PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — Wide receiver Mike Washington still fondly remembers the first season for the Pittsburgh Power in the Arena Football League, even though it didn’t end the way they wanted. Maybe that’s because much has happened in the two years since he’d just as soon forget.
The Power will still be on at CONSOL Energy Center next spring and summer, as Tribune-Review beat reporter Jerry DiPaola told The Fan this week:
But the fledgling franchise, which went 400 days between home-field victories in front of normally tepid crowds, has been powerless to stop a downturn that began after missing the 2011 playoffs by just one game.
The franchise has added veteran talent since fielding a largely home-grown roster for its maiden AFL voyage. But perhaps no team in the league has done less with more than the Power, punctuated by one of the most lopsided losses in league history, a 78-20 bloodbath drawn by the San Jose SaberCats last weekend.
With only road games against the playoff-bound Tampa Bay Storm and Spokane Shock remaining in another lost (3-13) season, a few things have become clear.
Number one, ownership has no immediate plans to blow things up and rebuild from scratch.
Number two, there is nothing tangible to suggest not blowing things up has worked for the franchise, or will work in the future.
Number three, if and when the management team led superficially by ex-Steeler and fledgling politician Lynn Swann comes to its senses, it should rebuild the team around Mike Washington, and players in his mold. He’s as quintessential a face-of-the-franchise player as they will ever have.
The only redeeming quality of the home finale was the play of Washington. He accounted for all three Pittsburgh scores, including an acrobatic grab in the third quarter that earned him Cutter’s Catch Of The Week honors, to reach the 30-touchdown plateau for the third time in as many seasons. He ended his night with 57 yards on five catches, and, in all honesty, should have had more.
Washington, the Power’s all-time leading receiver in all relevant categories, enters Saturday with 1,400 yards on the season. With 121 total receptions and 32 going for TD’s, the 26-year-old Aliquippa product ranks in the AFL’s top ten in both columns and is on pace for his best season statistically.
“I talked to their defensive coordinator after the game. He said their goal was, whenever Mike was in motion, to zone up against him, and not give him any real man-to-man looks,” Power head coach Derek Stingley said Saturday. “They knew he was our biggest threat.”
At just 5’8″ and 175 pounds, you’d think he was the least threatening player on the field. “Joystick,” as he later came to be known, toggled his way around opposing secondaries and led Aliquippa to a PIAA championship as a junior before helping Hawaii earn the WAC title with a perfect record in 2007. But his size shied away NFL scouts.
Despite this, he epitomizes the expression about the size of the dog in the fight not being germane to the size of the fight in the dog. Even as the Power have seen alumni try their luck with the NFL, including defensive back Royce Adams, and, most recently, receiver Kenny Stafford, Washington still works for his shot.
“My bar is to keep climbing. I’m never satisfied. It would probably eat me up for the rest of my life if that chance never happens,” he said. “But I’m here, and you’ve always got to work for something higher, even if it’s just a matter of understanding this league better.”
“There’s been a lot of changes on this team [in the last three years], and he’s been a pro about it, and about the offenses we’ve put in, whether it was [former head coach] Chris Siegfried calling the plays, myself, [former offensive coordinator] Mike Tomczak, or [new offensive coordinator] Jon Lyles,” Stingley said. “He has an approach that it doesn’t matter, because he understands his job. I love him to death. I love what he brings to the team.”
“I’m not trying to bash anyone, but a lot of guys treat it like it’s not the sole thing they do in their life. There’s things they do, and they play football. But Mike’s in the weight room every day, getting treatment every day. He’s there an hour and a half after practice every day,” quarterback Steve Sheffield added after that lone home win over the division rival Cleveland Gladiators May 25. “It’s not like he’s been in the league 10, 15 years, but you’d never know that.”
Sheffield is but one entrant into the revolving door of quarterbacks with whom the Power, again at the bottom of the league in offense, have struggled. Family matters have kept him from returning, so, this past weekend, it was Shane Austin taking his lumps, and AFL refugee Derek Cassidy coming back for more.
“This is a quarterback’s league. If you have a good starting quarterback, you’ve got a chance,” Washington said.
The Power haven’t had one since health issues derailed the 2011 season of Bernard Morris, who has since aided the Jacksonville Sharks in capturing consecutive divisional titles, followed by a universally botched labor dispute that almost cost Washington his own job, and sent ArenaBowl XXIII MVP and free agent Kyle Rowley packing before a single game.
Even Washington, perhaps the most even-tempered man in that locker room, has been beaten down, on some level, by the offensive woes, looking visibly upset after a couple misfires from Austin against San Jose. It makes his 2013 totals all the more impressive.
“This game is simple. You’ve got teams in this league that don’t even watch game film in practice, and go on ten-game winning streaks. It’s that simple of a game, and somehow, we make it very, very difficult. It shouldn’t be. It starts to get frustrating when you go home and let it marinate–not so much that you lost, but how you lost,” Washington said. “As a veteran, I’ve got to put that aside, and prepare for next week.”
Preparation, as other Pittsburgh Power personnel have corroborated, might be the sharpest implement in Washington’s tool box. Prior to the 2013 season he changed to a less carnivorous diet and made significant changes to his personal fitness routine.
“I’m still in college rah-rah mode where I try to lift as many weights as I can,” Washington chuckled Mar. 9 at a public practice in Southpointe that also served as final roster cut day, “but I’ve been training more in plyometrics–basketball-type training. I’ve been doing different things. Hiking, cycling, things like that. I feel like I’ve gotten quicker.”
There’s a difference between the next-door neighbor who can afford to buy a speedboat he’ll undoubtedly show off in his driveway, and the one that can afford to own it. Swann and brothers Matt and Lance Shaner have established themselves as the former.
In order to keep both the landlord and the moving van from pulling up to their driveway, they need to align themselves with a management team that knows the sport.
They need to hire a coaching staff that has proven, on paper, it can supplement that knowledge.
They need to create an atmosphere in which office politics are better contained, and impact players (read: ticket sellers) like Lonnell Dewalt, P.J. “Superman” Berry, and, yes, Rowley, won’t be driven away.
They need to find talent that continues to show a commitment to winning, even at a time when having another successful, sustainable second-tier sport in Pittsburgh–as opposed to the butt of jokes about national restaurant chains–seems like a pipe dream.
In other words, Stingley, who, like his superiors, has pushed most of the wrong buttons during his tenure here, this time pushed the right one after that final, deflating home loss.
“I wish I had more Mike Washingtons out there.”
(Contact me at email@example.com, and/or follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)