Despite Playoff Fall, Empire Inaugural Season a Success
Albany exceeds expectations in re-entry into Arena Football
Back in April, I wasn’t sure what to expect on opening night of Albany’s comeback into the Arena Football League. With only four teams participating in the league this season and a smattering of players that was only together for four weeks, there was a lot of uncertainty on how the Capital District would respond.
The response was exceptionally positive: a crowd of 13,648 showed up to support the new team. Though the team would stumble out of the gate and start 0-2, the fans continued to show up. The team responded in kind by delivering some memorable performances. Let’s recap some of those moments, shall we?
The Firsts: QB Tommy Grady threw the first touchdown pass in team history on opening night with a toss to WR Greg Carr, who would later be instrumental on special teams later in the season… DL Joe Sykes landed the first sack in team history when he sacked Baltimore QB Randy Hippeard in Week 3. Sykes would later go on to overtake Melvin Fernandez to become the all-time sacks leader in Week 11… DB Marrio Norman not only became the first Empire member to record an interception, but also bring it back for a touchdown in Week 4 against Washington. It became a turning point in Albany’s first win as a franchise… WR Joe Hills’ didn’t join the team until Week 3 against Baltimore, but his first game as a member of the Empire was arguably one of his best performances of the season. Hills caught 11 passes for 108 yards and four touchdowns. (And his league-record TD reception streak continues at 93.)
The Breakout Seasons: Two players had monstrously noticeable breakout seasons. On offense, rookie WR Malachi Jones had one of most successful rookie seasons in league history. Check out these stats: 77 receptions, 1,156 yards, 29 touchdowns to go with five rushing touchdowns for a total of 34. Jones won all-Arena honors as well as Rookie of the Year and Wide Receiver of the Year. On defense, LB Terence Moore had himself a season to remember. The seventh year LB reunited with head coach Rob Keefe to finish with 68.5 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and a career-high six interceptions, one that was returned for a touchdown. Moore also contributed to 10 of the Empire’s league-leading 25 turnovers, a whopping ratio of 40%. Anything short of Defensive Player of the Year honors would be disappointing.
The Big Wins: The Empire’s first win wouldn’t come until May 5 in a home win against Washington. But that was the week that the Empire started to come together as a team, as they would win seven of their next ten games to finish in first place… They would take over first place in Week 8 with a win against Baltimore. DE Brandon Sesay’s strip sack of Hippeard and Darryl Cato-Bishop’s recovery in the end zone made the difference in the Empire’s big win… Three weeks later, they would avenge their loss to Baltimore and deliver the Brigade’s first home loss in the Brigade’s home finale. The Empire defense came up with two big turnovers to contribute to the win… The Empire’s biggest win of the season would be their home finale against Philadelphia. The Empire would repel an inspired comeback by the Soul as Terence Moore’s interception in the closing seconds sealed the regular season championship for Albany.
The most endearing part of the Empire’s season was their organizational outreach. From serving Easter dinner at the local mission to football mini-camps to restaurant appearances, the Empire made sure that they were going to connect with the community. Even before the team had colors, a name, and a uniform scheme, the open house in December provided fans with the chance to meet members of the ownership group, the front office, and Coach Keefe. He expressed his model for the team being intense, aggressive, and fun and the Empire delivered in spades. Throughout the season, players embraced the community and the community embraced them. Nobody knew who they were until opening night, but by late July, names like Tommy Grady, Malachi Jones, Joe Hills, Joe Sykes, and Terence Moore were household names to football fans in the Capital District.
Although they were unable to bring an ArenaBowl championship to Albany, the Empire did create a blueprint for success that future franchises are sure to follow.
Ryan McCarthy has been an on-and-off Internet columnist and blogger since 1997. He has been an avid follower of Arena Football since 1990 when the Albany Firebirds were established. Ryan currently attends Regent University, where he is pursuing his Bachelors degree in Communications with a Journalism concentration. He anticipates graduating toward the end of 2019. You can follow Ryan on Twitter at @rwhoisryanmcc