Ready or not, here comes the Arena Football League to Pittsburgh…again. In case you had forgotten, or in case you didn’t know at all, it’s been over two decades since the Gladiators, one of the AFL’s seminal (“experimental”) franchises called the old Civic Arena home.
Following the 1990 season, after four seasons and two ArenaBowl appearances, the Gladiators relocated and became known as the Tampa Bay Storm. You might say the Storm became the Pittsburgh Steelers of arena football, as they have gone on to win a league-record five ArenaBowl championships, appeared in last year’s title game, and have been the winningest franchise in league history.
In that time, the league has been shut down and re-born under a new single-entity business model, signed a television deal with two major cable networks (most recently, the NFL Network), and became one of the more popular out-of-mainstream sports in America. Now the Pittsburgh Power get set for their maiden voyage.
It’ll be interesting to see how quickly this football-crazed town falls in love with its new team, considering its historically stubborn treatment of secondary sports, and it’ll be even more interesting to see how soon the Power, compared to the other 2011 newcomers, wins in a league that has made as much of a good-faith effort as the NFL to promote at atmosphere of parity.
They couldn’t have picked a better lid-lifter: a cross-state rival, a divisional rival, and a former champion. Here’s a glance at tonight’s game, along with five things you need to know about the AFL:
KICKOFF: 8:00 PM, Consol Energy Center
TV/RADIO: NFL Network, 93.7 The Fan (KDKA-TV’s Bob Pompeani will broadcast future home games on WPCW-TV/Pittsburgh’s CW.)
MEET THE QUARTERBACKS:
Bernard Morris, Pittsburgh: He’ll be getting the nod for the first game after playing in Jacksonville last year under Power head coach Chris Siegfried, where he threw for 567 yards and eight TD’s during the 2010 regular season as a second-stringer.
Justin Allgood, Philadelphia: The Soul had one of the best gunslingers in the league in Tony Graziani when they won the ArenaBowl, and now they’re hoping it’s “all good” with new QB Allgood, who threw an AFL-best 109 TD’s for the Tulsa Talons last season.
*This is the first of the Power’s nine regular season home games as the newest member of the AFL’s East Division in the American Conference. Four of their first five games in 2011 are at home. The Soul, who were founded in ’04 and defeated San Jose in ArenaBowl XXII in ’08 to win their first-ever championship, are rejoining that division after ceasing operations, along with the league itself, two years ago.
*The Power’s first head coach is Chris Siegfried, who last year guided the Jacksonville Sharks to the American Conference Semfinals as their offensive coordinator. Opposing him will be Philadelphia head coach, Mike Hohensee, who led the Chicago Rush to the ArenaBowl XXII championship in 2006, and has been in the league for some time as well. In fact, this will be sort of a homecoming for Hohensee, who was the Pittsburgh Gladiators’ original quarterback and threw the first official touchdown pass in league history against the Washington Commandos at the Civic Arena in 1987.
*In some ways, this is truly the “Pittsburgh” Power taking the field tonight. Among the local players who made the Power’s opening day roster, some of whom participated in nearby tryouts, are former Penn State QB Anthony Morelli, DB’s Kenny Lewis (Penn Hills High School) and Josh Lay (Aliquippa High School), and WR Mike Washington (Aliquippa High School). Kurt Warner is certainly the most well-known example of an AFL player who played in the NFL, but a number of other AFL players have spent time in the NFL over the years, such as Pittsburgh kicker Paul Edinger.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
1. RE-ALIGNMENT, REBIRTH: The Power became the 18th member of the AFL last summer, and are the only “pure” expansion team in the revamped league. Tonight’s opponent, the Soul, are one of three teams that have rejoined the league in the aftermath on an economic downturn that forced it to suspend operations for the 2009 season. The other two are the San Jose SaberCats and the Kansas City Command, formerly known as the Kansas City Brigade.
Here is the league’s new divisional alignment for the 2011 season:
Central Division – Chicago Rush, Dallas Vigilantes, Iowa Barnstormers, Kansas City Command, Tulsa Talons
West Division – Arizona Rattlers, San Jose SaberCats, Spokane Shock*, Utah Blaze
East Division – Cleveland Gladiators, Milwaukee Mustangs, Philadelphia Soul, PITTSBURGH POWER
South Division – Georgia Force, Jacksonville Sharks, New Orleans Voodoo, Orlando Predators, Tampa Bay Storm
*The Shock won the National Conference Championship last season and defeated visiting American Conference champion Tampa Bay to win ArenaBowl XXIII.
2. A SIMPLER GAME: The Four-Letter Network, back when it still televised games, called it “football in a blender”…and for good reason. The field is only 50 yards long, and there are only eight players to a side, which is just a couple ways arena football is different–and more liberal-minded–from the traditional American game. There are limitations on which linebackers are allowed to blitz and where, and there is no out-of-bounds, unless you pin the ball carrier against the boards, or knock him over the boards altogether. The indoor game is all about offense, hence the absence of a punter, and the four-point drop kick field goal, which dates back to the original AFL rule book.
3. “POINTS” WELL TAKEN: Okay, so really…how much offense will you see if you’re going to the game tonight? Last season, the league’s highest-scoring team, the Tulsa Talons, averaged just over 62 points per game, and the league’s best defensive team, the Jacksonville Sharks, allowed barely more than 50 points per game. As Siegfried recently pointed out, if your team can hold its opponent off the board for three possessions in a game, you’re in pretty good shape. Even holding a team to a field goal is considered by coaches and stat-keepers a “stop.” In 2007 the Dallas Desperados (as they were then called) became the first team in Arena League history to score 1,000 regular season points–and also the first to win 15 games in a regular campaign–although they stubbed their toe in their playoff opener against the eventual conference champion Columbus Destroyers.
4. CELEBRITY OWNERS: The last time former Steelers receiver Lynn Swann and former Eagles QB Ron Jaworski met on a football field, it probably looked a little something like this:
Today, however, the battlefield they share looks a little something like this:
Swann is one of the Power’s primary investors, as you may recall, and Jaworski is a member of the Soul’s management team. But when you look at the number of ex-athletes and/or celebrities that have gotten involved with arena football teams as owners/investors, “Swanny” and “Jaws” aren’t the only names that should ring a bell. Jon Bon Jovi, Tim McGraw, John Elway, Mike Ditka, and Jerry Jones are among those who have gotten involved with the AFL over the years.
5. “ENHANCED” SCHEDULE: The NFL doesn’t want Roger Goodell to shove it down everyone’s throat, but is what the AFL and commissioner Jerry Kurz doing this season a glimpse of the future in the National Football League? Arena football teams, like NFL teams, played a 16-game regular season every year since 1996, but starting this season, the AFL has expanded to an 18-game regular season. Concurrently, mandates on roster sizes have been increased, and the one or two preseason games (as opposed to the NFL’s four) that teams hadn’t played for years remain optional. The AFL playoff format, which, like the NFL, features three rounds prior to the league title game, will not change.
I’ll be attending the inaugural game tonight, and I’ll be blogging next week about the Pittsburgh Power fan experience at Consol Energy Center. In the meantime, be sure to tune into SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan throughout the 2011 season, as Troy Clardy, Darnell Dinkins, and Megan Wolfley bring you all the fast-paced action of the Arena Football League.
By Matt Popchock
(Special thanks to the Post-Gazette, the Arena Football League, the Pittsburgh Power, and Wikipedia for their contributions to this post.)