By Matt Popchock
With the beginning of the Arena Football League’s silver anniversary season just 48 hours away, and so many stories surrounding the 2012 Pittsburgh Power to examine, this is no time for a history lesson. But we’re going to give one anyway.
Also drawing nearer is a date ignominiously known as the “Ides of March.” On that day, a group of Roman senators stabbed Julius Caesar to death. Since then, the phrase has become synonymous with misfortune.
Eight months ago, it was another pack of Predators who drove a dagger into the heart of the Power.
Come to think of it, a second history lesson is probably necessary to properly set the scene for their Week 1 contest in Orlando Friday night at 8:00, a game that can be seen on NFL Network.
On July 1, 2011, the Power, needing a victory to establish playoff positioning, quieted the crowd at the Amway Center by taking a commanding 40-20 lead late in the second quarter. However, a circuitous series of events, highlighted by an unprecedented two straight net recovery touchdowns off kickoffs, gave the Predators 28 unanswered points en route to a 62-54 win.
That temporarily erased the Power from the playoff picture, and two weeks later, they were eliminated from contention.
“We’re sneaking into the arena before the game and spraying down all their nets and posts,” a glib Chris Siegfried, the Power’s second-year head coach, told the media at the Marriott City Center Wednesday.
All kidding aside, ball security, particularly on special teams, was a priority for Siegfried this off-season. Essentially he said so as far back as October, when he recruited AFL Ironman of the Year P.J. Berry to accept an assignment in Pittsburgh.
“That’s arena football for you. Crazy bounces happen, and you have to adjust to it. It’s all about putting the right people in the right place to make plays. We brought in what I believe is the best kick returner in the league,” Siegfried said of Berry, who, despite a trying year with the last-place New Orleans VooDoo, set an AFL single-season record with 3,708 all-purpose yards in 2011.
After some tinkering last season the team plans to switch back to a kick return formation more conventional in arena football, giving the returnee two protectors. Berry sat out a portion of camp due to a foot injury, so whether he is that return man at the start of Friday’s lid-lifter remains to be seen.
“‘Superman’ will be in uniform,” Siegfried affirmed, noting the newcomer’s nickname. “He’s going to get a lot of playing time, but we’re going to monitor it.”
In addition, Siegfried doesn’t expect Berry’s status to have any adverse effect on his receiving corps, already a position of strength, which has been upgraded exponentially by the former Virginia State product.
“We’re going to dress four wide receivers,” Siegfried said, including 2011 team leaders Mike Washington and Lonnell DeWalt in his declaration. “To me they’re all starters.”
The receivers might have been the greatest asset to that expansion squad by simple virtue of the fact that collection of players was generally the least injured. No team in the AFL knew misfortune quite like the Power last year, and it went beyond those inconvenient bounces in Orlando.
“Our injuries were legendary, in a negative way,” Siegfried lamented.
“We came out of camp healthy this year, and that’s huge. That’s real huge. When you have 13 practices [in camp], you’ve got to be smart about how you practice,” he added.
“A lot of our injuries last year happened to the younger players who had never played this game before. Veterans know how to practice and know how to play, so we made a concerted effort as an organization to get the best young veteran players we could get.”
One of those is probable starting quarterback Kyle Rowley, 33, who won ArenaBowl XXIII MVP honors with the Spokane Shock, and previously led the Shock, which employed Siegfried at the time, to the ArenaCup title in the now-defunct AF2 developmental league.
He is the only QB in AFL history to win both championships, and although Siegfried is a believer in new second-stringer Andrico Hines, he hopes Rowley won’t have to ride the same creepy quarterback carousel that spun the Power out of some key games last year.
“I think I called every quarterback who’s ever taken a snap in the league last year,” he said, smirking, but clearly, still in disbelief he had to dress five different players at that position in 2011.
“I already told the guys you’re not allowed to get hurt.”
Rowley, despite missing part of last season, tossed 78 TD’s and just 15 INT’s with the Shock, finishing with a passer rating of 112.3. Because a shoulder injury limited him, he only finished around the middle of the pack statistically, but after four full seasons in the league, he won’t be fazed by the national spotlight.
“He’s a worker. He’s overcome obstacles in life–people telling him he’s too short, that sort of thing–and all he does is win games,” Siegfried said.
This is the first of four nationally televised regular season games for the Power. Last year they lost all three, including that fateful one in Orlando, but with a more seasoned team no worse for the wear of a two-week camp, Siegfried isn’t worried.
“All I’m worried about are five thousand cowbells,” he quipped. “I understand their fans are going to have those.”
Besides, voodoo magic (and not the kind fans expect to see from Berry) is far scarier. But do you believe in magic, Coach?
“I saw a witch doctor in New Orleans last time I was there,” he assured us, “so the NFL Network jinx is over.”
Beware the Ides of March…but watch out for the new-look Power too.
“We came out of camp healthy, and looking sharp,” Siegfried said. “This is going to be a great season for us.”
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)