Predators Overcome Adversity, Get Into Playoffs
There was only one team in the AFL that utilized more than 50 active players over the course of the season. There was only one team that brought in at least one new player that had never been on the roster before in every single week of the year. And after logging a dominating 71-42 victory against the New Orleans VooDoo in Week 19, the Orlando Predators are the only team that clinched a playoff berth in Week 19.
If you look up the word "adversity" in the dictionary, you're going to find a picture of the 2013 Orlando Predators. Not only did they go through a whopping 54 players this season, including having three totally new players on their roster for the last game of the season, but they went through changes at just about every position on the field. The only man that played in all 18 games this season for the Preds was Mark Lewis, the team's kicker.
But alas, you've got to play the games on your schedule. No one cared that regular starters and key contributors like Jermaine Smith, Jason Geathers, and Devin Clark were all out of the fold. No one cared that Dominic Jones played the game with a cast on his hand. No one cared that Prechae Rodriguez got hurt in the first quarter and missed the rest of the first half. No one cared that Julius Wilson came out of the locker room after the game on crutches. The season had to go on. And the game had to be won.
And it was a great time to come up with the best game of the season.
"No question this was the best game of the season from start to finish," said Preds Head Coach Doug Plank. "We understood the consequences of this game. If we lost, we were going to go home."
The attitude on the field was significantly different than the average game you'd see in the AFL nowadays. I spoke all week of the fact that this game was personal, and it absolutely lived up to the billing. As the Predators took the field for pre-game warm-ups, there was already jawing going on. There was a small dustup between James Bryant and a few of the Orlando players, and some minor shoves were thrown.
After the first two drives of the game were complete though, it was clear which team was going to be the aggressor all night long. Chris Dixon, returning to Orlando for the first time since being cut by the team, fumbled on the opening possession of the night for the VooDoo, and on the ensuing drive, Aaron Garcia threw a touchdown for the Preds, and Garcia was seen clearly barking at Dixon after the score.
Unfortunately for the VooDoo, they had a lot of bark at the start of the night, but it was Orlando which brought the bite.
The VooDoo only possessed the football for 8:27 over the course of the first 31:20 of the game, and they ended up converting just six of their 11 completed drives into touchdowns. Orlando scored a TD on its first four possessions, and it ended up scoring on all but one drive, a late INT by Garcia after the game was out of reach.
Dixon simply wasn't good enough on this day to lead his team to victory. The 31-year old rookie went 17-of-34 for 200 yards with just three TDs and an interception, and he rushed for 31 yards and a score as well.
Meanwhile, everything was working for the Predators, and there was very little in the way of resistance from the New Orleans defense. Even with Rodriguez sitting out basically the entire second quarter, and even without Geathers in the fold, Garcia was on point all night long. He went 34-of-43 for 375 yards with eight TDs and just one INT.
Garcia wrapped up this year with 5,162 yards, marking the first time in his illustrious Hall of Fame career in which he threw for more than 5,000 yards. Garcia led the league in passing, and he posted the seventh best season in AFL history in terms of total yardage, and he did so in just a total of 17 games played. The vet also posted 108 touchdown passes, third best in the AFL.
As a side note, Garcia continued to build on his already illustrious career numbers. He surpassed the 60,000-yard mark in his career, which leaves him over 12,000 yards higher than the nearest competitor. The next closest active quarterback? Nick Davila, who only just made it to 20,000 career passing yards last night. In spite of the fact that he broke the record this year for the most interceptions in a single season, Garcia also surpassed the 1,300 touchdown mark in the last game of the season as well.
The men who stepped up in the receiving corps were Maurice Williams and TT Toliver. Williams was one of the many substitutes who stepped in and played a huge role at times this season, and he picked a great time to have the best game of his AFL career. Williams had 15 catches for 165 yards and four TDs, all of which were team records. Toliver had five catches, 69 yards and two scores, which now gives him 909 catches (7th most in AFL history), 11,916 yards (5th most in AFL history), and 227 receiving touchdowns (9th most in AFL history).
In spite of all of the turnover and the six different quarterbacks the team had on the roster this year, the Predators broke a franchise record for most points scored in a season. The team scored 965 points this year, breaking the record set in 2011 of 933 points.
"Every week, our coaches, our players, and our football operations staff changed," said Coach Plank. "It's a testament to the players that were on this team and the ones that were brought in."
But now, it's off to the playoffs once again, and the defending American Conference champions, the Philadelphia Soul are waiting in the wings in the City of Brotherly Love.
Even if they do happen to go on to win the ArenaBowl, the 2013 Orlando Predators probably aren't going to be remembered as the best team in franchise history. At 7-11, this is the worst record that the team has ever had going into the playoffs. However, the grit, the tenacity, and the stick-to-it attitude that the team has had all season long, regardless of the outcomes, have Orlando believing that perhaps it can hold the party of all parties in just three weeks with the ArenaBowl played right here at the Amway Center.
With a huge grin on his face, Coach Plank knows that the work isn't done, but he knows that his team is in it with a fight, and that's all that could be asked for. "No one lost the belief that we could be a great team and finish in the playoffs, and I think this is the culmination of all that frustration."