Greatness is Great, but Ineptness Could Be Damning for AFL
Week 17 in the 2013 Arena Football League season will probably forever be known as the week of whitewashes. The seven games featured a total margin of victory of 223 points, an average of 31.9 points per game, making it the most lopsided week in the 26-year history of the AFL.
Think that stat is alarming? Check some of these out.
The San Jose SaberCats picked up their biggest win in franchise history this week by beating the Pittsburgh Power 78-20. It was the biggest margin of victory in a nationally televised game in league history, and it was the biggest margin of victory for a road team ever. It wasn't quite the biggest margin of victory ever in league history (and heck, it wasn't even the biggest margin of victory in a SaberCats game… the Cats were beaten 82-21 by the Cleveland Gladiators in 2011), but it was the third biggest margin of victory ever.
There were four games decided by at least 30 points this week. There were four games in the entire 2002 season that were decided by at least 30 points.
For two consecutive weeks, the margins of victory for each and every game was at least 13 points, and never before have we seen anything like that in the history of this league with any sort of substantial number of teams.
The Spokane Shock, Arizona Rattlers, and the aforementioned SaberCats have outscored their foes by a total of 186 points over the course of the last two weeks. The Pittsburgh Power were outscored by 71 points in that same timeframe.
Tommy Grady notwithstanding, backup quarterbacks who came in during mop up time in Week 17 threw for 339 yards and passed the ball a whopping 40 times, or an average of six times per game. It doesn't seem like much, but that's essentially saying that around 10% of every game that was played this week meant absolutely nothing.
Heck, Mitch Mustain all by himself threw for 102 yards off of the San Jose bench. Chris Dierker played the whole game for the Cleveland Gladiators, and he only threw for 128 yards.
In sports in general, we love seeing dominating teams. We love it when college football features a National Championship Game with two undefeated teams. We all either loved or loved to hate the 16-0 New England Patriots. The 2001 Seattle Mariners who won 116 games were revered. No team in basketball was appreciated more than the 72-10 Chicago Bulls. The game of golf is better when Tiger Woods is dominating.
However, we also don't want to see completely inept teams. In the major sports, if you finish with one of the worst records in your league, you'll get a high draft pick for rookies the next season, allowing for some hope that your team can turn things around. That's what keeps fans of the 2-14 Kansas City Chiefs or the 20-62 Orlando Magic or the 15-27-6 Florida Panthers believing that they can be back in the playoffs sooner rather than later. Baseball doesn't have competitive balance because of the lack of a salary cap, but even the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have had two decades of losing seasons are finally getting their acts together and challenging for a playoff spot.
That's where the AFL has a real question that it has to answer. It's great to see the Rattlers going 14-2, and it's great to know that they broke the league record for the most double-digit wins in a single season in league history (h/t Richard Obert of the Arizona Republic). It's great to see both Nick Davila and Erik Meyer reach the 100+ touchdown plateau this season. The playoff game between the Rattlers and either the Shock or the SaberCats will be great, and the fact that we will inevitably likely get another Western Division showdown in the National Conference Championship Game will be outstanding as well.
However, we don't like to know that the 3-13 Gladiators and Pittsburgh Power were only just eliminated from the playoffs tonight. We don't like the fact that the 5-11 New Orleans VooDoo still control their own destiny. We don't like the fact that not just one, but two teams that are going to finish at or below .500 in the American Conference will be in the playoffs.
More importantly though, we don't like to see these blowouts. The AFL always has been such a better game when the games are close and the level of competition has been good.
From 2004-2008, when this league was supposedly at its strongest from a national exposure standpoint, there wasn't a season where the average margin of victory in a game was higher than 14.2 points per game. Those were also five of the six seasons in league history in which the average game featured at least 12,000 fans.
Here's the real kicker, though. Go back and look at the teams that have really stunk out loud in AFL history…
The 1991 Columbus Thunderbolts went 0-10 and lost four of those games by at least 32 points. The next year they moved to Cleveland.
The 1992 New Orleans Night went 0-10 and averaged getting beaten by 23.3 points per game. That was the only season they played in the AFL. That year, the 1992 San Antonio Force became the only team in AFL history to be shut out in a game. They lost a total of four games by at least 30 points, and yes, they were never heard from again after that season.
The 1994 Milwaukee Mustangs were winless and were outscored by over 18 points per game, but they were just an expansion team. That year, the Cleveland Thunderbolts went 2-10 and were beaten by at least 20 points four times, and they were done in the AFL after that.
In 1995, both the Miami Hooters and the Connecticut Coyotes went 1-11. The Coyotes lived to tell about one more season. The Hooters, who were beaten by Tampa Bay and Orlando alone by a total of 119 points in four games, had to move to West Palm Beach the next year.
The Memphis Pharaohs didn't win a single game in 1996. They didn't come back in 1997, and they were evicted and sent to Tupelo, Mississippi before playing their final home game. By the way, the Coyotes… They went 2-12 and were vanished from that point forward. The Texas Terror lost five games by at least 26 points that year. They played one more season and watched their attendance steadily decline from 9,005 fans per game to 4,276 fans per game before becoming what became known as the traveling Houston Thunderbears. '96 was the one season of the Minnesota Fighting Pike, too. They went 4-10, but they were beaten in six straight games by at least 25 points.
Three teams went 2-12 in the 1997 season. They all survived at least one more season, though. Why is that? The Portland Forest Dragons were an expansion team, and the Anaheim Piranhas and New York CityHawks were both outscored by less than 13 points per game on average. However, consistent losing saw the death of both teams in the near future.
The Grand Rapids Rampage were easily the worst team in the league in 1998, but they were only outscored by 11.4 points per game in spite of their 3-11 record. The Rampage might have been futile, but they also stayed relatively competitive in terms of margin of victory for the most part, and that's why they stuck around in the league for so long. Still, some of their seasons like the 1-15 campaign in which they were beaten by 18.1 points per game seems to be the exception to this rule. Then again, the rest of the AFL went 5-11 or better that year, and the league has near its height in popularity at that point as well.
Even the 1-13 Buffalo Destroyers of 1999 weren't a total embarrassment. They were only beaten by more than 30 points twice, once coming in their very first game and once coming against the best team in the league, the Tampa Bay Storm. There was no shame in either massive loss, and the fans continued to show up to support the team because they competed.
In fact, going forward from here, you'll notice that there aren't a lot of teams that we're going to talk about. Oh sure, there were plenty of teams that had bad records, but a lot of those teams showed some promise to their fans. The woeful 2-12 2001 New Jersey Gladiators were only beaten by more than three TDs once, and that was in their opening game of the season. The 1-13 Detroit Fury from 2002 had six games decided by a TD or less, and they survived that year.
But then of course, came the winless 2003 Carolina Cobras, who were crushed by at least 34 points four times in their 0-16 campaign. They played one more season, but the 2004 campaign was dismal in terms of effort and in terms of fan support.
The last example was the 2007 Las Vegas Gladiators. They went 2-14 and were outscored by 17.8 points per game. They were stomped by at least 17 points 10 times that year, and there was never the thought of playing another arena league game (save for the 2009 ArenaCup!) in Las Vegas.
Now, we move forward into the Jerry Kurz years. Look at some of the teams that disappeared…
2010 Bossier-Shreveport Battle Wings: 3-13, outscored by 14.4 points per game, beaten six times by at least 26 points
2011 Tulsa Talons: 8-10, but played seven games decided by at least 23 points, including playing four games decided by at least 36 points
2012 Kansas City Command: 3-15, outscored by 12.9 points per game, lost seven games by at least 20 points
In 2013, the margins of victory are starting to get frightening. The Cleveland Gladiators have already suffered six losses of 20+ points. The New Orleans VooDoo are at six losses of 19+ points, including now four losses by at least five touchdowns. The Utah Blaze have been beaten by at least 24 points in five games, including four times just since June 8th.
And now, look at the 2013 Pittsburgh Power. They're 3-13, they have been outscored by 17.6 points per game, and they have been beaten by margins of 29, 26, 28, 38, and 58… and those are only the home games. I know that Matt Shaner has already stated that this team will be back next season, but for how longer can Pittsburgh fans really continue to take this abuse?
And the truth of the matter is that the question begs to be asked how much longer the fans of the AFL can really take this abuse as well. The average margin of victory in all games this season is 17.3 points per game. There is only one season, 1992 in which the margin of victory was higher. That season, a quarter of the league either moved or folded upon the season's completion.
The point of this diatribe is that these blowouts are fun to look at every now and again when they are exemplifying excellence. However, in this country, our appreciation for excellence is only tolerant when we believe that the teams that are the best are continually beating up on more of the best. In the case of the AFL, it is clear that there are the haves (i.e., the top five teams in the National Conference + Philadelphia) and the have nots (pretty much everyone else), and the divide amongst them is just too large for the league to survive.
The games that involve the haves against each other are great, but the corresponding games between two have nots stinks. When the haves face off with the have nots, the results have been resounding. Arizona, Spokane, and San Jose are a combined 32-4 against American Conference teams, and the wins have come by an average of 22.7 points per game. Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New Orleans are a combined 2-18 against National Conference teams. The 18 losses are by an average of 24.0 points per game.
Theoretically, we are a league that is controlled with its salaries. There is absolutely no excuse for the imbalance of power that we are seeing year in and year out. Since 2010, the Sharks have won four division titles. That's great from a dynasty standpoint, but the Predators and the Storm have combined to have four of their worst five seasons in their franchise histories during that stretch.
San Jose, Spokane, and Arizona have combined to go 118-60 since 2010. It's great for them, but it's bad for Iowa, which hasn't posted a winning record since rejoining the league. New Orleans? No winning seasons since 2005 and just 16-36 since the relaunch. Cleveland? 28-40 with a forfeited game in the mix. Pittsburgh? 17-35, and one of those wins came via forfeit and one came via scabs being on the field for both sides.
For as much as I loved the good old Ironman football and the good old days from back in the 1990s, the only reason that my love for the game had a chance to be cultivated is because I happened to grow up in Orlando, and not in Hartford or Charlotte or Columbus or Cleveland or Cincinnati or Houston or any of the other places where the AFL simply didn't work. There is absolutely no excuse not to have some degree of a balance of power, and it is that balance of power that needs to be achieved if the AFL is going to survive.
ArenaFan's Tim Capper was a contributor to this story.