By Matt Popchock
With a labor dispute between the Arena Football League and its players’ union percolating in the background, commissioner Jerry Kurz insisted all would be well for the start of the AFL’s 25th season. The league’s first Hall of Fame class since 2000 was on parade in Orlando, a group that included that city’s most celebrated player of all time, early Nineties ironman Barry Wagner.
But no umbrella of unity could keep the rain away from that parade, as what should have been one of the proudest days in the history of the sport turned into one of the weirdest. Still, even though Kurz didn’t get the silver anniversary party he wanted, the most important goal of opening weekend was achieved: a football game was played.
Through all the chaos, the Pittsburgh Power achieved their goal too, defeating the host Predators 40-26 in the 2012 lid-lifter Friday night. The Power (1-0) atoned for the events eight months prior, when a comfortable lead in Orlando dissipated into a damaging loss, and they did so with the same defensive poise that sustained them for much of their inaugural campaign.
Arena football teams typically average a little more than 50 points per game. The 26 yielded to the Predators (0-1) represented a new franchise record, besting the 28 allowed to the Iowa Barnstormers Mar. 19, 2011, the Power’s historic first win. Two hours before kickoff it appeared this one would be even more difficult to attain than imagined.
AFLPU chief Ivan Soto denies directly forcing a players’ strike, but union members had been guided in that direction since the fall by their leadership, and recently voted to strike had they not come to an agreement with the league over a new CBA before the season opener. Power co-owner Matt Shaner reportedly interrupted a team dinner to inform players that those who walked out would be promptly dismissed.
Sources say police were present to see members of both teams locked out. Both coaches hastily assembled new active rosters consisting of “replacement” players, some of whom had already worked out with their respective teams in training camp, and some of whom had been invited to Orlando as a contingency.
In an equally unusual turn of events, a number of the original Power crossed the picket line early and were permitted to join the newcomers. Fortunately for Chris Siegfried, Pittsburgh’s second-year bench boss, one of those who honored his contract was Mike Washington, the team’s leading receiver from 2011.
A year ago Washington finished first on the team in catches, receiving yardage, and receiving touchdowns, and the Aliquippa product picked up where he left off, pacing the Power with 166 yards and four TD’s on nine grabs.
Furthermore, Washington was one of just a handful of players on either team who could be positively identified with the naked eye. In the league’s hurried effort to scrounge up enough men for a game, all of the Predators’ uniforms were without names, as were some of the Power’s, and the NFL Network broadcast crew was not issued updated rosters until after the opening kickoff.
Despite the fluid labor situation, Siegfried’s counterpart, Bret Munsey, entered the contest with Colin Drafts, the same quarterback he had promoted to the starting job during the preseason. Drafts and new Power backup Andrico Hines (subbing for Kyle Rowley) tossed their way to a scoreless and understandably sloppy first quarter, but both found rhythm in the second.
At the 11:45 mark of the quarter, Hines capped a nine-play, 37-yard drive with a lob to the right side of the end zone to AFL veteran and former NFL castoff Randy Hymes, who gathered it in from eight yards out for the first points of the game and of the Power’s sophomore season. Not wanting to put too much pressure on an already ill-prepared Matt Groff, Siegfried elected to go for two on every score Friday, and Washington snuck in for an 8-0 Pittsburgh lead.
Drafts answered less than four minutes later with a seven-yard toss to Albert Dukes, but the Power preserved that lead by stopping Drafts on the ensuing quarterback keeper. Hines then hit Washington down the left side, and “The Joystick” used his speed burst to score in spite of a horse-collar tackle, this time from 44 yards away. The Predators ultimately tied the game 14-14 and threatened again in the final moments of the period, but a goal-line interception by Chris LeFlore cemented the halftime score.
The Power took the second-half kickoff, and Hines, who earned player-of-the-game honors by going 18-of-35 for 266 yards and six TD’s, only needed 3:34 to hit Washington with a nine-yard strike over the middle that gave his team a 20-14 edge. Taurian Washington tied it up with his second touchdown catch of the night, but Brian Jackson’s errant extra point, the only kick attempted by Orlando, kept the Predators from taking their first lead.
Reigning Ironman of the Year P.J. Berry gave the Power a permanent lead with two minutes left in the third quarter when he hauled in a pass along the left wall, and used a missed tackle to scurry 36 yards up the sideline untouched. Following a four-and-out by Orlando, Berry tacked on two more points after Washington caught a 25-yard throw in stride to make it 34-20 Pittsburgh early in the fourth quarter.
Drafts kept the Predators in the game with a QB sneak and two-point run with 6:38 left, but, facing third and long on the ensuing drive, Hines quieted the 13,002 partisans at the Amway Center with a 35-yard bomb to Washington, who calmly pulled it in right down the middle. Another stop from the defense, which unofficially registered four sacks, secured the final margin.
Two hours after the game, Mr. Soto capped the strange night by declaring on his Twitter feed the strike was over.
The Power now enjoy the first of their two bye weeks before entertaining the East Division rival Philadelphia Soul at CONSOL Energy Center Mar. 23 in their 2012 home opener.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)