Considering the Arena Football League’s preseason decision to expand to an 18-game schedule, perhaps using the term “quarter-pole” to describe this juncture of the Pittsburgh Power’s season is inaccurate. However, it is accurate to say that, with a chunk of the young season in the books, the team’s inaugural campaign could go multiple directions.
It began in generally positive fashion, with the Power playing inspired football for two games, not to mention the first quarter-and-change of their first-ever road contest in Milwaukee. But things seem to have gone downhill since the middle of that matchup, and the Power weren’t able to right the wrongs back home, looking flat against lowly Tulsa.
A bad loss to a struggling team is hardly the way to enter a bye week, so Chris Siegfried and his squad certainly have work to do and questions to answer as they prepare for their Week 5 meeting with Siegfried’s former employer, the Jacksonville Sharks, and try to bump up their 2-2 record.
Those questions might not all be answered Saturday. At any rate, to borrow one of Bill Cowher’s famous remarks, you’re never as good as you think you are, and you’re never as bad as people say you are. So here are some of the positives and negatives through the first four games, and a look into the possible future of the 2011 season:
*This is a team that has played to the level of its competition. Despite losing its opening game to the Philadelphia Soul, the Power played on very even terms with a team that, on paper, is much better and more experienced than they are, and a team widely thought to be capable of winning an ArenaBowl championship. The next week, the Power got their historic first victory against the Iowa Barnstormers, who, like the Power, have been up and down, and to do so, Siegfried had to out-coach John Gregory, one of the most skilled and experienced coaches in AFL history. In Week 3, this young secondary held the league’s all-time leading receiver, Damian Harrell, to just 70 yards and one score in another win at Milwaukee.
*On the shorter indoor field, field position can make a world of difference, even more so than in the traditional outdoor game. Fortunately for the Power’s sake, special teams have been sharp thus far. Paul Edinger, formerly of the NFL’s Vikings and Bears, has made 21 of his 23 extra points, along with a pair of field goals, including a dramatic one from middle distance to force OT in Week 1. Edinger is tied for third in scoring among players at his position. Eddie Robinson has shown flashes of brilliance, averaging 22.7 yards per kick return.
*”Ruuuuuuuuueeeeee!” If you’ve been to one of the three home games, you know that fullback and Duquesne alumnus Joshua Rue has become perhaps the Power’s biggest fan favorite. Through four games, he is the team’s leading scorer with eight touchdowns, including six on the ground, and those six rush TD’s put him fourth in the AFL in that category. He accumulated two of them in each of his first three games, and his first-ever rush TD as a member of the Power against Philly, not to mention his catch-and-dive to the end zone against Tulsa, are exemplary of his dogged work ethic on offense.
*For each of the Power’s first three games at CONSOL Energy Center, they have drawn at least 9,000 fans, including a night on which Pitt basketball was playing in the NCAA tournament. That’s roughly more than half the building’s capacity for Arena Football League games. An opening night crowd of 13,904 made that game one of the most attended ones of the young 2011 AFL season, and it was enough to make the Pittsburgh Power the current No. 2 in average home attendance, and those who are there seem to be getting into the action. Even the other two home games drew crowds above the league average. As long as attendance continues to hover around the 9,000-10,000 mark, this franchise will be in sound economic shape.
*People in this town love defense, and revere outstanding defense. Win or lose, one has to admire the way the Pittsburgh Power’s defense has jelled thus far. Gary Butler’s 3.0 sacks tie him for second in the AFL in said category, and he has also recovered three fumbles, including one in the end zone in Milwaukee that, in the long run, helped preserve a win. Defensive back Carlos Campbell has 20 solo tackles and three of the team’s 12 pass deflections. Tyrrell Herbert has done a good job anchoring the line with a team-best 22.5 tackles. The Power have allowed just 178 points, the fourth-best four-game total in the AFL, and they have held each opponent to 50 or fewer offensive points–a respectable showing in arena football.
*Once again, this team has played to the level of its competition. Despite emerging from the Bradley Center victorious in Week 3, the Power played poorly down the stretch against the host Milwaukee Mustangs, who were still seeking their first win of 2011 and had looked less than stellar in their three prior contests. Pittsburgh’s subpar play spilled over into its ensuing home contest with the also-winless Tulsa Talons. The Talons were coming off their lowest-scoring performance in franchise history, and were in or near the basement in several major offensive categories, but they came into CONSOL Energy Center and schooled the Power to the tune of a 23-point victory.
*Off-the-field demons have haunted the Power recently. Josh Lay, perhaps the team’s top defensive back, has been busted by authorities on drug charges. Prior to that, some things came out about the wife of Coach Siegfried that, fortunately, appear not to be true. Nevertheless, it’s hard for any team, especially a pure expansion team, to conduct business effectively amidst such distractions, and the presumable loss of Lay could be a damaging blow to the team’s good chemistry on defense.
*You’ve got to protect the pigskin in the AFL, where even one defensive stop can drastically change the complexion of the game. That’s something the Power need to improve upon considerably. Through four weeks, the Power’s turnover margin is minus-2, and part of that stems from McCabe’s five interceptions. When he was picked off in the end zone on the opening drive against Tulsa, the Power never seemed to recover. Morris threw three INT’s in the opener, including a pick-six that won the game for the Soul in overtime, and even Morelli, in limited action, threw one deep in Tulsa territory that did the Power no favors in Week 4.
*The Power are lucky to have a player at his position like Joshua Rue, and it bodes well for this team that all three quarterbacks have been able to spread the wealth without leaning too heavily on one particular receiver. However, the operative phrase in that sentence is, “three quarterbacks.” Right now Chris Siegfried needs a Big Ben, someone to really seize the reins of this team. Original starter Bernard Morris is on the shelf for at least one more game, but even in health, he had some consistency issues…though we don’t know if he was playing hurt. Kevin McCabe started well in relief, but wasn’t able to put together a strong, complete game before getting yanked for Anthony Morelli. The PSU grad played hard in defeat in Week 4, but remains largely unproven. Opponents are out-passing the Power by an average of 30 yards per game, and out-gaining the team by an average of 80 per game. The Power’s point differential is a modest plus-3. They are next-to-last in the league in total passing yards. The bottom line is, in the AFL, you can’t go anywhere without a franchise quarterback.
*Although the Power, of their remaining 14 games, still have six at CONSOL Energy Center, their upcoming schedule generally seems a bit tougher. Opponents on the horizon, both home and away, include the Jacksonville Sharks and Georgia Force, who are tied for the South Division lead, the defending league champion Spokane Shock, the San Jose SaberCats–a perennial power–the improved Dallas Vigilantes, and the Cleveland Gladiators, whom the Power are chasing in the American Conference East Division. Jacksonville, San Jose, and Cleveland are all presently among the top passing teams in the league.
Week 4 was definitely a low point. The fact that this is a pure expansion team might be starting to catch up to the Power. With the possible exception of their Week 2 victory over Iowa, they have yet to play a 60-minute game, and that’s a problem. At the root of the problem is the quagmire at QB…which Chris Siegfried originally dismissed, saying the team had no quarterback controversy. Perhaps at this point he’s changed his mind.
One thing Siegfried said recently that was spot on was the idea that Week 4 was the closest his team has come to looking like an expansion team. So the question is, were Weeks 1 through 3 the omen and Week 4 the aberration, or is it the other way around? Here’s a fairly safe bet: if McCabe or Morelli don’t start blowing people’s skirts up beginning this Saturday (i.e.: finding the end zone early and often, and minimizing turnovers), expect this offense to continue struggling. The sudden loss of McCabe for several weeks with a back injury won’t help, as it makes Morelli the only healthy QB on the roster entering Week 5. In the meantime, this team’s formula for success might be counting on its defense to make stops and getting points off turnovers. One thing the Power did well in their two victories was take what the opposition gave them.
Joshua Rue, in all probability, will continue to be the bell cow until this team is more sure of its quarterback(s), running and catching out of the backfield. Expect his aforementioned point total to continue climbing. The Power don’t seem to have a true No. 1 receiver, but in arena football, that’s a good problem to have. On a shorter field, you want to have as many viable options as possible. All the wide-outs have shown something within the first four weeks, so expect that balance to continue as well.
With all these things considered, .500 football is probably par for the course for the Pittsburgh Power. But with this defense, the team will never be out of any game. It’s what kept them in the lid-lifter against Philadelphia when that game was slipping away, it’s what bolstered them to victories against Iowa and Milwaukee, and it’s what kept an ugly effort against Tulsa from getting even uglier. Even if Josh Lay doesn’t play another down the rest of the season, that unit seems to be a bunch of interchangeable parts. It’ll be a tough adjustment for whoever fills his shoes, but not an impossible one.
Chris Siegfried seems to be the right man to lead them. He’s been around the indoor game a lot longer than many of his players have, and his never-say-die coaching style should serve this young team well. If history is any guide, it won’t take him extraordinarily long to get the Power to win consistently. However, with nearly 20 rookies on his active roster, and some of that inexperience just beginning to show, hopefully the fans who have filled CONSOL Energy Center won’t lose patience if it doesn’t happen right away.
By Matt Popchock
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)