By Matt Popchock
Those who have been to a Pittsburgh Power home game love hearing the classic catchphrase “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” It usually means wide receiver Jason Willis has done something special, and with over 900 yards receiving and 15 touchdowns, he’s done plenty.
The players, however, usually eschew the “Diff’rent Strokes” reference and just call the fourth-year Arena Football League veteran “Papa J.” With fellow wide-out and return specialist Jerome Mathis injured, “Papa J” has been pushed into a special teams role, and this week he’s hoping the sins of the father won’t come back to haunt the Power (8-7) like they did last Friday, when rare back-to-back net recoveries of kickoffs erased their lead, and spurned on a damaging and disappointing 62-54 loss to the Orlando Predators.
Now, as the Power fight for their American Conference playoff lives in Sunday’s showdown with the National Conference-leading Arizona Rattlers (14-2), the final regular season game at CONSOL Energy Center, Willis and his mates are anxious to get the team back on track. We caught up with Jason before Thursday’s practice on the South Side to discuss the adjustments the team is making on special teams, what he’ll be doing prior to Sunday’s game, and how the Power can pull off an upset:
Q: How eager are you guys to redeem yourselves for what happened in Orlando last Friday, particularly on special teams?
A: As far as special teams goes, we have a new setup. I can’t really get into it, but we have a new setup to guarantee the kick will be secured, or if it does bounce off [the goal posts], that we have two guys who are ready to get the ball. It was a freak accident that it happened two times in a row, and it’s very rare for that to happen in a game. For what it’s worth, I take my hat off to Orlando’s kicker (Mark Lewis) for doing that, but at the same, like I said, we’ve made adjustments, so the ball definitely shouldn’t get past the two up-backs.
Q: Was it and is it meaningful to have starting quarterback Bernard Morris back?
A: It’s definitely good to have Bernard back, because he adds another weapon to our game, which is running the ball. He knows the receivers, he knows the chemistry. The balls he throws, the short passing game, his decisions, everything is clicking [when he's in the lineup].
Q: Why is this team where it is right now–8-7 and on the verge of the playoffs–and why is your upcoming opponent, the Arizona Rattlers, as good as it has been?
A: We’ve put ourselves in that situation; we’ve lost a lot of games that we lost. Our hat’s off to the opponents we’ve played, but we’ve lost a lot of games due to ourselves, whether it’s offensively or defensively breaking down. These last three games of the season are definitely a must-win situation. Arizona is one of the best, if not, the best, team in the league, but at the same time, anybody can lose in the Arena Football League any given day. So we’re going to come out and play this team like any other team, but we know it’s a must-win situation for us, so we’re going to focus on going out against Arizona and exploiting any kind of weakness they might have.
Q: Are you going to be watching the nationally-televised game between Cleveland and Philadelphia (at 9-6, Cleveland leads the Power for first place in the East Division)?
A: (laughs) Oh yeah, we’re going to be holding on tight for that one, cheering for Philly. We don’t like Philly, but right now, we love ‘em. For one night we’ll be Philly fans, and we’ll definitely keep a close eye on that game.
Q: What’s it like being in a receiving corps that has had many contributors? There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut number one, but for this team, that seems to be a good problem to have.
A: It is a good problem. We have a lot of talent, and a lot of different receivers; each of them brings their own style to the game. If you look at stats, you can pretty much say me and Mike are the bread and butter of the team, but everybody that comes in brings their own dimension…Jerome (Mathis) with the special teams and deep-threat ability, D.J. (Hall) brings a size advantage, and Irving (Campbell) is an all-around receiver, so really…as long as we can find whatever different receivers exploit [our opponent], and can score consistently, we’re clicking.
Q: The fact that you have a little NFL experience doesn’t hurt either, I’m sure…
A: No, it doesn’t, and when it comes down to clutch situations, I’m able to tell the younger players to calm down…you know, we don’t need the big play right now, we just need you to catch the ball, and move the ball. The other receivers call me “Papa J,” I guess because I bring that [calmness] to the game.
Q: The Arena Football League’s website did a story on you in which they called you the Power’s “daredevil.” Do you see yourself as a daredevil?
A: Yeah, you know, I’m not scared of chasing balls that go over the wall…I haven’t gotten any chances to show that yet this year, but I pretty much feel that you only live once. That’s my lifestyle…I skydive, I bungee-jump. You only live once, so why not live it up?
Q: What’s it going to take to beat the Rattlers so you can live it up on Sunday?
A: Against Arizona we have to play four quarters offensively, and on special teams this time. We have to pay attention to detail, and we can’t come out flat. Offensively, we can’t come out flat. Defensively we have to have stops, or at least contain them. Holding this team to a field goal is great. If we beat Arizona, we’ll feel like we’ve beaten a giant, but still, Cleveland and Philadelphia (the Power’s final two opponents) are no joke to us. We can’t overlook anybody, but right now we’re focused on Arizona, and wanting Philly to win Friday night. Once we take care of Arizona, we’ll take care of Cleveland next week.
One of Willis’ most prolific teammates, Mike Washington, has a nickname of his own. “The Joystick” may not be the biggest player an opposing DB will line up against, but his elusiveness and his playmaking ability have more than compensated for his size, as Washington topped the 1,000-yard barrier in Week 16 against the Milwaukee Mustangs at CONSOL Energy Center.
Washington caught one of his team-leading 22 touchdown receptions in last week’s loss, and the Aliquippa native talked on Thursday about what it means to reach that 1,000-yard milestone, what makes quarterback Bernard Morris an impact player, and why he doesn’t mind playing the underdog card come Sunday:
Q: You’re 8-7, knocking on the door of the playoffs, and you individually have racked up over 1,000 yards receiving. To this point, how has the season measured up with the expectations you’ve had for the team, and the expectations you’ve had for yourself?
A: I don’t know…I’m not really a stat guy, or anything like that. My goal is to play football, and whether I have 1,000 yards and 20 touchdowns, or five yards and two touchdowns, it’s all about getting that “W.” But on the flip side of that, if my performance is paying off and benefiting the team, my mindset coming into the game is to be as mentally focused as possible. As far as this weekend goes, we know what’s at stake, and we know we control our own destiny, so this week we’re going to be focused, and a little more intense than usual, but at the same time, preparing mentally to play mistake-free football. Last week in Orlando was probably one of the most mistake-free and mentally [tough] games we’ve played, and we still didn’t pull it out because of fluke plays, or whatever…but I have all the confidence in my teammates, and in our offense and defense to execute this week.
Q: These last three games aren’t playoff games per se, but will you treat them like playoff games?
A: We will. You always want to play in the postseason, but you’ve got to take it one game at a time. Despite Arizona’s record right now, any team can get beat on any given day. It’s like basketball…it’s a game of runs, and turnovers can be like touchdowns, and at the same time, penalties can [have the same impact] as touchdowns. It’s a 50-yard field, so if you get x-amount of penalty yards, that’s basically a touchdown right there. But like I said, it’s about being mentally prepared, and taking the one-day-at-a-time approach, and going out with intensity. I don’t think at all this year we’ve really come out on fire, and jumped on top of a team. Sometimes we’ve started out fast, and ended slow, our heads hang down, and we’ve got to play catch-up at the end of the day. So I think once we get all the pieces together, which we should have already, we can jell together. I know we’ve had a couple new guys come in, but at the same time, we know we’ve got the tools and the talent to beat anyone in this league.
Q: Going back to what you said a moment ago, do you like being the underdog, or do you even think there’s such a thing as an underdog in this league?
A: Probably not…that’s probably why no one puts up big bets in Vegas. (laughs) But whether we’re an underdog or not…I don’t really read into that…they usually go by best record, I suppose, but in this league, records don’t mean anything. You can get beat off balls that hit off the goal posts, two turnovers at the end of the game, a last-second field goal…you never know. But the main thing is, we score on every possession and play mistake-free football.
Q: Not to take anything away from (backup quarterback) Chris Wallace, who played admirably in relief, but is it good to have Bernard Morris back?
A: It’s always good to have our captain and our team leader back. Chris Wallace stepped in and commanded the huddle the way a real vet should, so I have all the respect in the world for him, but Bernard can do a little more with his legs, and the chemistry he’s got with the receivers who have been around all year, like me and [Jason Willis]…with him in there, it gives us more confidence.
Q: What has it been like to be part of a receiving corps that has had so many contributors as the season has unfolded?
A: It’s always good…in college (at the University of Hawaii) I played in an offense where all four receivers had 1,000 yards in a season. To spread the ball around is real good, because teams look at film just like we do, and try to put pressure on whoever’s having a hot streak. So in this league, any [receiver] can get hot…Jason Willis, for example, can score four touchdowns one week, and the next score one. Someone can come out of the blue and score five. It’s just a matter of playing mistake-free football, like I said, and [Bernard Morris] picking them up.
Q: What’s it going to take for you to score four or five against Arizona on Sunday?
A: Arizona likes to stick their hands in the cookie jar…they like to jam the high motion receiver, but I’m used to that, and with my quickness, I should penetrate that. But we’ll see…we like to change it up every week. They like to give different looks, but we always like to give the other team different looks, because we always change up the rotation of our lineup, so you never know. It’s going to be an intense game. We’ve got to get back on track. It’s a big game; the fans want to see us make a playoff run in our first year, and we know we need it to make a playoff run, so guys’ minds are on that.
Be sure to revisit 937thefan.com later this weekend for more coverage of the Pittsburgh Power’s regular-season home finale against the Rattlers!