A Power Failure In The Pocket
PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — I’m not a betting man, though I could certainly use the money. So what are the odds of the Pittsburgh Power finding a dependable quarterback before Spinal Tap finds a dependable drummer?
Not even a gutsy Jordan Jefferson, who toughed out a rib injury Saturday, could keep them from hitting Big Bottom with a 61-35 loss to the Jacksonville Sharks, their second consecutive home defeat and eighth in a row dating back to last season.
The most insulting blow, though certainly not the most injurious one, was an end-to-end pick-six by All-Arena defensive back Micheaux Robinson, whose Condition: Critical INT of novice backup Shane Austin thwarted a second-half rally by the Power, as time expired.
Jefferson bent over, motionless as informal handshakes ensued, and let his body language say it all. It didn’t just speak to his own evening, but also to the discouraging state of his team.
In fairness, the Power, who limped into their bye week before 5,342 at CONSOL Energy Center, have had the misfortune of opening their third season in the Arena Football League with two difficult matchups. Last weekend, an unproven offense was charged with the task of keeping pace with Utah’s Tommy Grady, possibly the best quarterback in the league, and this weekend, Bernard Morris, a hungry, motivated ex-teammate who led the Power to within one game of the playoffs on their maiden voyage before he was cut.
But the bottom line is, the dwindling and disgruntled masses haven’t had much worth cheering about since their team’s flavor-of-the-month arrival and postseason flirtation. The root of that problem lies under center.
“I think he needs to understand what he needs to do with the ball when his first and second options are no longer there. He needs to run to space. He’s still looking downfield,” head coach Derek Stingley said. “Most outdoor quarterbacks, when they come into this league, still feel they have that time. His natural instinct is to climb into the pocket. Other guys…leave the pocket from the back of the pocket. It’s what comes natural to a pocket passer. He’s just got to understand that, and he’s still our guy.”
In arena football, if you don’t have a healthy, steady, above-average quarterback, you don’t win, period. It’s the one incarnation of the sport in which substandard play at the position can’t really be masked at all. The Power, at quarterback, have been consistently–and historically–inconsistent.
Morris endured his own injury woes in 2011, a year that saw six different players take the job. His backups combined to complete just 57% of their attempts.
On Saturday he gave flashes of why he got the gig in the first place, connecting on 12 of his first 14 passes, finishing with 248 yards, four TD’s, and two more on the ground, and looking like a player who wanted it just a tad more.
Following Morris’ truncated tour of duty in Pittsburgh it looked as though the void would be filled effectively by former Spokane Shock quarterback and ArenaBowl XXIII MVP Kyle Rowley. A poorly handled labor dispute drove him out of town before he took a single regulation snap, and the Power never recovered.
Four different passers combined for a 60% completion percentage, and the Power finished 12th in the AFL in passing yardage per game, 14th overall in scoring average and passing efficiency, and dead last in turnover margin.
Not much has changed. The Power had more fight in them than in their opener, but something regrettable happened, and they came unraveled. The Austin interception, which led to a Morris second-effort TD run, was followed by a lollipop from Jefferson intended for an open P.J. Berry, but taken away all too easily by Terrance Smith at the Sharks’ goal line. Another short plunge by fullback Dusty Bear reestablished Jacksonville’s 20-point lead.
Part of the problem is protection. The Power ranked third from the bottom of the league in sacks allowed in 2012, and despite the return of All-Arena veteran and former Highlands star Beau Elliott at center, youngsters Jason Thomas and Daverin Geralds have gone through major growing pains, with new fullback/old Rochester standout Kirby Griffin struggling to pick up the slack. The team has already yielded 11 sacks, including seven to the Sharks.
“I thought Shane was moving the ball down the field, and that he got the reps he needed,” Stingley said. “But [Jefferson] is our star quarterback. I’m going to allow him to come back in to finish the game, because I knew he was capable of still making the throws, but they were still getting pressure on him.”
Still, there just isn’t any certainty at the position at all right now, leaving less certainty about the team’s future. In two losses they’ve amassed seven touchdown passes…which matches their seven turnovers.
“We have to give our quarterbacks more time to throw the ball when we’re open. It’s always something. Mike [Washington] might be wide open down the field, but Jordan doesn’t have time to get him the ball, or Jordan does have time to throw the ball, but we run the wrong route, or they run the right coverage, get a turnover, and then a touchdown,” said receiver/returner P.J. Berry in Jefferson’s defense. “It’s execution more than preparation.”
Their best hope is that the bye week begets a clean bill of health for Jefferson prior to a visit to Chicago two Sundays from now, as well as an improvement in his command and understanding of the indoor game. His on-field resume reads well, but until he rediscovers the magic that made him an SEC champion and BCS finalist at LSU, the Power will have about as much power as amps that don’t go up to eleven.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock for live commentary of select Pittsburgh Power games, and be sure to catch “NET10 Wireless Arena Football Saturday” all season long on the CBS Sports Network.)