By Matt Popchock

PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — For the Pittsburgh Power (2-5), meeting the Tampa Bay Storm (5-3) at CONSOL Energy Center for a 7:00 kickoff tonight will be like looking in a mirror. Literally, in fact.

Well, okay, maybe not the same sort of mirror that might immediately spring to mind. More like one of those funhouse mirrors, actually.

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You know, the kind you step in front of that mars your own image so far beyond recognition it’s laughable?

Sound familiar?

Once upon a time, the Storm were Pittsburgh’s property. The Pittsburgh Gladiators, one of the Arena Football League’s seminal (experimental) franchises, competed here from 1987 through 1990, and although they didn’t win any titles during that time, they were an instant success, on the field and in the Civic Arena stands.

That’s where we step inside the funhouse.

Co-owner Bob Greis took advantage of his business liaisons in the Sunshine State to turn the Gladiators into the Storm, allegedly leaving Pittsburgh, at least in part, over dissatisfaction with the state of the Igloo.

Sound familiar?

The Storm then got over the hump, eventually capturing an unprecedented five ArenaBowl championships. They made the playoffs for the first two decades of the original league’s existence.

Longtime head coach Tim Marcum, who won three of those and was inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame in 1998 before handing the reins to Dave Ewart in 2011, will forever be remembered as one of the most successful coaches in the sport’s history.

Sound familiar?

CONSOL Energy Center, which opened while that franchise–not to mention the league itself–was being rebuilt, has its fair share of mirrors. But it has been anything but a fun house.

The Power enter Week 9, the virtual midpoint of their third fledgling season, having gone over a full calendar year between home-field victories. It took the greatest comeback in AFL history–or, depending on the color of your sunglasses, the most horrifying choke–to pull off the last one, a 57-54 overtime decision over the Orlando Predators Apr. 14, 2012.

Even despite the growing, glaring incompetence throughout the league, I couldn’t have dreamed that if I tried, and as I look in the funhouse mirror, it turns my oblong stomach just to think it, much less give it utterance.

Remember that first year, when the Power, like the erstwhile Gladiators (not to be confused with the relatively new ones from Cleveland), were the flavor of the month? Remember when we packed the relatively new building and led ourselves to believe a second-tier sport could actually thrive in Pittsburgh for a change?

They played in overtime that first night, too, if you’ll recall, stumbling against the Philadelphia Soul before a league-record crowd and national TV audience.

So who’s that guy on the other side of the mirror?

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Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Lynn Swann joined the Elways, the Ditkas, and the Jaws’–er, Jawses–er–eh, screw it, Jaworskis–of the world by bringing the Power into the AFL with the help of local hotel moguls Matt and Lance Shaner. Their tenure, by and large, has been an abject failure, as anyone who has been privy to and/or cracked jokes about dwindling crowds can attest.

The key to winning over those crowds, and winning back the dwindling number of die-hards, admittedly, is not easily done. But it is easily stated. Put a successful product on the field, and show a commitment to sustaining that success. Greis and company did that, and when they didn’t, they found others who were willing to and knew how to. The Swann-Shaner group, to date, has not, and this, as much as any other reason, is why the Power and the Storm, though forged from the same Steel City iron, have so little in common anymore.

Under their watch, the Power have an alarming history of backing the wrong horse. Those first few months of somewhat respectable play, perhaps with a pinch of beginner’s luck, don’t delete that fact. Labor disputes in which grown men–on both sides–behave like children, coaches who burn bridges and drive away popular players, subordinates who are chosen, evidently, because of status, replacements with good intentions but no recent history of excellence, and talent that displays a glorious absence of…well, talent.

In order to save face in this town, the leadership of this franchise had better hope the merry-go-round of quarterbacks located adjacent to the funhouse stops at Steve Sheffield, and that his play last Saturday night signals a new direction for the Power. While CONSOL Energy Center’s other tenants were rallying in Game 6 in the Nassau Coliseum, the Texas Tech standout, who enjoyed cups of coffee with the AFL’s Spokane Shock and San Antonio Talons, was rallying in Week 8 at the Wells Fargo Center.

Sheffield completed 19 of 35 attempts for 272 yards and six TD’s in a 53-48 upset of the East Division rival Soul. It was exactly what the Power needed to keep their postseason hopes on life support following missed opportunity after missed opportunity by Sheffield’s overwhelmed predecessor, Jordan Jefferson, against the Talons and Predators. But was it just an erratic blip on the EKG of a dying patient?

Tonight the Power face one of the most dynamic players in the league, Storm quarterback and 2004 AFL Rookie of the Year Adrian McPherson. McPherson, who has made plenty of big plays for the AFL’s third-highest-scoring offense, is just a few more away from becoming the league’s fifth–or, at worst, sixth–2,000-yard passer in the 2013 season. While passing for 34 scores against only three picks, the fleet-footed FSU product has led the league with 268 rush yards and 23 rushing touchdowns.

I have the utmost respect for the gameday peons of the Pittsburgh Power, and all they have done to help make my labor-of-love coverage look remotely professional. It’s way past time for those who create their jobs to show this city that same professionalism.

It’s time for that Power defense, led by Chris LeFlore and Sergio Gilliam, to once again live up to that number one overall ranking, and hold an opponent below the league scoring average for what would be the fifth time in the last six games.

It’s time for that Power offense, led by Sheffield and Mike Washington, who ranks among the AFL’s top five with 66 receptions, to do some more damage in No. 66’s barn.

It’s time for that Power special teams to be as special as we thought they would be when All-Arena selection P.J. Berry joined the club over a year ago.

It’s time for that Power management team to be proactive and visionary if they don’t.

It’s time for the Power to be able to sell something besides vague euphemisms and cheap hot dogs. Like, for example, playoff tickets. They only need to finish ahead of three teams in the American Conference to make that happen.

It’s time for the Power to live up to that marketing slogan–oh, you know the one I’m thinking of–right now.

Otherwise, it’s time for the Power, from CEO to towel boy, to take a long, thoughtful look in the mirror.

Any mirror they can find.

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(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock for live commentary during select Pittsburgh Power games.)