18,400 in revenue. If you attracted 500 new families, it would translate to $184,000.
One final thought on promotion: af2 teams should work hand-in-hand with the athletic departments of their local middle and high schools. That's a natural fan base. Run football clinics, offer discounted tickets, do what you have to do, but do it. It'll be good for the players on your team and good for the kids and, one would hope, good for the bottom line.
Oh, there's also the whole football part of the equation. That's the easy part. But Albany's hapless performance on the field needs to be fixed. My guess -- and this is just a guess -- is that a good team on the field would translate into 1,000 or 1,500 tickets sold a game at the very minimum. Also, the team make sure to work with its loyal fan base and get them more involved with the team. That will excite them even more and spread the word to their friends and family.
THE GOOD NEWS: the Manchester Wolves (8-7), my city's minor-league arena football team, beat the Albany Conquest (5-10) in Albany this evening by an impressive score of 70-49, thus ending the Conquest's playoff hopes and pretty much ensuring our appearance in the post-season.
THE BAD NEWS: our starting quarterback, James Pinkney, got hurt in the fourth quarter and did not return. He was able to walk off the field but was in extreme pain. I don't know what happened to him and neither did the announcer on the radio feed to which I was listening, but I just hope it's not a rib-cage injury. That would be bad. That would be very bad. I hope Mr Pinkney has a swift and speedy recovery from whatever is ailing him.
Also in the "bad news" category -- our play was ... well, a bit sloppy. Yes, I know I'm a perfectionist. Yes, I know I am unforgiving. That's not the point. Albany should not have scored 49 points in that contest, and I think we could have scored more than 70 -- we had 40 at halftime, after all. The only reason we did score 70, as it happened, was because Albany was messing around with timeouts when the game was lost; thus, instead of running the ball, we ran a long-bomb pass play that went for a touchdown.
I suppose what frustrated me as a fan were the innumerable penalties against the Wolves, several of them personal fouls. The personal foul penalty is the bane of every football fan, primarily because it's so stupid. Does the quarterback release the ball? Sadly, he is inviolate. Does some loudmouth on the other side rattle your chain? There is one and only one acceptable response to this -- and that is the word "scoreboard."
I mean, come on, guys. It's Albany. They suck. They always suck. They always have and always will suck*. There is no reason to let them get under your skin. For that matter, there is no reason to let anyone get under your skin. Channel your anger into an appropriate response, such as legally piledriving a wide receiver into the boards four plays later. It is one thing to get mad, but much better to get even.
On the other hand, the Wolves do deserve a lot of praise for turning their season around this year. Things seemed pretty grim back when they were 1-6, but winning seven of their last eight games has turned this into a winning team and an impressive program. Don't ease off the accelerator now!
* This may actually prove the case, as the attendance in Albany tonight was just 3,000 and change -- not enough, based on the Conquest's owner's previous statements, for the man to bring the team back next year.
WELL, I CAN'T COMPLAIN about this year's Arena Football League season, even if it did come to a sad conclusion for me today when both my teams in the playoffs got blasted out of their athletic shoes. Ugh. It was bad enough when the Philadelphia Soul shellacked the Cleveland Gladiators, but it was even worse to see the Grand Rapids Rampage become the latest victims of the San Jose SaberCats.
In any event, I have to give credit to both teams for getting as far as the conference championship games. These teams improved markedly over their performances last year, and provided me a lot of entertainment during these long months without traditional American football. But for now, I shall bid adieu to another Arena Football League season, and will look forward to its resumption in March.
READERS: Uh, last time we checked, there was this whole "Arena Bowl" taking place in New Orleans in two weeks or so, and --
Oh, please. It's the Philadelphia Soul against the San Jose SaberCats. It's the arenaball equivalent of the Indianapolis Colts playing the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. Watching Super Bowl XLI was tough enough but I felt I had a duty as a football fan. Watching this would be downright impossible, particularly as I'd undoubtedly get exposed to air time that in some way, shape or form would involve Ron Jaworski. I'll pass. My guys fought hard but they got knocked out, and so it's time to regroup and focus on other matters.
Other matters like the AF2, I might add!
Up until 6 p.m. today, everything went wrong. After 6 p.m., pretty much everything went right.
I am proud to report the Manchester Wolves (7-7), my city's minor-league arena football team, ran roughshod over the lowly Mahoning Valley Thunder (3-11) this evening -- and did so from the word go. Much to my surprise, I might add. You see, earlier today, I had thought the game had started at 7 p.m., but looked at my ticket and saw the game time was listed as 7:30 p.m. Oh good, I thought: I have plenty of time to get to the game, so I'll take a shower and relax before I get down there.
It was such a nice night in Manchester that I decided to save myself $10 and parked on the city streets about six blocks from the arena, and very much enjoyed my walk. When I arrived at the arena, I was surprised to find the game was already in progress, and realized to my horror that I had forgotten the start time had in fact been pushed back some weeks ago. I poked my head inside one of the sections and found to my amazement Manchester had already gone up 19-0 -- no, 20-0! -- in the first half of the first quarter.
As one might expect, we won this game easily. The final score was 53-27, which is even more impressive considering the Youngstown squad only scored two touchdowns in the second half. The credit for this win must go mostly to our defense, which had a downright fantastic game, particularly defensive back Carl Brown. Our quarterback, James Pinkney, didn't have the best game -- one fumble, one interception. But he still played very well -- he was named the offensive player of the game -- and to be fair the whole match was kind of a tune-up for the next few weeks. It just had that feel, if that makes any sense; once Manchester got out so far ahead, our guys seemed to ease off the accelerator a little, and could do so without fear.
Certainly Youngstown did not seem to bring its best game, but then, they appeared to be playing with their C-team in place. Two of their players were on injured reserve. Oddly, four players -- and good ones, too! -- were listed on the team suspension list in our program. I'd love to know how that happened. Even more odd, their main quarterback got suspended by the league. Supposedly, according to The Vindicator of Youngstown, Ohio, the QB had been playing in a lower-level* indoor football league earlier this year, and apparently one can't do that and play for the af2 in the same season. (The Vindy sources this to the Thunder's latest quarterback, who "heard" that from some unnamed source, so take it for what it's worth. If true, though, that's stupid -- the af2 should use these leagues as a feeder system and take their best talent).
But that's neither here nor there. The point is we won and they lost. Even better, the other teams we needed to lose lost -- not one but two! Much to my surprise, the Albany Conquest (5-9) knocked off the Louisville Fire (7-7) and the Iowa Barnstormers (5-9) manhandled the Quad City Steamwheelers (7-7). This leaves three teams tied for the last two places in the playoffs.
I think we're seventh now. Or eighth. Christ, I don't know. But the important thing is that no matter what happens, if we win the next two games we are guaranteed a playoff spot. I think. Yeah. Strength of schedule. Or something.
Also, I am pleased to note that although it would have been great to see it on television, the Saskatchewan Roughriders somehow managed to defeat the surprisingly good Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the last minute of play at Ivor Wynne Stadium. That's in Hamilton. That's east of Kitchener and southwest of Toronto.
Anyway, dig this: It's like second and hopeless for the Riders on their own 42, and bang! -- Weston Dressler goes 67 yards on a pass play, and would have scored a touchdown had he not fumbled the ball before getting into the end zone. But this gave the Riders the ball on the Hamilton one-yard line, and as such it was not difficult for Saskatchewan to run it in for the score, putting them on top 33-28 with seconds left.
When I checked in on this game before I left tonight, it was Hamilton up 28-26 with a minute left in the fourth quarter. What a win. The Riders are now 3-0 and clearly the best team in Canadian football. Don't talk to me about the Argos or the Alouettes; the Riders are going to win the Grey Cup two years in a row. You know, it'd be great if I could watch the Grey Cup on television.
Anyway, that's it for now, but to recap: Grand Rapids, Cleveland out of AFL playoff chase; Manchester in AF2 playoff chase; Saskatchewan rules; and -- oh yes, it's just a few weeks to the NFL's pre-season. Sweet. And just think, I mananged to write an entire football-oriented blog post without writing about Brett Favre!
* Yes, there are lower ones, as Loyal Rant Readers know. The Rant recommends the CIFL for folks back home if they can't make it up to Grand Rapids.
GRAND RAPIDS DID IT! GRAND RAPIDS DID IT! HAHAHAHAHAHA!
Oh, what a joyous game! The sixth-seeded Grand Rapids Rampage defeated the first-seeded Chicago Rush 58-41, in an impressive, hard-fought playoff game in Rosemont, Ill., this afternoon, and what a victory it was. This is one game where I'm glad to have my prediction prove wrong, that's for sure.
We'll get to the victory in a bit, but I must first announce a major shift in my arena football loyalties. Previously, I had somewhat liked the Chicago Rush. But their unsportsmanlike antics throughout the game today have put them thoroughly in the evil column of my football loyalties scheme. As such, they must be destroyed.
While that was fortunately the outcome of today's game, I would call upon the Arena Football League to look over the game footage and assess heavy fines against certain players -- particularly defensive lineman John Moyer, who ganged up on Grand Rapids quarterback James MacPherson along with another Chicago defenseman. That was cowardly and pathetic. This does not mean you should fine Jason Shelley, who was only defending his quarterback when he ran 15 yards to bodycheck Moyer, resulting in Mr Shelley's ejection from the contest.
As Loyal Rant Readers have concluded, these two teams do not like each other much. This is understandable, given the long-standing divisional rivalry between the teams. But I am glad that Grand Rapids was able to keep its cool -- well, mostly -- during the game. It appeared to me most of the Stupid Penalties went against Chicago, and that's what you want when you're on the road and playing a tough -- if stupid -- team.
Now -- on to San Jose!
SO I WAS ON THE PHONE with Mrs Kepple today and we got to talking about football -- I told you my family rules -- and Mom asked me how the Grand Rapids Rampage, which had the late game on Monday, played. Well, as it turned out, we beat the Arizona Rattlers 48-41 and now must face the Chicago Rush in the divisional round of the playoffs. That will be a tough game as Chicago is a very good squad, but Grand Rapids nearly beat them during the regular season, so I'm hopeful the game won't be a gimme-win for Chicago. It had best not.
Grand Rapids' win, and the Cleveland Gladiators' win over the Orlando Predators, puts me at two-for-four in terms of my Arena Football League predictions. I was stunned as anyone when New York beat Dallas, and disappointed the Colorado Crush -- whom I hate -- knocked off the Utah Blaze. But at least the Monday night games put me at two-and-four. I was worried there.
Now, as for the AFL divisional round playoffs, my predictions are as follows:
No. 2 San Jose will knock off No. 5 Colorado. This will prove an easy win for the SaberCats, I'm thinking.
No. 1 Chicago will defeat -- but only barely -- No. 6 Grand Rapids. The Rampage definitely have a good chance to beat Chicago, but a lot will depend on how their defense performs. If Chicago can score at will, Grand Rapids will find it difficult to pull out a victory. I hope Grand Rapids proves me wrong and I will root for them to do so.
In the National Conference, I think the No. 6 New York Dragons will put up a good fight against the No. 1 Philadelphia Soul, but won't be able to continue their Cinderella run -- the Soul are simply too strong for that. The No. 4 Cleveland Gladiators play the No. 2 Georgia Force. I know nothing about Georgia, so I'm going to throw my hat in the ring for Cleveland.
In af2 news -- well, there's not much news, 'cause the Wolves have the week off. Our next home game is on Saturday, July 12, against the lowly Mahoning Valley Thunder. But I do think there are some pretty big changes in store for af2 fans next year -- like divisional realignments and such. We shall see.
FOR THOSE READERS unfamiliar with the grand sport of arena football, the above statement may seem a bit strange, especially when one hears about arenaball teams scoring 60, 70, or even 80 points in a game. But this was the case last night in Manchester, when my beloved Manchester Wolves (6-7), my city's minor-league arena football team, crushed the Albany Conquest (4-9) 50-33. There was some beautiful defensive ball played last night and I can't say enough good things about how well our defense performed.
We must have sacked Albany's quarterback six or seven times during the game -- I wish I could give an exact number, but I lost count of how many sacks we had. For that matter, I lost count of how many sacks our rookie lineman Larry McSwain, out of UAB, had during the game, but it must have been three or four. His fellow UAB alum Bradly Chavez, who has fast become a fan favorite, had not one but two fumble recoveries -- including one beautiful play where he recovered a fumble for a touchdown. He simply scooped up the ball and was off to the races.
I have long contended the smart thing for players to do when they're going after a fumble is simply to fall on it: that ensures the ball doesn't slip from their grasp in the recovery attempt. On the play prior to Chavez's scoop for six, I had politely reminded the team about this, as Albany had fumbled the ball on that play too but managed to recover it after a prolonged fight. OK, I was actually screaming, "Fall on it! Fall on the ball!" But I suppose that advice goes out of the window when you're a hands guy.
In any event, defense won this game. Defense also kept Albany in it: despite stellar opening play on Manchester's part, the Conquest made a crucial interception of our quarterback, James Pinkney, as Manchester was seeking to extend our 13-0 lead. This allowed Albany back into the game, and before one knew it, it was halftime and the score was 20-20 -- and Albany started out with the ball in the second half. But Manchester's defense really stepped up in the second half -- I mean, they got a safety, for Pete's sake -- and so did our offense, which powered home in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach. Everyone had a lot to be proud of in this game, although being a perfectionist I was a little concerned about the interceptions our quarterback threw.
Although Manchester's victory was not a surprise, I was surprised to learn upon my arrival at home we were still in ninth place in the af2's American Conference. The stupid Quad City Steamwheelers (7-6) of Moline, Ill., somehow managed to wallop the Green Bay Blizzard (9-4). God, how I wanted Green Bay to win that game -- had they done so, they would have probably pushed Quad City down into ninth place. But the news was not all bad last night. Somehow, the lowly Mahoning Valley Thunder (3-10) of Youngstown, Ohio, beat the Louisville Fire (7-6), putting Louisville uncomfortably close to the hot seat. And the pathetic Stockton (Calif.) Lightning (3-10) beat the Tennesee Valley Vipers in Huntsville, Ala., to put TVV at 8-5 on the season. If the Peoria Pirates (4-8) can beat the Lexington Horsemen (7-5) tonight, that will really make things interesting.
The Wolves get a well-deserved rest next week, but will come back in the following week to play the Thunder at home. Sweet. Here's looking forward to a 7-7 record as of July 12.
THEY DID IT AGAIN! Loyal Rant Readers who may recall my "Adolf Hitler, Dallas Cowboys Fan" post will not be surprised at my argument one could as easily contend Hitler would be a fan of the Dallas Desperadoes. After all, both the NFL and AFL franchises are owned by Mr Jerral Jones and as such are evil. Also, both Dallas squads are quick becoming known for playing fabulous during the regular season, only to get knocked on their asses during the playoffs.
Well, much to my surprise -- and I think everyone else's -- the New York Dragons stepped up last night and beat Dallas on Dallas' home turf, 77-63. Heh. Beautiful. Last year, Dallas went 15-1 in the regular season, yet lost to the 7-9 Columbus Destroyers in the first round of the playoffs. This year, Dallas went 12-4 in the regular season, yet lost to the Dragons, which were 8-8.
Oh, joy and rapture. I mean, Dallas had a great squad again this year, and an unstoppable offense -- and having seen them play live, I can attest to this. But how wonderful was it to learn they had lost, lost, lost, and to New York of all teams! Perhaps this schadenfreude is unseemly, but as one catchy pop song puts it, "It felt so wrong, it felt so right." Yeah.
New York goes on to face the No. 1 ranked Philadelphia Soul next week.
Good luck with that.
This afternoon's AFL game is Colorado v. Utah, while on Monday night we'll have a double-header: Orlando at Cleveland and Grand Rapids at Arizona. The Colorado-Utah game will be on ESPN and the Monday night games will be on ESPN2. Here we go, here we go, here we go!
OK, BAD NEWS AND GOOD NEWS. First the bad news.
Fortunately, I was out with friends last night, so I didn't have to watch the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers (10-2, damn them) defeat my beloved Manchester Wolves (5-7), my city's minor-league arena football team. We lost 69-40. This loss can be fairly described as unfortunate. Since the Quad City Steamwheelers (6-6), based in Moline, Ill., also lost this weekend, a win would have put us in playoff position for the moment. Playoffs in the af2 are NBA style: eight teams from each conference of the 29-team league make the playoffs, with seeding along those lines. Right now, in the American Conference, we're No. 9.
Now we are one game behind the playoff contenders, with just four weeks to go before the post-season. Not the best position to be in, although it is one that may be improved upon. Now I must root for the Louisville Fire -- at home -- to lose to the Lexington Horsemen tomorrow night. That would tie up the 7th and 8th placed teams in the conference at 6-6, and improve Manchester's chances of making it into the playoffs. The good news is that our remaining four games are against relatively weaker teams, and given this, a sweep is not out of the question. So there is certainly reason for hope and every expectation we'll make it into the post-season; it's just that being 7-5 would be a heck of a lot more comforting than being 5-7.
But hey, it's exciting. It's especially exciting due to the second piece of bad news, which is that I consider it very unlikely I'm going to get a Canadian Football League broadcast feed here in New Hampshire this year. God bless it. I checked the Web site for the New England Sports Network, which carried CFL games here last year, and on kickoff Thursday they're broadcasting repeats of old Red Sox games. Not a good sign. The CFL's Web site is useless and continues to pledge that a U.S. broadcast schedule "is coming soon." Right.
CFL games are apparently being broadcast on the America One network this year, but sadly for me there are no America One affiliates in New England. The games will also apparently get broadcast on ESPN360.com, but my cable provider doesn't carry ESPN360.com, which is Comcastic. About the only place I was able to find information about this was the CFL fans' forum, so I am guessing I am, to use the technical term, shit out of luck.
If I find out any further information, I'll pass this on to Loyal Rant Readers, who have expressed interest in the CFL's U.S. availability. I do realize I could stream the games on-line from TSN for the bargain price of $9.99 per game, but the value-for-money equation doesn't work. I'd pay $1.99 or $2.99 per game, but not $9.99, which would be better spent on 2.25 gallons of gasoline, if you ask me.
I would say this, however. I realize the CFL's primary focus is growing the sport in Canada. That said, I can't understand why a deal wasn't reached to secure truly wide-ranging broadcasts of the CFL in the United States. I can see why ESPN or ESPN2 wouldn't work, just because they have the college football franchise. Versus, the seeming natural choice for Canadian football, also has college football.
But Gad -- you'd think the CFL would at least cobble together something to get the games broadcast everywhere. You'd think the sport would do great in July and August, when football fans are downright dying. Eventually, you'd think that would help generate interest in the sport south of the border, and revenues from the broadcasts would grow accordingly.
Feh. But now to the good news.
The good news is that the Arena Football League's playoffs are here -- and I have two teams in the hunt. True, with 12 out of the league's 17 teams in the playoffs, it would be difficult not to have two teams in the hunt, but let's not quibble about that for the moment. My teams, as Loyal Rant Readers will imagine, are the Grand Rapids Rampage (ranked No. 6 in the American Conference) and the Cleveland Gladiators (ranked No. 4 in the National Conference).
I about fell out of my chair when I saw the Wild Card schedule, for I was delighted to see that I'll be able to watch ALL of the Wild Card games, despite the peculiarities of my work schedule (I work Saturdays, for those of you who don't know). The full schedule may be found here. My predictions, for what they're worth:
* No. 3 Dallas easily defeats No. 6 New York.
* No. 4 Cleveland defeats No. 5 Orlando.
* No. 4 Utah will probably defeat No. 5 Colorado, although it will be a tough go.
* No. 6 Grand Rapids defeats No. 3 Arizona.
Here's to a great couple days of football next weekend!
I AM PLEASED to report the Manchester Wolves, my city's minor-league arena football team, have improved to 5-6 on the season, and did so in impressive style this evening. Let's review the Youngstown tune-up we pulled on the hapless Mahoning Valley Thunder (of Youngstown, Ohio) this evening:
* We scored 79 points against the Thunder. That's high even for arena football. It is not the all-time record for Manchester or any other team -- the team's record in a game is 80 points, which I saw them pull off a while back, and the all-time scoring record for a team in af2 is 103 points. It was, however, enough for the Wolves to set a new team record in terms of points scored on the road.
* We had three turnovers in the game -- two fumbles and one interception. Sweet.
* For a good portion of the game, we were up by more than 30 points. Double yoi!
* The Thunder only managed to score one touchdown in the third quarter -- and that followed two possessions in which we forced two turnovers.
* Did I mention we scored 79 points? I watched the game using the af2's clever Internet television broadcasting system. I can't say enough how much that rules. Anyway, our offense was absolutely unstoppable -- our guys were routinely yards away from the enemy's defensive backs, and often practically walked into the endzone. Oh, it ruled.
Of course, being a perfectionist, I did notice some things that somewhat concerned me. Youngstown should not have been able to score 55 points in that game. True, much of this was because of the downright sick play of wide receiver Clenton Rafe, who was all over the field and zipping past our players right and left. Mr Rafe scored most of Youngstown's touchdowns and turned in a downright impressive performance; fortunately, in this league, it requires all eight players on the field doing well for teams to win.
So our defensive backs, basically, need to keep on the ball -- pardon the pun -- and work hard in practice this week on coverage. That said, I have to give credit to No. 2, Trey Bell, formerly of the Grand Rapids Rampage, who made our interception tonight. He read the quarterback perfectly and it was a beautiful pick.
Also, I was a bit concerned about our kick coverage -- it seemed too easy for Youngstown to punch the ball out into good field position, even after their players initially bobbled the ball on several kickoffs. That's something, perhaps, to work on. In addition, our quarterback, James Pinkney, is playing fantastic. But Mr Pinkney should feel free to throw the ball away if he finds himself in trouble as opposed to trying to make a play; that was our one turnover tonight.
I realize this may seem a bit much, considering Manchester has won four games in a row, is one game shy of .500 and four of our five remaining games are against relatively weak teams. But we have to play division leader Wilkes-Barre/Scranton -- on the road -- next week. They're 9-2. They've won 17 games in a row at home. And they scored 77 points tonight against a good Tennessee Valley (Huntsville, Ala.) Vipers* squad.
The playoffs are in sight!
* What's that? Yes, the Tennessee Valley Vipers are in Alabama. But they're really close to the Volunteer State. Look, I'm sure they had a good reason for calling the team what they did.
** Also -- last -- but not least -- The Rant hopes No. 5, wide receiver Emery Sammons, heals up quickly from the injury he sustained tonight. But I certainly admire Mr Sammons' guts -- he was hurt once in the evening, but came back and fought on before getting hurt again. That's dedication.
OK, THIS SUCKS. Here I am, all ready to watch the pivotal matchup between the Los Angeles Avengers and the Utah Blaze of the Arena Football League, and what do we have on ESPN2? A college baseball game between Fresno and Arizona State. A horribly long and wretched college baseball game, which 24 minutes into the AFL game is only in the top of the 8th inning. A game in which Fresno is leading 11-5.
You have got to be frickin' kidding me. We've got a game with major playoff implications going on, and we're forced to watch a blowout of a college baseball game?
Fortunately, I somehow managed to get a radio feed from Utah to listen to the game, which is turning out to be a shootout. But -- this is ridiculous. Even worse, I think the college kids are deliberately stretching out their game so they can take advantage of every second of their 15 minutes of fame. I've already missed the entire first quarter and at this rate, will miss the entire first half.
I hate spring. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. Well, if I'm lucky, the future Class A kids will wrap up before midnight, so I can see the fourth quarter.
Admittedly, the Manchester Wolves' four-and-six record may not seem a lot to cheer about. It is, however, something to cheer about when you consider the following:
* The Wolves have won three games in a row.
* Two of these victories have come against some of the af2's best teams: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (which was 7-1 when we played them) and Florida (which was 8-1 prior to tonight's game).
* The Wolves' defensive play has contributed mightily to these victories.
The progress the Wolves, my city's minor-league arena football team, have made in the last few weeks is nothing short of stunning. I don't know what they did to bring it about, but they finally got things moving all ahead full. Tonight's game against the Florida Firecats was proof positive of how well the team is playing.
We beat Florida by the resounding score of 47-35 this evening. As Loyal Rant Readers know, when your arenaball team holds an opponent to under 40 points, your defense is playing awfully well, and when they hold them to under 30, it's usually a rout. Although tonight's game didn't turn into a rout, it certainly had the potential to have gone that way, given the play of our defense.
To be sure, things weren't perfect: two of Florida's touchdowns resulted from what can charitably be called "blown" pass coverage. I expect our coach will put the players through hell this week as a result, as it is difficult to defend pass plays when your nearest player is several yards from the opposing team's open receiver. But aside from that, the defensive play was brilliant, particularly that of our defensive line, which punished Florida's quarterback severely. The man had to throw the ball away several times under pressure, was sacked at crucial moments, and near the end, as Florida was trying to gain a score that would have put them back in the game, defensive lineman Joe Crear forced a fumble -- which we promptly scooped up. Beautiful. Also beautiful: two goal-line stands that kept Florida out of the endzone and resulted in turnovers on downs.
Then there's the offense, which performed amazingly well. Aside from one unfortunate turnover -- a fumble after a reception -- the offense was unstoppable. Although our 47 points may seem a bit low for an unstoppable performance, don't let it fool you -- that was simply a function of Florida's drives taking long, not Manchester failing to score. We scored right out of the gate and didn't look back, and some of the scoring plays were downright brilliant. My favorite play? Well, our quarterback, James Pinkney, threw a bullet at our star ironman* wide receiver/ linebacker, Bradly Chavez, and as Chavez went for the ball it touched off its fingertips. It flew into the endzone, where one of our other ironmen, wide receiver/defensive back Steven Savoy, caught it. The crowd went wild. Chavez was on the ground, lying on his back, bemoaning the lost catch -- and then he realized it was a touchdown. He too started clapping.
Chavez, who has fast become a fan favorite, made some impressive plays himself. The most impressive was a long touchdown pass which he caught in the endzone and managed to hang onto, despite ramming into the dasher boards and flying out of the endzone -- along with the defender. But he had possession in the field of play, and the touchdown stood.
Simply put, this is the type of game I wished my folks had seen in Cleveland last week, when the Cleveland Gladiators of the Arena Football League -- the big league -- played the Dallas Desperadoes. Tonight, the officiating was nearly impeccable (perhaps entirely so), there was plenty of defense, and the crowd was very much into it. Very very much into it. I also thought the announcers, as I've noted before, again handled the crowd brilliantly. It's amazing how the sight of the "Noisemeter" on the jumbotron can whip people into a frenzy.
In summary, although the Wolves are now 4-6 and are presently ranked ninth in the conference -- meaning they're one spot out of playoff contention -- this is a team I really feel good about. The best part is that the hard part of the schedule is now pretty much over.
We have six games left in the season. Two of these are against the pathetic Mahoning Valley Thunder, which at 2-8 are yet again proof that Youngstown, Ohio, can't get a break to save its life. Two of these games are against the Albany Conquest, which is not a bad squad, but one that has hit a rough patch and can be beaten. We have one game to play against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton -- which we know we can beat, although it won't be easy -- and our final game is against the Corpus Christi Sharks, which is an average squad.
It is likely we will win four of these games. It is certainly possible we could win all six. If we go 8-8 we have a good shot at the playoffs and at 10-6 we would almost certainly make it into the post-season. That would rule. It would especially rule because I'm feeling good things about this team. This is a team that is rising at the right time, and a team that seems to have that special spark about it. Whether they'll be like the glorious Pittsburgh Steelers of 2005 remains to be seen, but they certainly seem to have that potential.
There's even more reason for arenaball fans to be excited about next year. One does not want to get ahead of oneself, but it would appear we're due to get some new teams into the league in 2009. This would rule. If one looks at the Wikipedia page for the league -- gotta love the wiki -- and delves into the source material, it seems very likely we'll have teams in Buffalo and Milwaukee; quite likely we'll have a team in Alberquerque; somewhat likely we'll have a team playing in Mississippi (we'll see if they can find a venue for 2009) and potentially -- as in, there's an outside chance -- teams in Yakima, Wash., and Saskatoon, Sask.
Dude. Yakima? Saskatoon? I am so there -- so frickin' there. God, please let this happen.
In the meantime, though, hats off to the Wolves for another excellent performance.
* In arena football, an "ironman" plays both offense and defense.
CLEVELAND, Ohio, May 31 -- I CAN ASSURE READERS I am becoming more like my father with each passing day. As the latest proof of this, I would note my extreme disappointment with the Arena Football League, which on Saturday evening single-handedly destroyed months of work in which I've tried to convince my immediate family that arena football is a legitimate sport, worthy of their support and attention.
You see, my father -- Mr Kepple -- does not like it when his investments do not pan out. I don't like it when my investments fail either. I especially don't like it when Mr Kepple spends a considerable amount of money to get the family fabulous seats for an AFL game, all in honor of his eldest son returning home for a weekend, and the game turns into a complete fiasco because of the referees officiating the game. In fact, it was the worst officiating I've seen in more than a decade of being a very passionate football fan -- including the Jan. 15, 2006 playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts. In this case it not only cost the Cleveland Gladiators football team a victory over the hated Dallas Desperadoes, but perhaps a spot in the AFL's playoffs.
As Loyal Rant Readers know, I'm not even a fan of the team. My AFL loyalties lie with the Grand Rapids Rampage, which after a brief flash of glory earlier in the year is again in the league's basement. Furthermore, although I generally watch AFL games on television, my true loyalties are to the Manchester Wolves of the arenafootball2 development league. So it should be pretty clear that I don't have a dog in this particular hunt. However, as a Wolves season ticket holder, and someone who actually travels outside New England for the sole purpose of watching arena football, and someone who blogs about the sport, I do feel as if I have a vested interest in arena football and its future. Saturday's game did not provide a reasonable rate of return on that interest.
For readers unfamiliar with the particular fiasco I am discussing, I would direct you to The Plain Dealer's coverage of the game in question, which contains several enlightening quotes from the Gladiators' top brass, who rightfully blast the officiating. But here's the gist of it all.
Now you should know there were three arguably iffy calls in this game: one the officials were probably right about, one the officials' judgment could reasonably be questioned, and one in which the officials were flat out wrong -- to the point where everyone in the stadium knew it but them.
The first call happened immediately at the end of the first half, in which Dallas was leading 34-31 and had the ball in the waning seconds of the second quarter. Dallas QB Clint "Golden Boy" Dolezel -- whom even I must admit is a fine quarterback, even though I hate Dallas -- threw a deep ball on the last play. One of Cleveland's defensive backs managed to intercept it deep in Gladiator territory, and ran it back for a touchdown. The crowd was electrified. The players were charged. It was an amazing and beautiful play. Yet the zebras called a clipping penalty against the Gladiators, negating the play and ending the half.
That was a heartbreaker. It was not, however, much of a clip -- at least in my judgment. It wasn't even a block from behind; it was a front block, more like a dive, in which the intent of the player was to try and slow up the defender trying to stop Cleveland's man from making a touchdown. Now on this one, the officials may well have been right -- but to me it seemed a bit much.
However, the officials were certainly NOT right when in the second half, Dallas was driving for a touchdown and their running back clearly fumbled the ball on the three yard line. After a scrum, Cleveland recovered it -- but this was negated after the braindead officiating crew somehow ruled Dallas' player was down by contact. The man was no more down by contact than I was in the thirteenth row. Furthermore, I was on the opposite side of the field and even I could see it was a clear fumble -- so how the officials thought the man was down by contact amazes me. When the replay was broadcast on the jumbotron, the crowd erupted in a massive tirade of hate and fury, because the call was so obviously wrong.
Now I can certainly understand that human beings make mistakes -- and spectacularly bad ones at that. But the next play did not help matters. The play on which the fumble was made was a third down, and thus Dallas was now facing a fourth down on which to make a touchdown. Cleveland successfully sacked Dolezel and got the ball back on downs. Or Cleveland would have, had not the refs called a defensive back for holding in the endzone. At this point, my reaction was, "You have got to be kidding me."
As Gladiators president Bernie Kozar put it later -- Bernie Kozar, ladies and gentlemen -- "I can't wait to see the replay on that one." Neither could I -- but sadly, our attempt to record the game at home proved unsuccessful. Perhaps the referees were correct in making that holding call, but it certainly left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Anyway, as one might imagine, Cleveland lost and Dallas won. But the outcome of the game did not bother me. What really bothered me was the fact that I had spent months talking up the game of arena football to my skeptical family, and my family clearly left the game unimpressed with it, even if they were polite about the whole thing. The crappy officiating was the big reason why. I asked my younger brother -- who before the game had uncharitably described the sport as a "clusterfuck" -- whether he had enjoyed the game despite the officiating. His response was, essentially, that one could not separate the two. I can't blame him. And I am embarrassed. Greatly embarrassed.
OK, Ben. Deep -- breaths. Deep -- breaths. Bad air out, good air in.
I do have to give the Gladiators credit for putting on an excellent show regardless of the crappy officiating. I particularly liked the stunt where they blindfolded fans and gave them a chance to win a prize if the fans -- still blindfolded -- managed to stumble from the endzone to midfield, where they had to grab a helmet or something. Anyway, this proved exceptionally enjoyable when one of the excited fans took off like a shot from the endzone, only to run smack into the Gladiators special teams' unit heading out for a kickoff. Oops.
Also, I can assure the Gladiators their cheerleaders were a big hit. However, as a football purist, I am not a fan of having the cheerleaders cheer in the aisles. This is not to say I do not like the cheerleaders; I am a man, after all, and I am not going to complain too much if a pretty girl wearing very little is rallying the troops not fifteen feet from my seat. However, when the pretty girl obstructs my view of the football on the field, that's problematic. I am there to watch football, not dancing girls.
I do, however, have to give a demerit to the Gladiators' announcers, who did not manage the crowd as well as one might have hoped. True, the crowd itself was less interested in the game than one might have liked, but crowds can be massaged. The Manchester Wolves do an excellent job of this at their games and routinely get the crowd fired up on crucial third and fourth downs; but the Gladiators' man was off key in doing this. Improving this might help the team. I have been assured the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team also does a good job of this, and routinely goads the crowd through flashing the Pittsburgh Steelers' and Michigan Wolverines' logos on the scoreboard; perhaps doing that might really tick off -- I mean, fire up -- the crowd. Just a thought.
Also, now that I've vented my spleen, I would be remiss if I didn't note the Manchester Wolves are now 3-6 after upsetting the Albany Conquest and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers in back-to-back wins. Sadly, I have not been able to see the team carry out these wins. Like many football fans I am superstitious and now wonder if my presence at future games will jinx the team. Still, I do feel I should get out there and support my team, especially since it is now playing excellently and has learned some very important lessons. Plus, like all true sports fans, I don't let disappointments get me down. Here's to a victory against Florida on Friday night, and to the playoffs later this summer!
OH, THE PAIN. What words could better sum up the heartbreaking, last-second loss of the Manchester Wolves (now 1-6) to the evil and depraved Tulsa Talons (now 8-0)? We were so close. So very, very close. But in the end, bad luck and the unique peculiarities of the arena game proved our undoing. Even at the end, when Tulsa kicked in the 25 yard field goal that nailed the coffin shut, we so nearly had it. As our defensive line surged forward and our players stretched out their arms, it looked as if one of our players got his fingertips on the ball -- but the ball wobbled its way through the thin uprights and our hopes were dashed. The final score: Tulsa 59, Manchester 56.
Oh, the pain.
However, I have to admit I'm more concerned with how the Wolves' past two losses will affect the team rather than my own emotional reaction to the loss. I hope they realize just how much they've improved over the past few weeks. I hope they realize that when you lose to the two best teams in the league by a combined score of nine points, you're doing a lot of things right. I hope they realize that this season still has nine games to go, including five home games, and that the playoffs still remain a very real possibility.
Despite our loss tonight, I have to say this was one of the best arena football games I've seen in a long time. Huge wins, of course, have a lot going for them, but there's also something to be said for great football -- and tonight was great football. The final score notwithstanding, this was a game with plenty of impressive defense, and the Wolves really hung in there when lesser teams would have folded like a cheap suit.
The end of the first half, and the beginning of the second half, is a great example of this. Consider: with seconds to go in the first half, Tulsa -- which would receive the ball to start the second half -- was down 28-27. With little time on the clock and their attempts to get in the endzone foiled, the Talons decided to go for a field goal. The snap went, Manchester rushed forward, and blocked the kick! The ball went flying, and everyone made a mad dash for it; it was recovered by Tulsa's quarterback. Just as he was about to end up flat on his back, he threw the ball to one of Tulsa's waiting Big Men, who ran it in for a short touchdown. My reaction was as follows:
ME: Wide right! Wide right! ... YES! YES! YES! YES! .... NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
Now Tulsa was going to start out the half with the ball and I knew this meant trouble. But what happened in the opening moments of the second half? Their kickoff man -- an extremely fast and adept player -- was zooming down the field when he was hit from behind and fumbled the ball. Tulsa recovered it, but on the very next play Tulsa fumbled the ball again, and this time we recovered. Shortly thereafter, we had tied the game at 34 all, although we missed the extra point try. On the next series of possessions, we managed to stop Tulsa, and soon afterwards, it was 37-34. Oh joy and rapture. We would hold a lead -- albeit a tiny lead -- through much of the second half.
But tiny leads in this game aren't safe. The wide open nature of the game, and the difficulty of defending against certain plays such as the quick slant and quick out passes, means a team really needs a margin of three or four scores before one can start banking the game in the win column. Against a team like Tulsa, that would have been a miracle. After a bit of back and forth, the game ended up tied again, at 49-49. With less than a minute to go, Tulsa went ahead 56-49, and we scored the equalizer shortly thereafter. Then, the 25 seconds until doomsday.
I just hope the Wolves realize the night is always darkest before the dawn -- and the sun's light is creeping above the horizon.
Oh, one more thing before I go. This is a polite message to the co-owners of the Tulsa Talons, Messrs Henry Primeaux III and Paul Ross -- yes, you.
What the devil is wrong with your team? I'm not talking about their play -- they're clearly an excellent squad. I'm talking about their flagrantly boorish behavior on the field of battle. As someone who has watched football all his life, I can honestly say tonight's unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Tulsa coaching squad was a first for me. Never in my more than two decades of watching high school, college, NFL, AFL or af2 football have I seen coaches act so badly that the referees actually penalized them for it.
Simply put, gentlemen, this was not cool and with it. Give your coaches some Xanax or something.
SO THERE'S GOOD NEWS and bad news. First, the bad news: the Manchester Wolves, my city's minor-league arena football team, are now 1-5. Next, the good news: they're playing a hell of a lot better than they were, because they only lost their most recent game -- against the now 6-0 Florida Firecats -- by six points. The final score was 49-43, and from what I saw of the game, the team played pretty well.
True, I only was able to watch the first quarter and listen to the second quarter on the radio, as I had a previously scheduled engagement later in the evening. Still, I thought the team played a lot better than it did in the first few games of the year, and I came away from it feeling a lot more confident than I did just one week ago. After all, there are still ten games to go, and we could still make the playoffs with a good late run. It would be especially sweet if we were able to knock off the -- God help us -- Tulsa Talons this Friday. The Talons are now 7-0. They are the defending champions. They can be beat.
We know this because Tulsa had a hell of a time beating the Rio Grande Valley Dorados (McAllen, Texas), and only beat RGV 45-40. RGV is now 2-4, so it's not as if they were a powerhouse team. We're going to play Tulsa at home too, which should give us an advantage -- and a considerable one if the crowd stays in the game. The Wolves have to be in top form in order to beat Tulsa, but I think we're well-positioned to make that a real possibility.
On a related note, despite the 1-5 record, the Wolves continue to have an above-average attendance at the games. Our average attendance is 5,868, compared to the overall league average of 4,584. That puts us 6th out of 29 teams. Not bad at all!
Now, for some other arena-football related news:
The af2 league -- in what should be a model for sports leagues everywhere -- offers live streaming broadcasts of all its games over the Internet. This allows fans to watch their teams play away games. Now that I bought my new computer, I am quite pleased to report the service works extremely well. The broadcast, although not television quality, certainly exceeded my expectations and allowed me to follow the action just as if I was there. You can also choose whether to listen to your team's audio feed or the home team's audio feed, which is pretty darned slick. Not only that, the service is entirely free -- and that makes it all the better.
WHEN IT COMES TO SPORTS, the easiest part of the business -- as most folks in a front office would gladly tell you -- is actually playing the game. Success requires great sales and marketing work, smart personnel management, an eye for controlling costs while still producing an excellent product, and a hell of a lot of sweat equity. I am convinced that sports teams whose owners think the business is like running a bank won't do all that well, while sports teams whose owners realize their business involves competing for entertainment dollars will do quite well, and perhaps even great.
But let's get focus on one point -- the selling. If you want to succeed, your sales and marketing operation is key. Thus, it quite frankly stuns me just how many sports teams out there operate with names that can be charitably described as stupid. Yes, stupid.
I mean, we've all come across sports teams with stupid names. If you're like me, you wonder a few things upon hearing the names, such as, "What the hell were thinking?" and "How the hell do the fans root for the team without bursting into gales of laughter?" That's to say nothing of the opposing players. This might earn the home team a touchdown or goal or two, when the defense gets distracted at having to play the Local Yokels, but it sure won't earn them a bit of respect.
Before I get any further, though, I should note that all the teams I root for -- in order: the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Michigan Wolverines, the Manchester Wolves, the Grand Rapids Rampage, and the Saskatchewan Roughriders -- all have excellent names. As a fan, this boosts my loyalty to the team, something I could not have pulled off if I was rooting for, say, the Colorado Crush. (The Crush have such a bad name that it got mocked in The Onion).
Now, the worst offender when it comes to bad team names -- inexplicably, I might add -- is the Women's National Basketball Association. Why the WNBA's names are so amazingly bad, I don't know, but out of 14 teams in the league only ONE has a semi-decent name, that being the New York Liberty. Whatever one thinks of that name, one must agree that it is far superior to say, the Atlanta Dream, the Chicago Sky, and the Seattle Storm. I mean, come on. The Atlanta Dream? Even the "Lady Hawks" -- which I am not suggesting, I would note -- would be a better name than that.
I have to think the amazing prevalence of bad team names in the WNBA has hindered its success -- just as stupid team names hindered the success of the XFL. (The New York/New Jersey Hitmen? But what about Connecticut? And the Hitmen -- yeah, that's a team everyone can get behind). Now, obviously, a dumb team name isn't going to hinder a well-run organization, just as a great name (Minnesota Fighting Pike!) won't automatically lead to success. But in honor of team names That Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, here's my rundown of the Worst Sports Team Names of All-Time.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: There are so many bad team names out there that limiting my list to just, oh, let's say 15, will provoke cries of outrage from readers. So here are my list of honorable mentions, and their leagues:
New York/New Jersey Hitmen (XFL), Memphis Maniax (XFL), Atlanta Dream (WNBA), Chicago Sky (WNBA), Detroit Shock (WNBA), Staten Island Stapletons (NFL), Arkansas GlacierCats (WPHL), Cape Cod Freedoms (NEHL), Tampa Bay Strong Dogs (ABA), Roanoke Dazzle (NBA D-League), and the Toronto Ontarios (NHA).
Now that that's out of the way, let's get to the Grand List:
15. WISCONSIN BLAST
This professional basketball team, which competed in something called the International Basketball Association, was based in Appleton, Wisc. Despite this, the "Wisconsin Blast" was the best name they could come up with. I don't know about you, but when I think of the phrase "Wisconsin Blast," I think of the Sunday morning torture innumerable frat boys suffer through after downing far too much Milwaukee's Best the night before.
14. OHIO GLORY
A team that played for one year in the World League of American Football, the Ohio Glory finished their 1992 season 1-9. What was their team fight song? I imagine it went something like this:
We don't give a damn about the whole state of Michigan --
the whole state of Michigan, the whole state of Michigan --
we don't give a damn about the whole state of Michigan --
'cause we're from O-HI-O.
13. ROCHESTER SKEETERS
Another IBA team, the Rochester Skeeters were apparently named with the idea that even if the team didn't perform all that well, it would still be really annoying. Why the team was named after mosquitoes in a place where the ground is only free of snow for two months out of the year is beyond me, but there you go.
12. LANCASTER RED ROSES
Back in the days of the early 20th century, there was actually a baseball team called the Red Roses in Lancaster, Pa., that faced off against the nearby White Roses of York, Pa. Given the rivalry and the history behind the original War of the Roses, the team name was an inspired -- almost genius -- choice. Furthermore, given the state of education back in the day, most people would actually have gotten this -- unlike today, when people would think Dennis Miller had somehow been allowed to come up with the team's name.
But I'm not talking about the baseball team. I'm talking about the CBA team from the Forties, which clearly tried to piggyback on history with the name choice. It didn't work -- and without a rival in York, the team name instead made the players seem like a bunch of pansies.
11. LOUISVILLE ALUMNITES
What the hell is an Alumnite, you're asking? Beats me, but I daresay this was the first basketball team to ever get named after a shaving product. This may have been why the team -- and the NPBL in which it played -- folded before its season ended back in 1950-1951.
10. ANAHEIM AMIGOS
Ole! This ABA team was named in that fraught-with-danger sports tradition, the Name That Team Contest. Amazingly, the team ownership went along with this name, despite the fact that it would undoubtedly annoy a good portion of its fan base. Also not helping matters: the mascot was a stereotypical "Mexican bandit." The average attendance of their games was 1,293, according to Wikipedia.
9. (tie) ROANOKE STEAM/RICHMOND SPEED
These two af2 teams, now mercifully defunct, violated the Cardinal Rule of Sports Team Naming Conventions: don't name your team after some lame-o physical force, especially if that makes the team sound like an WNBA team. Why Roanoke has issues with naming teams -- see above -- is beyond me, but they might want to do a better job with their marketing in future.
8. HOUSTON THUNDERBEARS
I'm sorry, but ThunderBears reminds me too much of this.
7. DANBURY TRASHERS
Since the team was sponsored by a trash-hauling company, you can't exactly blame the marketing guys for this one. In fact, I'd venture to say the marketing guys tore their hair out at having to come up with a team name and appropriate mascot for the owners, who should have stuck to hauling waste. According to the team's Wikipedia page, the mascot was a trash can wielding a hockey stick.
6. LOS ANGELES XTREME
The winner and champeen of the XFL's only season. Sadly, nobody told the XFL guys that -- how to put this -- it's completely and incredibly lame to use the letter X in an attempt to impart coolness. Despite this, there are several sports teams that have done this. As for the Xtreme bit -- although "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" didn't arrive until a few years after this, it should have been pretty clear that using the word "extreme" can only be used in a cynical or sarcastic sense, as in: "So -- not -- extreme!"
5. MINNESOTA FIGHTING SAINTS
I'm sorry, what? The Minnesota Fighting Saints? I don't care if they played hockey in the Seventies -- it's the sports equivalent of UHF's "Gandhi II" sketch serving as your team name for all time. ("No more Mr Passive Resistance!")
4. SOO MICHIGAN REALTORS
Someone please tell me the team's star player wasn't known as "Six Percent." Please. I'm begging you. I mean, can you think of any team name less likely to get your fans fired up about the squad? (I've got three, actually, but we'll get to those). What was the mascot for this Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League team? A guy in a suit with a bunch of paperwork? I guess we should be thankful they weren't a baseball team, because the jokes about closing would be too much to bear.
3. PEORIA PRANCERS
Nothing brings to mind Eddie Shore and Old Time Hockey like a team named ... the Peoria Prancers. Holy God! What were they thinking? Think about it -- it's minor-league hockey. Your natural audience is a blue-collar crowd who shows up to see grown men beat the hell out of each other, and you name the team the Prancers? What was the mascot, a rotating collection from My Little Pony?
To the team's credit, though, the Prancers nickname only stuck for two years in the early Eighties. Someone apparently got out the epsom salts and the owners changed the name to the "Peoria Rivermen." That's not a great name either, but at least it doesn't conjure up images of tea parties and Care Bears.
2. SACRAMENTO ATTACK/MIAMI HOOTERS
Now here's genius for you: not only did you have the team with the worst name in the Arena Football League, you moved the team and found an even worse name. Was there no one with an IQ of 80 in the ownership group that could have said, "Say, I don't mean to rain on anybody's parade, but couldn't this new name complicate matters in terms of attracting families with children to the games?" I don't care if it was a sponsorship agreement: as amazing as it might seem, there are times when not being stupid trumps a lot of money.
Miami Hooters. My God. It's worth noting, by the way, that average attendance fell from about 9,000 in the first year to about 6,250 in the third year, according to ArenaFan. Fortunately, after 1995, the team got an actual decent name and continued to play on for several years.
1. OMAHA BEEF
In South Park, the kids' football team is named the "South Park Cows," who famously play the Middle Park Cowboys. Tell me how this is different. You can't, because it ain't. I mean, if there's nothing that suggests an immobile offensive line, a slothful defense and a quarterback who spends more time flat on his back than Jimmy Clausen playing Michigan, I don't know what does. I don't care if beef's an Omaha specialty, this is ridiculous.
Even worse, the beef analogies exist throughout the whole bloody organization. The mascot is Sir Loin. Yes, Sir Loin. That's somewhat alarming. More alarming is that the cheerleaders are called the "Omaha Prime." God help them -- if somebody from the University of Nebraska's Women's Studies Department picks up the sports section, there's going to be trouble! Or at the very least, two or three doctoral dissertations. ("Patriarchy, Indoor Football and the Continued Sexist Objectification of Women in Minor-League Sports.")
That said, unlike many of the teams I've listed, the Beef are doing quite well and have spent several years in the United Indoor Football league. I just hope they've got a backup name just in case. How about the Berkshire Hathaways?
THE PLAYOFFS? Don't talk to me about the playoffs! You kidding me? I just hope we can win a game.
-- Jim Mora
I AM SADDENED to report the Manchester Wolves (1-4) lost yet again this weekend. Not only have they lost four games straight, they lost their latest home game to the Daytona Beach Thunderbirds, who at 0-5 coming into the game were the worst team in the entire af2 league.
True, I know the Wolves are suffering from injuries. Our starting quarterback was out with a separated shoulder; our best cornerback has been out with a concussion; we have a one-time lineman, whom we're due to sign again soon, who just had hernia surgery. That said, these are three (3) out of twenty (20) players, and we can't win games if the other 17 don't perform up to par.
Things aren't entirely bad, of course. Our line play today seemed to significantly improve -- although I wonder how much of that was actual improvement as opposed to better circumstances, i.e., not playing a very good opposing squad. But our defensive backs continue to perform subpar and today, that just killed us, along with various blunders our backup quarterback made. It's tough to win games when basic facets of the game -- such as the snap from center to quarterback -- are not executed with perfect precision. It's also tough to win games when your defensive backs -- although they had brief moments of glory today -- blow their coverage assignments, as annoyingly happened more than once. As for penalties -- don't get me started on the penalties. Penalties are prima facie evidence of ill-discipline.
Still, today was a day in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Consider what happened near the end of the first half. The score was Daytona Beach 22 - Manchester 20. Daytona Beach, in its own territory and facing a fourth down, decided it would attempt a field goal. The kick was blocked, flew into the air and into the arms of one of our defensive backs, who proceeded to run it back for a touchdown to great acclaim. Now that Manchester was up 26-22, the Wolves smartly decided to go for a two-point conversion. Unfortunately, our quarterback's pass was intercepted, and Daytona Beach's player ran it back all the way for a safety. Ugh.
The frustrating thing about this game was that it was a game we should have won and needed to win. We could have beaten this team. When you get off to a slow start in a season, you need to win games against weak opponents to help ride out the games against strong ones. But we blew it. We blew it so bad, in fact, that the af2 highlighted the game and Daytona Beach's upset on their Web site, adding insult to injury.
It certainly isn't going to get any easier, either. Next week, we get to play the hated Florida Firecats down in Florida. This normally would not be too bad, except that Florida is one of three undefeated teams in the 29-team af2. The week after that, back at home, we get to play the Tulsa Talons, who at 6-0 are the best team in the entire league and the defending ArenaCup champion.
I know hope springs eternal, and I am hopeful Manchester will be able to right the ship soon. But this is shaping up to be a rather tough year.
ANN ARBOR, Mich., Apr. 27 -- SINCE FOOTBALL will be the prime focus of this and several posts following, it's important to mention The Rant's football-related quote of the week, from none other than my good friend Geoff Brown:
Michigan State is like Scrappy Doo -- lemme at 'em! Lemme at 'em!"
This quote, admittedly, will make no sense to anyone over 40 years of age, nor anyone who does not follow college football or the Big Ten Conference. But if you are under 40 years old and do follow college football, you realize the beauty and majesty of this simple statement, which is clearly correct and just.
You see, like many second-rate agricultural schools, Michigan State is in a one-way rivalry with their more prestigious big brothers in Ann Arbor. Simply put, they can't stand us and would consider their annual football season a success if they beat us. We, on the other hand, find Michigan State an annoying irritant. For fans of the Michigan Wolverines, the idea of losing to the hapless Spartans is mortifying and a loss to them would prove hugely embarrassing. Fortunately, we have beaten the Spartans six years straight in our annual matchup. Unfortunately, as Mr Brown pointed out during our recent dinner togheter, they could pull it off this coming year.
After all, as Mr Brown noted, Michigan has a new coaching staff, a new offensive scheme, and a lot of relatively new players. Not only that, it's still somewhat unclear who our starting quarterback may be. All this, therefore, led Mr Brown to conclude Michigan will get beaten like the proverbial red-headed stepchild this season, and part of my worries he is right.
But I remain cautiously optimistic about the season. After all, college football is played in autumn, and autumn is the Season of Miracles. If a miracle doesn't happen, well, I'd settle for beating Ohio State. If we lose to both Ohio State and Michigan State, it will immensely suck, because wearing a paper bag over one's head to mask the shame isn't any fun.
Anyway, Geoff and I had dinner -- as we traditionally do -- at Good Time Charley's, a hangout on South University Street famed for its "count twists," which are a type of cheesy bread. I must say I've never seen Ann Arbor that quiet before -- but it was the day after graduation, and so the campus was quickly emptying out. Although this did not change some things -- the line at Blimpy Burger was still very long -- it did have its benefits, much to my surprise and amazement.
For instance, parking was free in the Maynard Street parking structure. This was downright amazing -- free parking? in Ann Arbor? As a former resident of the city, I concluded what any Michigan student would have concluded: that the rage virus had somehow gotten loose from the University's researchers and was rapidly turning Ann Arborites into zombies. But then I realized the tired, frustrated Baby Boomers I had come across were just ruminating about their kids' tuition bills. A degree in art history, even from a prestigious school like Michigan, is still a degree in art history.
But Ann Arbor was as nice as ever -- and both Geoff and I admitted it would be pretty cool to move back to the place. (Mr Brown lives on the outskirts of metropolitan Detroit). There's something to Ann Arbor that is incredibly pleasant. Perhaps that's just a combination of nostalgia and the grass being greener, but there are fewer places in the world I would rather live.
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich., Apr. 25 -- WELL, THE DRAFT WEEKEND turned out to be a hell of a good time for a football weekend back in the Midwest. I did catch some of the draft commentary on the radio while driving about, but all-in-all I thought my trip made more sense. After all, what's more fun: going to actually watch football or listening to analysts drone on about drafted players, 95 pc of whom will be consigned to relative mediocrity over the span of their careers?
As readers may recall, my trip was financed through the Government's tax rebate scheme, which will soon arrive in my pocket. I can assure readers that I spent my tax rebate on goods and services that will directly help the economies of Michigan and northern Indiana. This included roughly $100 spent on tickets to two football games, sodas at the games, parking expenses and one $2 coaster emblazoned with the logo of the Fort Wayne Freedom. Additionally, I spent $144 on a rental car, $225 on hotel rooms and $99.75 on gasoline. Oh, and I spent $18.20 at Meijer for snacks and sodas for my road trip. Throw in meals and that adds up to $650 or so. So: mission accomplished. I spent my stimulus money and did it in a way that will help our most troubled states. I rule.
Oh, and the football was awesome. Not only did Grand Rapids win convincingly, so did Fort Wayne, so I went two-for-two in my football watching. Here, we'll discuss the Grand Rapids game, between the Grand Rapids Rampage and the Kansas City Brigade of the Arena Football League.
Grand Rapids is the one area of Michigan that is seemingly booming and full of economic vitality. There's plenty of activity going on, especially in terms of construction work, and the whole town seems to be doing all right for itself. The Van Andel Arena, its downtown venue, is a well-built and pleasant arena with convenient and inexpensive parking right across the street. I arrived at the arena about 5:45 p.m., about an hour and a quarter before the game got underway, and I was stunned at what I saw.
Outside the arena, a group of teenagers were painting their faces in the Rampage's colors, and chanting "Let's Go Rampage!" with an impressive fervor. A man noticed me standing outside the arena and asked if I had any extra tickets to the game, which stunned me -- either he was a scalper or thought I was one. Keep in mind this is arena football in Grand Rapids. When the doors opened at 6 p.m., the team cleverly had its cheerleaders at the doors passing out souvenirs -- which was a pretty clever idea, I thought. Also, the Rampage's cheerleading squad got a serious upgrade over the past year.
Fast forward to 7 p.m. and the arena was, if not full, pretty close to it. Attendance at the game was 8,102 and it certainly felt like it in the arena, where the crowd was boisterous and happy. My sixth-row seat at midfield gave me a great view of the action and I was in a section with some devoted football fans. Much to my surprise and amazement, there were two former Manchester Wolves players I noticed on the field. On Grand Rapids' side, defensive back William "Roc" Haith, a standout DB with the Wolves, was starting. On Kansas City's side, the starting quarterback was none other than D. Bryant, who was once a starting QB for the Manchester Wolves.
I couldn't believe it. Bryant apparently did quite well after leaving the Wolves and so got a boost up to the big league, but upon seeing him as starting QB, I was feeling pretty confident about Grand Rapids' chances. After all, Bryant was inconsistent in Manchester, so why should that change now that he's in the AFL? And I was right! Not only did he fumble the ball on the first snap -- resulting in Grand Rapids recovering the ball -- he threw two interceptions right after that, leading to Grand Rapids take a 13-0 lead. It was not Mr Bryant's night.
The best thing about the game? It was a true defensive battle -- at least on Grand Rapids' side of the ball -- and the team's defensive antics helped put the game away early. At halftime, Grand Rapids was up 41-17, and we would end the game up 72-38 -- with Kansas City's last touchdown coming in garbage time at the end. But the best part about the whole experience, I think, was the level of fan enthusiasm -- it was a fun time, and that added a lot to the game. So anyone in the greater Grand Rapids area who isn't presently attending the games should look into tickets -- it would make for a fun night out.
I am also glad to report that Grand Rapids now goes to 3-5 on the season, and with the win is actually getting itself into playoff position. Seeing the Rampage in the playoffs would be super cool, especially since the playoffs will be televised. As for Kansas City -- well, they're 1-7, so they have a lot of makeup work to do if they hope to make it to the postseason.
I HAVE THE SAD DUTY to report this evening that the Manchester Wolves, my city's minor-league arena football team, lost their home opener to the formerly hapless but now quite good Albany Conquest, by a score of 64-54. Despite the seeming closeness of that score, I can assure you that the Conquest stomped all over us similar to how Julius Caesar conquered the Gauls. Football-wise, it was pretty grim.
Of course, this loss was all my fault. You see, as I was halfway to the arena, I realized with horror that I had forgotten my Lucky Steelers Hat, the glorious headwear which I have worn many a time to watch the Wolves triumph over their opposition. Thus, in retrospect it seems clear we never had a chance. Some may argue that I am vesting far too much faith in my Lucky Steelers Hat -- after all, Manchester's turnovers, dropped passes, innumerable penalties and general failure to get the job done may have contributed to our loss. But it's my lucky hat. I mean, come on.
At the core of our troubles was an inability to stop Albany's well-executed offense, particularly the good play of its offensive line and excellent performance running and passing. Along with that, everything seemed to go wrong for our side. Starting with the coin toss, which went against us, and continuing on with many plays that were oh-so-close to successful but which ended up unsuccessful -- and in some cases, disasterously. For instance, one of our wideouts made a great catch deep in Albany territory, but had the ball stripped from him almost immediately after he caught it and started running for the goal line. Albany pounced on the ball and recovered it. There was a blown lateral that our quarterback threw and our receiver missed, leading a quick-thinking Albany defender to scoop the ball up and run forty-something yards for a touchdown. That's just a sampling of what went wrong. All in all, it was tough.
Although we hung in there during the first half -- Albany was only up 33-27 at that point -- at the end of the third quarter, Albany had 54 points and we had but 34. That three-touchdown lead was surmountable, but we needed to play better than we did to make that a reality. The end result is that we're 1-2, Albany's 2-1, and we get to play division leader Wilkes-Barre Scranton (now 2-1) on the road next week. Oh boy.
Still, the game was a lot of fun -- they always are -- and the players played hard. I daresay my new favorite player on the team is No. 22, defensive back TC Myers. First, consider the guy is a cross between a cornerback and a safety in the DB position. Next, consider that he is 5'7" tall and weighs 165 lbs. He's a defensive version of Mack Herron. But did he have energy tonight. He made some of the best plays on defense we had, and the guy could hit like a steamroller. Also, he flew around the field, making tackles and never giving up. That was something to behold -- even as the players he covered had six or more inches on him, he kept at 'em. It was pretty darned impressive. Speaking of Mack Herron, though, I do wonder if Myers might be a good running back. First, the opposition would have to catch him, and then they'd have to tackle him. Good luck with that.
Of course, with such a new squad and yet another new quarterback at the helm, it's going to take some time for the team to coalesce and I am hopeful that they'll catch fire later this season. Admittedly, I'd prefer it if they would catch fire next game, because Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is never an easy team to face. But we'll see, won't we?
OK, I HAVE TO ADMIT IT: I went to see "Leatherheads" tonight not simply because I was bored, but because I thought it would make a good "Bad Cinema With Ben" post, and I haven't done one of those in a while. However, that Bad Cinema With Ben post is going to have to wait, because "Leatherheads" turned out -- wait for it -- to be an enjoyable movie. Silly in some ways, but a heck of a lot of fun.
That I enjoyed the movie quite a bit undoubtedly helps explain why financially, the film is facing a fourth-and-long and will probably turn the ball over on downs. This is a shame, because the movie really was fun. Not only was it fun, it was actually decent -- a movie that relies on wit and humor to score points, and clean humor at that. My God, what a concept. In short, it's a movie that you could take an eight-year-old to see and you wouldn't have to deal with any embarrassing questions afterwards. Also, if you ask me, there's something to be said for movies -- especially romantic comedies, which this was -- that actually have smart dialogue.
True, the marketing of the movie might not have been the best. I never got the sense it was marketed to couples or families, and it might not have been the best move to launch a football movie right when baseball season is opening up and basketball and hockey are headed to their playoffs. The multiplex where I watched the movie was deserted -- no doubt because a) everything else playing was shit and b) the Red Sox were playing the Yankees. In my own theatre, there were all of four people watching "Leatherheads," and I was the youngest one of them. Not good signs, if you ask me.
But that didn't take away from the goodness and beauty of the film, which really was quite well done, and managed to capture the feel of the Roaring Twenties. I always like movies about the Roaring Twenties. For one thing, I like seeing everyone having a good time, because God knows the Thirties and Forties weren't a picnic. For another, the mid-Twenties seemed like a pretty good time -- one full of optimism and full of hope. Of course, as we know, it's easy to be full of hope and optimism when the stock market is booming thanks to a margin-fueled bubble, but hey. Good times were had, and it's nice to see that on film these days; it's a nice escape.
Anyway, the plot takes some explaining, so here goes. Of course, before I do that, I should deliver a quick primer on the history of professional football in America.
As I think we all know, American football was the brainchild of none other than George Washington, and the first football game was played at Valley Forge in 1778. The first epic battle, between Col. Henry Purvis' Fighting Wolverines and Maj. Enoch Tarleton's Redcoat-Buckeyes, resulted in the Wolverines defeating the Buckeyes by the amazing score of 42-3. But in the years to come, football went dormant, as the victorious Americans became soft and decadent and started playing baseball.
However, in the late 19th century, thanks to the efforts of various American heroes, football started to develop into the great sport we know today. By the early 20th century, college football was wildly popular -- extremely dangerous, but still wildly popular. Eventually, massive crowds would turn out to watch college football games -- but professional football, which was formally established in 1920 with the creation of what is now the National Football League, struggled in its infancy. However, it started to pick up speed when the league started hiring football stars out of college -- such as Jim Thorpe, who was paid $250 a game when the Canton Bulldogs signed him in 1915. (When you consider a bricklayer at the time made $33 a week for 44 hours on the job, that made Mr Thorpe kind of a big deal).
Anyway, this is the period in which "Leatherheads" is set -- as professional football is first starting to make its way from an also-ran of a sport to an actual professional phenomenon. (There are some parts in the film where the historical aspects of football's development are completely laughable, but by that point you're having too much fun to really mind). George Clooney's character, Dodge Connolly, is the team captain of the woeful Duluth Bulldogs, who play to pitiful crowds and are lucky if they can get to the next town for their next game. Teams in their league are folding left and right, and Duluth itself finds itself in big trouble. Enter clean-cut Princeton College football star and war hero Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski), whom Clooney convinces to play for Duluth and provides the spark to relight football's pilot light. Enter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellweger), who is investigating whether Rutherford's tales of heroism are all they're cracked up to be. With two guys and one girl, you can see where this is going.
All in all, though, "Leatherheads" was a fun movie and thoroughly enjoyable to watch -- and Mr Clooney got the classic "big football game" at the end just right. (Football fans who watch it will understand why). As I said, it's a shame the movie hasn't done well at the box office, but I'll probably pick it up on DVD when it comes out. Good movies about football -- that also happen to be good movies in and of themselves -- are precious hard to find.
OK, SOMEHOW THE Manchester Wolves, my city's minor-league arena football league team, managed to pull out a win against the Mahoning Valley Thunder, on the road, in their first game of the season. The final score was 45-39. The way the game ended, though, I just hope they managed to make it out of Youngstown.
Manchester won on the last play of the game -- or perhaps one ought say Youngstown lost. With 2.7 seconds left and the ball on Manchester's 20 yard line, Mahoning Valley quarterback Josh Swogger threw a pass into the endzone and into the arms of wide receiver DeMarcus Mathes. But Mathes, who was apparently forced to go up for the ball, was juggling it as he went over the endzone wall and did not have control over it as he went out of bounds. That negated the touchdown call that would have tied the game, 45-45. Had the touchdown held up, Mahoning Valley would have then been able to go for the extra point to win -- and although that's not a gimme in arenaball, it was certainly not a position Manchester would liked to have found itself.
But instead of a touchdown call, I heard instead those sweet words from WFEA-AM's announcer: "They’re taking the touchdown away from the Thunder! ... No touchdown! The Wolves win the game!” I shouted for joy at this glorious news. At the same time, Youngstown's coach had what the announcer was calling a conniption fit. The crowd was furious and on the audio feed one could hear their obscene chanting. My video feed wasn't keeping up with the action on the field, but the audio said it all. Manchester wins, Mahoning Valley loses, and the referees gave the Thunder a Youngstown tuneup. Of course, the call was clearly correct and just, but it's pretty tough when you think you're about to win and then discover you lose.
The very good news about this win is that Manchester finds itself on top the af2's American Conference's Eastern Division, above the 1-1 Thunder, the ever-hapless 0-1 Albany Conquest, and the surprisingly 0-1 Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers. With WBS in the mix, we need every win we can get.
Still, it was an ugly, ugly, ugly win and I can imagine Wolves coach Danton Barto will run the men ragged in practice this week. Consider: at halftime, Manchester was leading the Thunder 30-22. Yet it took roughly a quarter-and-a-half for the Wolves to get on the board again! The next thing we knew, the Thunder were leading, 36-30, and the game looked very much in jeopardy. We got another touchdown halfway through the fourth, but the Thunder managed to get a field goal with 43 seconds left to regain the lead, 39-37. So then we had to come back and get a touchdown AND a two-point conversion in the final minute of play, and then defend against Mahoning Valley. We escaped by the skin of our teeth.
There were bright spots, of course. The defense played well -- and anytime you can hold an opponent to under 40 points in an arenaball game, you're in pretty good shape. But our offensive line was severely tested, as the Thunder sacked our quarterback FIVE times. Also, the game was sloppy -- I don't know how many penalties the Wolves got called on, but it was a lot, and just like in traditional football, penalties are killer in this game. Most annoying were some personal foul and defensive pass-interference calls -- I mean, come on. You've got to do better than that.
On the flip side, though, it was the first game of the season, and when you have a new group of players working together for the first time, things aren't going to go clockwork every play. That's only to be expected. I am also sure the players realize just how close they came to losing the game, and will thus work even harder when we play our second road game of the season, against the Green Bay Blizzard. In the meantime, a win is a win. I'm going to enjoy it.
IN OTHER AF2 NEWS -- I am really enjoying being able to get the audio feeds from other games, even if my computer is not cooperating with the video. I got to catch the end of the Green Bay-Tennessee Valley game and it was exciting -- Tennessee, down 37-35, recovered an onside kick and then went for a long field goal. It was short, and they lost; but still, not a bad ending.
The top two teams in the league so far this year are clearly the Tulsa Talons and the Spokane Shock, which are crushing their opponents like nobody's business. Spokane beat Stockton 70-12 tonight. 70-12. That's opening up an industrial-sized can of whoopass. As for Tulsa, they easily knocked off Boise, 65-28; again, delivering a beatdown of epic proportions. Generally speaking, if you can beat an opponent by at least three touchdowns, you've handily won the game -- but these differentials, of 58 and 37 points, respectively, far exceed that threshold.
Unfortunately, Manchester must play Tulsa this year at home. We've got plenty of time to prepare for them, but we'll need to be ready when they arrive. As for the Wolves' next game, against Green Bay, that's on Friday at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time.
OH, PRAISE GOD -- I have picked up my season tickets for the Manchester Wolves' 2008 season, and I am glad.
Of course, spring football has been underway for a month now, and that's been a lifesaver up here in cold New Hampshire. I've been able to watch several of the Arena Football League's games broadcast on ESPN, and those have been fun to watch. Still, I can't wait for the Wolves' season -- particularly since my tickets are seven rows from the field, and practically at midfield. I couldn't ask for a better seat in the house, because there isn't one.
A lot of my excitement, of course, has to do with team loyalties. Although the AFL games are fun to watch on television, the trouble for me is that I don't live near an AFL team. The closest AFL team is in New York. That means there's no regional coverage of the league up here in New England. Consequently, I have to rely on ESPN's broadcasts to get my football fix. Since the national broadcast schedule doesn't feature my two AFL teams -- the Grand Rapids Rampage and the Cleveland Gladiators, respectively -- it's not as cool as getting to watch either Grand Rapids or Cleveland take the field of battle.
As a result, for me the ESPN AFL broadcasts are somewhat like watching NFL games between the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, or between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers. I like watching them, of course, but I'd much rather watch the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cleveland Browns, or one of several other teams instead. (Oddly, Pittsburgh does not have an AFL team; if it does get one, it's clearly going into first place on the loyalty chart).
The good news on that front, though, is that I'll get to watch both Cleveland and Grand Rapids in person this year -- and not against each other -- thanks to some clever planning. The Grand Rapids game should be a good one, because they're playing the Kansas City Brigade, which is an even worse team than Grand Rapids. Cleveland, on the other hand, is a good team -- and they're playing the Dallas Desperadoes, which is probably the second-best team in the league. That game should be spectacular.
But I'm understandably psyched about watching the Wolves play. The Wolves are my "third team" -- behind the glorious Pittsburgh Steelers and the hallowed Michigan Wolverines. I love watching them play for all the reasons why minor-league sports represent everything wonderful about America -- the players all striving for something better, the friendly atmosphere, the underlying good-naturedness of it all. But for me, watching the Wolves offers the perfect emotional balance: I'm thrilled when they win, but not crushed when they lose.
Why the difference? Well, I think it comes down to a few things. For one, the stakes are a lot smaller: when you have guys giving their all for just $250 a game, it's hard to get too upset with them. Instead, you feel bad for them, because you know they're feeling that loss a lot worse than you. For another, I don't have the long-term emotional investment the way I do with the Steelers and Wolverines. I've been rooting for those teams for a long, long time. Also -- and I think this is the key -- I don't have my hopes and expectations dashed.
For let's face it -- a lot of the fun associated with the NFL and college football is the long, slow buildup to the fall, when one's teams finally take the field again after seven or eight long months away. During that time, you have optimism and you have hope: hope this will be the year your team emerges victorious with a Super Bowl ring or national championship. You have hope your team will throw down your hated rivals; you have hope your team will make you proud of your roots.
What happens most years? That hope gets ground into the turf -- mercilessly and brutally. It is a painful and often-traumatic experience. The agony of having one's dreams destroyed again; the shame of losing to one's hated rivals; it all involves a tremendous sense of loss. But with the Wolves, I don't go into the season with raised expectations and dreams of beating rivals. Don't get me wrong: I want them to win, and I want them to win a championship. I want them to beat our opponents. But if they lose, I don't have to bear it -- or hear about it -- the way I do when Pittsburgh falls to a divisional rival, or Michigan loses to Ohio State. In that regard, there is a purity to watching the team that is special.
Now, on to the Wolves.
On Sunday afternoon, I went to pick up my season tickets and was quite impressed with the shindig the team threw. The team was introduced to all the fans in attendance and we all cheered; the coach was emotional and exuberant and made clear he wanted to bring home a championship for Manchester. We have a new coach this year, Danton Barto, and I like the guy. I like his enthusiasm and the way he carries himself.
I was also impressed with the team, although I'll admit I was a bit concerned beforehand. From what I could tell, most of the players on the team are rookies -- and that had me wondering. It takes a while to pick up arenaball; it's not the same as traditional football, and the players have to learn the ropes quickly. But I'm hopeful our squad will do well this year. We're ranked 11th out of 29, according to a pre-season power poll. And the Wolves, which play in the af2 development league, have sent a lot of players to the Arena Football League. This group certainly looked as if they had the potential to head upstairs.
Plus, I got a lot of cool swag. I got a nice T-shirt -- and although Loyal Rant Readers know I don't wear T-shirts, the T-shirt is well-made and subdued, the type of thing good for me to wear around the house. I also got a bumper sticker and a couple of license plate holders: after the party, I spent some time installing those. Oh, I also inquired about getting a Wolves necktie. The team doesn't have those, and I admitted I didn't know what the market might be for them. But as someone who likes a good football tie, I was certainly interested in getting one.
Also today, I also learned about a couple of other exciting developments regarding the league. The first was that the ArenaCup, the af2's championship game, will again be played at a home stadium, instead of at a neutral site. I applaud the league for doing this. Since the ArenaCup is played in August, it would make it practically impossible for me to get the time off to go see the game if the Wolves made it in; now, should the team have a great season and go all the way, I'll have a good shot at seeing them play here.
The second development was that the af2 has devised a scheme to televise away games over the Internet. I tried out the broadcast system today, and was pretty impressed. The bandwidth will be an issue for me, I think -- and I don't think I'll be able to get enough to make it work like an actual TV broadcast. But what I really liked about it was that the audio was crystal-clear, and the video was good enough so that I can at least get the gist of what's going on and what things are like at the away site.
Even better, I can get feeds for ANY af2 team playing -- and THAT is very cool. Today, I got to listen to the Green Bay-Spokane game -- and both teams' announcers! That's something I never could have done last year. Later in the season, when I want to listen in on games with playoff implications, I'll be able to do so. If the league's service provider can somehow figure out a way to boost the bandwidth accordingly, I should be sound as a pound.
We'll see how things turn out on April 5, when Manchester travels to give the Mahoning Valley Thunder a Youngstown tuneup. As for the Wolves, their first home game is on April 18 against the
evil detestable generally hapless Albany Conquest. I -- can't -- wait.
SO I WATCHED and enjoyed every bloody second of Monday night's broadcast of the Arena Football League game between the evil San Jose Sabercats and the likable Chicago Rush. Chicago won, which I liked, and it did so rather handedly, thanks to a bunch of turnovers (or, as we say in arenaball land, "key defensive stops.") In front of more than 15,000 fans -- sweet -- Chicago beat San Jose 70-47 in a game that was actually quite close until midway through the fourth quarter.
One surprise: Bobby Sippio, the Chicago Rush's star wide receiver, got a promotion up to the National Football League, where he is now a Kansas City Chief. Thus, the Rush had to replace their all-star wide receiver, and did so with none other than Damian Harrell, a longtime AFL wide receiver who last night proved he is very good at his job.
I must admit this somewhat disappointed me, as I had seen Mr Harrell play in person when he was playing for the Colorado Crush. I did not care for his antics then, as I was rooting for the Grand Rapids Rampage, and found Mr Harrell's behavior a bit ... well, a bit Florida State. Boorish, to put it bluntly. But he displayed none of that on Monday night and performed brilliantly. I was also very impressed with Chicago's new quarterback, Sherdrick Bonner -- I can't believe the man is 39.
In other arenaball news, the recently moved Cleveland AFL team got 17,391 fans to turn out to the team's inaugural game in the city. That's higher than the typical attendance at an NHL game. Even better, Cleveland beat New York, 61-49. One thing I found particularly amusing: there were reportedly chants of "Pittsburgh sucks" at the game. This would be more impressive if Cleveland was actually playing Pittsburgh. You know, if Pittsburgh had an AFL team. So my opinions are divided. First, I am proud of Cleveland for turning out to watch some great football. Second, these guys clearly -- clearly -- have issues.
YES, I'm going to blog about arena football this year. NO, I don't care what anyone thinks about it. But if you're one of my many readers who wonder why I blog about it; well, I guess I think the game has a lot going for it. The good news, however, is that I plan to blog about a lot of stuff besides arena football, so you'll be all set.
SPEAKING OF REGULAR FOOTBALL, though -- let me be the first to wish Brett Favre well as he (finally) retires from the game. I'm saving the snark for the end, so bear with me before you pounce on my curmudgeonliness.
There is no denying Favre was everything one wanted in a quarterback. Not only was he an excellent quarterback, he was a fan favorite whom everyone in Green Bay loved. He was a great talent and from all accounts is a great human being, and the sport will be diminished now that he has left the game. This is a man, after all, who won a Super Bowl and set all sorts of records, and it will be a long time before those records are broken.
That said -- and I think I speak for the 89 percent of Americans who are not Green Bay Packers fans -- I'm glad to see Favre finally retire, if only because I don't have to listen for months on end about whether the guy will actually retire. Jesus Christ. It got so bad there I would have almost -- almost -- preferred listening to people blather on about Terrell Owens. Now that Favre has actually left the team, I look forward to a few years free of having to listen about the Packers, except in the context of the squad being worse than Detroit. That's not to say I won't have a soft spot in my heart for Green Bay -- after all, it is Green Bay, the last of the small-town franchises -- but come on. Enough already.
While I'm on a roll here, Packer fans, enough already with the cheeseheads. I'm serious. For one thing, the cheeseheads are a baseball-related invention -- it's true -- and, as such, are lame. For another, it's not even like they're an old-time football tradition -- they got invented in 1987, for Pete's sake. 1987. I was 11. That's not old-time football. Do something old-time football instead, like bring yellow dish towels to the games. You'll find your team gains strength and performs gloriously when they are waved furiously in the chill November wind. Trust me on this.
YOU KNOW, I'VE BEEN to some crazy arena football games in my day, but last night's match-up between my local Manchester Wolves squad and our evil minor-league rival, the Florida Firecats, has to take the cake.
Last night was Manchester's "Fan Appreciation Night," and I must say the whole place descended into faaaaandemonium rather quickly -- but in a good way. It was a remarkably close but remarkably fun game and a lot of that had to do with the Zany Antics taking place both on and off the field.
For instance, in an arena football first for me, the back judge got drilled in the head with a pass from Manchester's very own Mark Radlinski. Fortunately, the referee was not hurt and he was able to continue with the game despite getting beaned with an absolute bullet of a throw. The referee's sacrifice was rewarded later, when his block was ruled the "stop of the game" up on the jumbotron.
Also, I have to give credit to one young lad who won the "touchdown dance" competition with moves so bold and smooth that he received a standing ovation from many fans, including myself. The segment is simple: three youngsters are each given a football and run into the endzone with it, after which they perform various dance moves to celebrate a touchdown. The winner is chosen through popular acclaim. Tonight's winner, a boy perhaps 11 or 12 years of age and standing all of 5'2" or so, took the football and ran with it into the endzone. After dropping the ball, he walked over and gave a big, long hug to a very surprised (and very cute) cheerleader. This received raucous acclaim from the crowd and the boy won the competition with ease.
The smoothness of this move made me momentarily consider whether I could do the same thing during the after-game on-field meet-up, but I realized a) I would get slapped and b) stomped on by the offensive line. But I definitely have to give the kid credit -- even though I fear he'll end up being a heartbreaker someday.
In a related display of chutzpah, a teenager won a barbecue grill by showing off his "grill" -- which he had cleverly adorned with false gold teeth. I don't know what exactly he'll do with the thing, but he definitely earned it.
Speaking of chutzpah, one of the enjoyable things about this game was that the Florida players seemed to have a lot of fun in a very boisterous and taunting manner. During the pre-game show, it appeared from the stands as if one of the Florida players gave the new Miss New Hampshire his phone number -- or at least tried to put the moves on her -- as both were down on the field. I got a kick out of this. Also, when a key penalty went against the Wolves during the game, one Florida player stood behind the referee and mimicked his call of the penalty. While annoying, it was funny.
The best part, though, was that Manchester got into the act too. After scoring a touchdown on a play in which Florida had obviously been offsides, Manchester coach Ben Bennett went out on the field and himself mimicked the referee's call from the same position. Yeah.
For that matter, so did the crowd. The fans and players shouted at each other. For instance, after one play in which Manchester wide receiver Ari Confesor took a tough hit into the boards, one of the Florida players not involved in the play did a little dance. This annoyed the crowd greatly, as you can see from my admittedly inexact summary of the discussion:
MANCHESTER FAN: Hey! What are you dancing for? The guy gets slammed into the wall and you're dancing?
FIRECAT: Drink your beer!
SECOND MANCHESTER FAN: Go back to Florida!
Also, I had another first this past evening, in witnessing a particularly crazy play in which not one, not two, but THREE players went over the boards and into the first row not five feet away from me. They landed on top of two very surprised fans whose drinks went flying and who just didn't have time to prepare for the collision. My reaction -- "Dear GOD" -- pretty much sums up how everyone reacted.
There were also two other firsts that I saw. First, I noticed that Blitz, everyone's favorite mascot, was more than happy to oblige when hot female fans decided they wanted to hug him. Second, the conclusion of the season-long ice-cream eating contest showed the event was similar to the old saying about making partner at a law firm: you get rewarded for eating ice cream ... with more ice cream. The "winning" competitors chosen from over the season were offered the chance to beat the world's ice-cream eating record: roughly 32 scoops of the stuff in nine minutes, 22 seconds.
Now, after about two scoops of ice cream, I get brain freeze. But these folks were ... well ... committed to the task at hand. To the point where they started eating with their hands and shoveling the ice cream into their mouths. To the point where at the end of it, one competitor had ice cream all over his face and running down his chin. It is amazing what people will do for ... well, ice cream.
As for the game, it was -- as I said -- a close one. Manchester started out the game in typical Manchester fashion, by which I mean they gave up a touchdown on the first drive and then found themselves stopped with a field goal at the endzone. Florida recovered quickly, and as their next drive approached our goal line one of their players decided to get fancy with the ball and reach out for a couple of extra yards. This prompted defensive back Allistair Sebastien to say, "Oh, hell no," and grab the ball out of the Florida player's hand as he was heading towards the ground. There was no whistle. Mr Sebastien ran back 20 yards or so and soon afterwards, Manchester was ahead 10-3.
After some good back and forth and some defensive stops, Manchester was ahead of Florida 22-21 in the closing minute of the first half when, to everyone's surprise, the Wolves went for an on-side kick. Our recovery was flawless and we were able to score a touchdown on the ensuing possession, giving Florida just seconds to try a failed attempt at scoring themselves. When we got the ball first to start the second half, Manchester marched down the field and scored another touchdown, putting us up 35-21.
So far so good. But then, Florida came back. Next thing we knew, it was 42-40 and Florida tried to tie the game, but with no success. Late in the fourth quarter, we marched down the field, only to be stopped near the end zone and to make a field goal attempt. Now the score was 45-40, but there was roughly a minute to play and under the league's timing rules, more than enough time to score a touchdown.
As the clock wound down, the excitement was intense. The crowd -- the largest of any home game thus far this year, I would imagine -- was super-involved and shouting for the defense. The defense did what they could but Florida kept marching, and with just four seconds to go, a Florida player caught a pass, made a quick move and went into the endzone.
Oh, woe. Oh, calam -- but wait! The referees ruled the Florida player had been pushed out of bounds at the last minute! Still, that gave Florida one last shot with five yards to victory and four seconds left on the clock. This, simply put, was it. The crowd was on its feet. The play was called. And ....
We won! We won we won we won! Manchester 45, Florida 40.
Not only did that increase my arena-football attendance winning streak to twelve games -- the last loss I witnessed was on June 23, 2006 -- but it also means Manchester gets at least one home playoff game. I already have arranged for the tickets and will be there on Friday for the playoff opener. YAY! MORE FOOTBALL! And since playoff tickets are cheaper than regular-season games, this is like some kind of bonus.
This team may give me heartburn but I like their chances to win this year's ArenaCup. Go Wolves!
I'M STILL TRYING to figure out how exactly the Manchester Wolves, my city's minor-league arena football team, managed to win against the Albany Conquest, our contempt-worthy East Division rival. But we did -- and in spectacular fashion. Our 53-48 victory this evening was achieved with a touchdown pass with just 14.8 seconds left in the game, and secured with a safety on Albany's first play thereafter. All in all, it made for the best arena football game I've seen since I started attending the games last year. I mean, goddamn.
Our touchdown was secured after one of the strangest drives I've ever seen in my life. Here's a tip for any football players out there, and especially players in the arenafootball2 league. If your team -- say, Albany -- is up by four points, and you have your opponent pinned down at their own five-yard line, it's not a good idea to commit a blatant personal foul and give your opponents new life. It's also not a good idea to compound the matter by then throwing the football into the stands, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that puts your opponent at mid-field. Furthermore, it's really not a good idea to screw things up even more by incurring not one but two pass interference calls on successive plays, putting your opponent within spitting distance of the endzone.
I'm just saying. Albany pretty much had this game and they managed to rip defeat from the clenched, angry jaws of victory. Indeed, for a Wolves fan, the first half of the game -- in which Albany built up a 27-17 lead -- was like getting hit repeatedly over the head with a hammer. It may well have been even worse if Albany -- the perennial doormat of the division -- hadn't done its own screwing-up in the first place, such as that field goal attempt in which the snap flew through the hands of the ballholder. Even at the end of the third quarter, Albany still had a lead of 34-30, and the game was by no means going Manchester's way at that point.
But the fourth quarter -- my God. With the lead changes and the enthusiasm of the fans -- it's pretty impressive when 5,200 people are screaming for the defense. Yes, the defense -- that's a component that may initially not seem all that important for arenaball, but it truly is. This game would have been a lot different if, earlier in the night, Manchester's defense hadn't stopped Albany at our one-yard-line.
The end result is that Manchester is now 3-3 and is ranked third in the division, while Albany drops to 2-4 and is ranked last. So all is well with the world. Of course, our three wins have all come at home and we have a two-game road stand coming up at Bossier-Shreveport and Youngstown. Plus, our next home opponent is Tulsa, which is en fuego like nobody's business and may well put an end to our six-game home winning streak. But we'll see. Anyway, here's the recap:
MOST UHF-LIKE MOMENT: Several school principals from area schools were given the opportunity to throw footballs through holes in a flimsily-constructed target board with the goal of qualifying to win $10,000. Whether the money was for their schools or for the folks themselves wasn't really clear. We did learn from the exercise, however, that there's a reason the educators are educators and not football players.
NEXT MOST UHF-LIKE MOMENT: If you, as a fan, manage to successfully catch a game ball during the action, you shouldn't then slam the ball against the wall board, causing you to lose your grip and send the ball back onto the field.
MOST INEPT PLAY OF THE GAME: Well, there was Albany's blown field goal try ... and Albany's myriad stupid penalties ... and Albany's first attempted onside kick that would have been genius, if only it had worked, but it didn't and it really put Manchester back in the game. Hell, take your pick.
COOLEST PLAY OF THE GAME: I guess I'm going to have to award Coach Ben "Volcano" Bennett this one, due to his ... uh, "discussion" with the officials regarding a key illegal defense penalty call that went against the Wolves. I haven't seen shouting like that in years. Holy mackerel -- he was furious! Rightfully so, I think, because it did seem like a lousy call, but of course I am biased.
I HAVE TO ADMIT I wasn't all that confident about the Manchester Wolves' chances tonight in their home game against the Mahoning Valley Thunder. But once again, my minor-league arena football team surprised the hell out of me and got off to a screaming start against Mahoning Valley, which Loyal Rant Readers know is a nice name for Youngstown, Ohio. We won pretty handily in a 67-49 victory. That makes the Wolves 2-2, and Youngstown 3-1.
While that score may seem pretty lopsided, it should have been more so. The Rant assigns blame for this state of affairs to No. 8, defensive back Shawn Murray -- yes, you -- who was called not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES for pass interference while defending against Youngstown. I mean, come on. Three times?
What was really frustrating about it was that the calls were entirely justified. It wasn't like he was playing for the ball and got an unlucky break: each of these infractions were so blatantly obvious that the fans were openly scowling about the guy. So, The Rant hopes Mr Murray stops sucking in future weeks.
However, I saw two particular plays tonight that did not suck, and in fact were made possible due to the unique rules of arenaball. Both involved kickoffs. (In arenaball, unlike the NFL, the kickoff balls are live.) The first crazy kickoff happened when Youngstown's kick went up and bounced off the overhead scoreboard, which gave Manchester the ball at our own 20. In the second crazy kickoff, Manchester kicked the ball deep and it hit the rebound net's lower crossbar just so that it bounced back over the punt returner's head and onto the field. Who should recover it but Manchester's own Canadian import, linebacker Jesse Tupper, who scooped it up and ran it back into the endzone for a Manchester touchdown. Now that kicked ass.
Anyway, here's the recap:
MOST UHF-LIKE MOMENT: During a break, the PA announcer informed fans about such-and-such a local establishment that could handle all one's "tattooing and piercing needs." I was not the only one momentarily taken aback at this announcement. As one man in my section put it, "The team has an official tattoo parlor?"
NEXT MOST UHF-LIKE MOMENT: I think it's worth noting that tonight's featured celebrity guest once appeared on a show called "Battle of the Network Reality Stars."
MOST INEPT PLAY DURING GAME: Well, it's a close call between the entire Youngstown team, which got called for umpteen personal foul penalties, and Shawn Murray, he who got beaten like a steel drum on tonight's pass coverage. But I must award Mr Murray this Important Award.
COOLEST PLAY DURING GAME: Jesse Tupper, for recovering that kickoff and getting it into the endzone. That was tres sweet.
Next week, the Wolves will be on the road -- facing the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers, who chewed up and spit out the Cincinnati Jungle Kats this evening by a score of 94-25. Christ. 94 points! Even for arenaball, that's a ridiculous score. So it looks like we'll have our work cut out for us again!
ORIGINALLY, I WAS GOING to title this post, "They Came, They Saw, They Kicked Our Asses." That was my feeling at the end of the first half of tonight's home opener between the Manchester Wolves, my city's minor-league arena football team, and the Fort Wayne Fusion. But lo! in the second half, Manchester came roaring back and ended up winning, 54-41.
This is impressive when one considers that at one point in the first half, Manchester was down 17 points. Our offense could do no right and our defense couldn't hold off Fort Wayne's attack. But in the second half, things went the other way. Manchester held Fort Wayne to just seven points, while the Wolves' offense caught fire and scored touchdowns right and left.
It was a good win -- and considering that we're now 1-2, a needed victory. However, the Wolves can't let up. Next week, the Wolves must face the Mahoning Valley Thunder here at home, and that's a game with trouble written all over it. You see, the "Mahoning Valley" is a nice name for Youngstown, Ohio, one of the roughest cities in the post-industrial Midwest. How bad are things in Youngstown, you ask? Well, consider this snippet of conversation I had some months ago with my brother back in northern Ohio:
ME: Hey, how far are you from Youngstown?
JESSE: Not far enough!
So we've got to be ready. Also, it might be a good idea to check under the team bus for any odd-looking items or protuding wires or some such. I'm just sayin'.
Anyway, now for the recap:
MOST UHF-LIKE MOMENT: A dental insurer sponsored tonight's game. As a result, not only was there a giant inflatable tooth outside the arena, thousands of "lucky fans" got -- wait for it -- FREE commemorative toothbrushes!
As this distribution seemed to violate the First Rule of Promotional Giveaways ("For the love of God, don't give 'em anything they can throw!"), I was half-expecting the toothbrushes to end up on the field, or protruding from the referee's eyes, or what not. However, everyone was on their best behavior and a fun time was had by all.
NEXT MOST UHF-LIKE MOMENT: Several fans in one row took part in an ice-cream eating contest, in which the prize was -- wait for it -- qualification for a second ice-cream eating contest two months hence. At this second contest, the winner will have the chance to devour a giant ice-cream sundae, with a reported 20 (!) scoops of ice cream in the mix. All this despite the clear public health hazards of an ice-cream eating contest. ("Dear God! He's ... he's got brain freeze!")
MOST INEPT PLAY DURING GAME: Area man takes part in trivia contest, shows absolutely no emotion when declared winner and given $50 restaurant gift certificate prize. Dude. Show some gratitude for winning, if only for the poor cheerleaders taking part in the embarrassing spectacle.
NEXT MOST INEPT PLAY DURING GAME: That would be me. You'd think with the cheerleading squad performing roughly twelve feet away that I could just sit back and enjoy things, right? Oh no. Every time I did look, I felt guilty. Also, I heard the tinny, quietly furious voice of Joe Lo Truglio from "Wet Hot American Summer" in my mind: "You loser! God, you are such a loser!" However, I'm confident I will get the hang of things eventually!
In the meantime, it kept me focused on the football -- and speaking of which, the new seat I have at the arena is fantastic. I had originally told some folks it was in the front row, but that was based on a misreading of the seating chart. As it turns out, I'm in the third. Quite frankly, I think this is better. Watching a guy fly face-first into the padded wall is impressive enough from ten feet away. One foot would be a bit much, even for a football fan like me.
THE AF2 HAS ANNOUNCED its 2007 season will see at least seven new minor-league arena football teams in the league, after it recently approved four more teams for Texas and an additional team for Ohio, which had already been awarded an expansion franchise in the Youngstown area.
After all, it will mean more exposure for the game, more opportunities for the players, and plenty of new rivalries between teams. And since the additional af2 team will be based in CINCINNATI, it will likely mean the expansion* of the friendly sports rivalry between me and a Certain Cincinnati Bengals Fan. We'll have to see how the divisional alignments turn out, but God knows I would love to see Cincinnati in the same division as the Manchester Wolves.
* Were this scenario to take place, it would likely be a warm-up rivalry in the spring and summer, allowing both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals factions within the Kepple family to hit the ground running in late August/ early September.
WELL, EVEN THOUGH the Manchester Wolves lost this evening to the Florida Firecats by the thinnest possible margin, it was a good season and one of which the team can be proud. Just minutes ago, the Firecats defeated the Wolves by a score of 40-39, in a hardfought game in Florida, putting an end to our playoff run in the arenafootball2 league, and our championship hopes for this year.
It was an incredibly exciting game, though -- I listened via radio -- and it went down straight to the wire. In the end, I certainly wish much had gone different: that some of our key players hadn't been hurt; that our kicker had made extra points which later proved crucial; that our quarterback hadn't thrown an interception which ended our last drive. If we had just one of those many nails, we could have perhaps saved the kingdom. But all of that is now past.
Certainly the Wolves have a lot of which to be proud. They won four games in a row at the end of the season to get us to the playoffs, and then they won an exciting playoff game at home. They played well as a team, and I could see where individual players certainly improved their skills over the course of the season, or made significant contributions to the team. All that speaks a lot about the players on the team and their character.
Although the arena-football season is over for me now, the Arena Football League will start up again early next year and its af2 minor league will start up again early next spring. I've found the games lots of fun and will likely splurge for a Wolves season ticket next time around. If the AFL or af2 has a team in your area, and you're a football fan, I'd encourage you to give the game a shot. It's football in the off-season, there aren't any bad seats, it's affordable and it's a heck of a lot of fun.
GOOOOOOAL! We did it! The Manchester Wolves, the minor-league arena football team which I have been following closely for the past several weeks, won its first playoff game. Now, the team will head on the road to play the No. 1 Florida Firecats or the No. 2 Green Bay Blizzard, depending on how the playoff game between No. 3 Memphis and No. 6 Louisville turns out.
It took the Wolves a while to get things started, but we ended up with a 55-47 win over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers, who managed to blow a two-possession lead in the first half and later had a few “problems with protection,” as Peyton Manning might say. But as it happened, my fourth arena-football game turned out to be the best yet.
Simply put, the game – the actual football being played on the field – was downright thrilling. On WBS’ first drive, their quarterback, Mike Granieri, threw a long bomb to WR William Ferguson in Manchester’s endzone. Ferguson tried to catch it, but unfortunately for him, ran into the back wall of the endzone. The ball came out, bounced off the wall, and went straight into the arms of Manchester DS William Haith, who then ran it back to midfield.
Things like this happened the entire night. But, as I said, it took the Wolves a while to get things started. After Haith’s interception, Manchester turned it over on downs in WBS’ territory, and the Pioneers marched back to score a touchdown. Halfway through the first quarter, it was WBS 7, Manchester nil. A field goal late in the quarter made the score 10 to nothing.
I mean, Manchester started so slow that even the guys with the T-shirt slingshots were having trouble launching the things into the stands. WBS got another field goal early in the second-quarter, and it was now 13-0. This did not bode well.
Manchester got on the board with an impressive Ari Confesor reception, in which the wide receiver broke a tackle and ran into the endzone. But WBS came right back to make it 20-7, after Haith missed a tackle.
But wait! Who’s there to catch the long bomb in tight coverage? That would be WR Wendell Williams, who made a huge catch which then set up a Marc Bacote touchdown reception. A few minutes later, Haith came up big again with a huge interception in the endzone, which set up another long-bomb TD to Williams. Suddenly, there’s two minutes left in the half, and it’s Manchester 21, WBS 20.
Now it really got interesting. On the next drive, WBS found themselves on fourth down near midfield. They tried for a field goal, which their kicker missed. Manchester got the ball back with just 15.9 seconds to go. Manchester drove down the field and tried a field goal, and they missed too! But a holding call on the Wolves gives the ball back to WBS – which then tried to kick another field goal! And that got blocked!
So much for the first half. The tempo kept up in the second half. Deep in their own territory, WBS had no choice but to try a field goal, which was wide. Haith caught the ball off the net and then proceeded to run all the way back down the field for a touchdown. This was just electric. I mean, my God -- it was truly the momentum shifter. Manchester was up 28-20, and wouldn’t give up the lead for the rest of the game.
That said, WBS stayed in it until the very end, something it did not do the last time around. After the Haith runback, the two teams largely played an offensive shootout, in which each drive consisted of a few plays, followed with a passing touchdown. There were some great plays and some great stops, and as the game started to wind down, Manchester had a 55-47 lead over WBS.
WBS had just scored a pretty slick touchdown – a result of a throw off the rebound net – and their kicker, former USC K David Davis, stepped up to kick the PAT. Making the point after touchdown would cut Manchester’s lead to seven, and make it much easier for WBS to tie the game should it again score. HE MISSED IT. It was probably the most important PAT all season, and HE MISSED IT. Unbelievable!
Still, even then, it wasn’t over. Manchester didn’t succeed in scoring or running out the clock, giving WBS the ball back with 15 seconds to spare. The first play was a gadget play which was easily broken up, and the second play – well, it ended with a sack. Manchester won, 55-47, and must now face one of two very good teams.
OK, here’s the recap:
MOST UHF-LIKE MOMENT: I realize that some readers may not have experienced the comedic joy that is “UHF,” the cult-classic movie from “Weird Al” Yankovic. So, thanks to the magic of YouTube, here’s a short scene from the movie – one of the shows aired on the UHF station Weird Al’s character manages.
Heh heh heh. I love that scene. Anyway, this week’s most UHF-like moment was experienced when a little boy in my section triumphantly secured a prize-filled envelope, dropped from the heavens by one of those motorized blimps one often finds at minor-league sporting events.
I have to say the blimp is really clever. People REALLY love the prize blimp; in fact, they love it about as much as they do a home-team touchdown. With good reason, too: it drops prizes like gift certificates to steakhouses and what not. This little boy, meanwhile, was so excited at getting the envelope he didn’t even open it until someone asked what he had won. When he opened it, he discovered it was a buy-one get-one-free pizza coupon. He was thrilled. I was stunned. With all that build up, I was half-expecting a diamond ring inside!
MOST INVENTIVE HECKLER’S REMARK: “Use your hands! Use your hands!” This was directed not at an opposing player, but rather the two families engaged in the giant ice-cream sundae-eating contest on the other side of the arena. The winning family, as it happened, won $40 in gift certificates to a local ice-cream shop.
MOST INEPT PLAY DURING GAME: WBS kicker David Davis shanks a gimme point-after-touchdown at a crucial point in the fourth quarter.
MOST IMPRESSIVE PERFORMANCE: Manchester defensive specialist William Haith hauls in two interceptions and runs a field-goal try back for a touchdown, among other accomplishments. Simply put, he was en fuego. As are the Wolves, at this point. We’ll see how they do next week on the road!
NOW COMES the hard part.
On Friday night, your humble correspondent watched cheerfully as the Manchester Wolves rolled on over the Quad City Steamwheelers in a 79-48 blowout. Yes, you read that right: 79 points for the home team. In utterly crushing Quad City, the Wolves pulled off the four-game winning streak they needed to earn a playoff berth. Just like another championship-winning football team.
We’ll know on Sunday how the playoff scenarios have worked out, and consequently whether my favorite minor-league arena football team has earned home-field advantage for their first playoff game. I hope so. The atmosphere at the arena was really quite something. When 8,000 people get together, and the management hands out those inflatable soundsticks, and everyone cheers on the home team, it’s just fun. I have to admit, though, I was a bit worried at the beginning.
Going into the game, I did my best not to underestimate Quad City. That took a lot of dedication on my part. After all, the team’s from the Quad Cities. According to no less a source than the Quad Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Quad Cities area includes “Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa and Moline/East Moline and Rock Island in Illinois, and surrounding communities.” Oops, hold on, we have a question from a reader. Go ahead, reader!
READER: Um, you’ve listed five cities.
KEPPLE: Yes, that’s right.
READER: So shouldn’t it be the Quint Cities, and as a result, the Quint City Steamwheelers?
Say, that’s a very reasonable question! So reasonable, in fact, that one also wonders what would happen if the “surrounding communities,” like some place called “Riverdale,” were included. However, the Duodecimal Cities doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?
Besides, it’s Iowa. Quite frankly, you’ve got to expect things like this from those yokels. I mean, they named their minor-league arena football team after a paddleboat, for God’s sake. Also, they have that damned political caucus of theirs, with its byzantine nominating process and its unfortunate affiliation with the Seventies. Oh, and we can’t forget the lameness of their state quarter, which has a one-room schoolhouse on the reverse, and the motto: “IOWA: Foundation through Education.” Oooooooooooh. Boy, that makes me want to visit Iowa something fierce!
But I digress. My point was, Quad City wasn’t about to roll over. I kept reminding myself they had not won seven of the season’s 15 games due to dumb luck. This strategy of having an overly-pessimistic outlook paid off in the beginning of the game, when Quad City scored almost immediately after getting the ball.
It also paid off when Quad City managed a decent comeback near the end of the first half. The Wolves’ comfortable 28-13 lead evaporated to 28-27 after two quick Quad City touchdowns, one resulting from a disasterous blocked field goal try which gave Quad City the ball on Manchester’s one-yard-line. But the Steamwheelers weren’t able to keep the momentum going and they fell apart soon after the third quarter started.
As for Manchester, its offense was on fire. Soon after Quad City scored a quick touchdown in the first quarter, QB Steve Bellisari threw a long pass to WR Wendell Williams, who was wide open and easily scored a touchdown. The next time around, QB Steve Bellisari threw a long pass to WR Wendell Williams, who was wide open and easily scored a touchdown. Notice the pattern.
Williams alone scored four touchdowns in the game: three on pass plays and one rushing touchdown. On the third passing touchdown, Williams broke four (!) attempted tackles and ran something like 40 yards to score. As for Bellisari, he threw – God, I don’t know, a whole bunch of touchdowns. He was just on fire. In addition, the running game was excellent, and the kicker did his job too. Perhaps the most amazing play during the game was a 56-yard kickoff return from new WR Tony Stallings. It was in the last minute of the game, and it didn’t have any effect on the game, but it was icing on the cake.
Let’s hope the Wolves will soon get to enjoy some rum cake down in San Juan.
TWO WEEKS AGO, your correspondent watched as the Manchester Wolves went down to an ignoble 59-49 defeat at the hands of the Louisville Fire. That put the Wolves, a minor-league arena football franchise here in New Hampshire, in a tough position. Basically, to have any chance at the playoffs, they would need to win their last four games of the season – not an easy task.
Well, they’re halfway towards pulling an improbable, Pittsburgh Steelers-esque comeback towards a playoff berth. Not only did the Wolves beat Green Bay last week in an amazing comeback, they pounded the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers into the astroturf on Friday night, 45-14. No, that’s not a typo: 45-14. Furthermore, the score doesn’t really do justice to how well Manchester played, and how inept Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (“WBS”) proved.
Consider: WBS didn’t manage to score until there were six minutes left on the game clock -- IN THE THIRD QUARTER. How exactly that happens in arena football is beyond me. The field’s only 50 yards long, there are only eight players on each side, and the game is passing-intensive. It’s difficult not to score. Yet WBS pointedly failed to advance the ball, even when Manchester’s endzone was just yards away. I mean, I haven’t seen a football blow-out like this since – well, actually, Cleveland’s 41-0 loss to Pittsburgh last year was worse. But not by much.
True, things started out slow – so slow, in fact, that I wondered if I’d have to award the Lady Wolf Pack Dance Team best performance honors again. You see, Manchester fumbled on the first play of the game, and WBS recovered deep in Manchester territory. Yet WBS failed to convert and turned the ball over on downs. On the next drive, Manchester’s new starting QB, Steve Bellisari, either got hit as he released a pass or the ball got tipped, resulting in an interception. But the interception was voided due to defensive holding!
Manchester was able to drive the ball down to WBS’s one-yard-line, only to screw up a running play which pushed the team back to the WBS 7. Then we missed a field goal try. Then WBS turned it over on downs again. Then, after all that, Manchester WR/DB/KR Steve “Speedy” Gonzalez finally scored a touchdown with roughly four minutes left in the first quarter.
Several WBS turnovers later, it was halftime and Manchester was leading 24-0. My sole thought at this point was: what would happen if Manchester shut out WBS? Would that be some kind of record? Would they drop confetti or launch pyrotechnics? Would WBS’s offensive coordinator get liquidated in some kind of Soviet-style purge? I didn’t know what would happen, but I was hopeful a shutout would take place.
Sadly, WBS scored in the third quarter to make the score 31-7. After some more special-teams and defensive fun, the game concluded at 45-14. A little while later, I was home and blogging; a little while after that, I discovered (via the af2 stats service) the Bossier Battle Wings actually held this year’s af2 season scoring low. The Battle Wings managed to score just three points (!) against the Tulsa Talons, who scored 72 points in their game on Apr. 22.
Anyway, here’s the recap:
MOST UHF-LIKE MOMENT: With only the indeterminate reward of “prizes” awaiting them, four otherwise-normal boys voluntarily moved piles of wood from one large cart to another large cart as part of a contest. It wasn’t clear exactly what the boys won, but it was proof that P.J. O’Rourke wasn’t kidding when he said age and guile beats youth and a bad haircut. This “contest” was so surreal I was expecting the “Log” theme to be played over the public-address system (and speaking of --)
MOST CRINGE-WORTHY PLAY: Late in the game, Manchester WR/LB Wendell Williams was hit with such force that it practically sent him airborne.
MOST INEPT PLAY DURING GAME: A defensive player for WBS decided he would publicly display his own pride and joy after making a crucial stop, yet ignored the fact his team was losing 38-7.
MOST INVENTIVE HECKLER’S REMARK: “If that was holding, he would’ve had to hold the player, not hit him.”
MOST IMPRESSIVE PERFORMANCE: QB Bellisari and WR Williams made for a great team during the game – particularly during one play, in which Bellisari threw a bullet of a pass to Williams, who caught it despite the two defenders in the area. It was a great play which broke any hope WBS had of recovering.
Next week, Manchester plays at Albany (5-8) – and if we win that, we’ll just have to take on the Quad City Steamwheelers (6-7). Although, as we learned this year in the NFL, that last “gimme game” can always turn out more of a challenge than one expects. We’ll see how things turn out!
SO YESTERDAY I splurged and spent $38.50 on a third-row seat to watch the Manchester Wolves, my city’s minor-league arena football team, play against the Louisville Fire, one of our divisional rivals in the arenafootball2 league.
I’m proud to report it was money well spent. For one thing, the third-row seat gave me an excellent vantage point whenever the Lady Wolf Pack dance team took the field to perform. For another, I gained a newfound respect for arena football, a sport which people often mock but actually has a lot going for it. As Loyal Rant Readers know, watching the Wolves is part of my grand strategy to watch football on a year-round schedule, and I'm pleased to say the af2 portion of the strategy works.
But let’s review the game itself for a moment.
Sadly, the Wolves lost, and the final score of 59-49 doesn’t accurately reflect Louisville’s domination of the game. Rather, it reflects the stupidity of the Louisville coaching staff, who ordered an on-side kick not once, not twice, but FIVE TIMES during the game. If Louisville had actually kicked the ball deep on those tries, they’d likely have punished Manchester on defense, or at the least burned time from the clock while preserving their lead. Not that they faced much of a threat in that regard, though.
You see, our offense had trouble with a capital T. Near the end of the first half, it looked as if Manchester would finish up having scored just ONE touchdown during the first thirty minutes. Since the arena football pitch is just 50 yards long (excluding the endzones), and there is no punting in the game, I thought for sure I was witnessing an ignoble moment in arena football history. However, it was at the end of the first half when the game’s most exciting play took place.
Manchester had come out to kick a field goal from thirty yards or so. This is a moderate distance in American football to kick the ball through the uprights, and one would think it would be a cinch to make the kick in the arena. However, there’s a catch – in arena football, the uprights are roughly the size of the exhaust port Luke Skywalker needed to hit to destroy the Death Star. As such, one must kick the ball straight and true, because there is practically no room for error.
In any event, our kicker was a little bit off to the left, and the ball bounced off one of the large endzone nets. Whenever a ball hits the net, though, it is considered live – and somehow, a Manchester player managed to run down the field and recover it in Louisville’s endzone for a touchdown. It was an astonishingly cool play. The halftime score was 24-14, and Manchester was still in the game, at least for a while.
Even though the game was a bit of a bust, the entire atmosphere made it a fun night out, even if the “family fun” was a little overboard. I was sitting right at midfield, and in a section with fellow football fans, so that provided plenty of opportunities for discussing the play. Also, there were these two guys in the front row who were all decked out in Wolves clothing and had face paint and – most amazingly of all – had a “DEFENSE” sign at the ready.
Anyway, here’s the recap:
MOST SURPRISING CHANT DURING GAME: “DE-FENSE!”
MOST UHF-LIKE MOMENT: Man triumphs in pizza-eating contest, wins free pizza
MOST INVENTIVE HECKLER’S REMARK: “Look at that Florida State education at work!”
MOST CRINGEWORTHY PLAY: Louisville receiver tries to make catch, goes over the wall pads and onto the concrete floor. Of course, the field itself is basically concrete, but still.
MOST INEPT PLAY: Man at half-time has chance to win $10,000 for a school by making field goal kick; tee-based kick goes just 10 yards, on the ground. Man roundly booed.
MOST IMPRESSIVE PERFORMANCE: Lady Wolf Pack dance team
SECOND MOST IMPRESSIVE PERFORMANCE (tied): Manchester Wolves DB Brian Mance recovers blown field goal for a touchdown. Also, using only chopsticks and a soup spoon, I successfully eat a giant bowl of pho at the Vietnamese place on Elm Street. It was amazing pho, too.