You couldn't ask for more than this Final Four
It's been a rough season for the Arena Football League. No one would argue that point.
Off the field, we endured the loss of the New Orleans VooDoo and the Las Vegas Outlaws, who were taken over by the league in July, only to ultimately cease operations the day after the regular season ended. We've had to deal with the black eye cast upon the league for taking a rightfully qualified Las Vegas team out of the playoffs five days before its first game, only to replace it with a 5-13 Portland Thunder team which didn't qualify for the postseason. It's anyone's guess as to whether the Spokane Shock have played their last game in the AFL as well. We had our second game canceled in league history. We had to endure watching the "haves" beat up the "have nots" time and time again; over 42 percent of the games played this year in the AFL were decided by at least three scores. Heck, even the first quarters of both of our nationally televised playoff games were booted off of the air, preempted by tennis on Friday and softball on Saturday.
So yes, it wasn't a good first 21 weeks of the year.
But these last two? If you discount the fact that one of these playoff games is going to be played in Stockton, and the very real chance that the ArenaBowl is going to be played at something like 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. ET on a Monday night in San Jose, what we're left with is the stuff that AFL dreams are made of.
Oh sure, it was incredibly predictable five months ago that the San Jose SaberCats, Arizona Rattlers, Philadelphia Soul and Jacksonville Sharks were going to be the last four teams standing in the playoffs with the only real variant possible being the Orlando Predators. But wasn't that the case back in the 1990s and 2000s as well?
The Tampa Bay Storm played in the semifinals seven out of eight seasons from 1991 through 1998. The Predators had eight semifinal appearances out of nine years from 1992 through 2000. Arizona? Nine consecutive semifinal showings from 1996 through 2004. And finally San Jose had eight semifinal appearances out of nine from 2000 through 2008. If you want to go back just a little bit, the Detroit Drive reached the ArenaBowl in all six years of their existence from 1998 through 1993. In fact, there has never been a final four in league history (since 1987) in which at least one of these teams wasn't in it. At least two of these teams played in the semifinals from 1991 through 2000. All four were represented in the semifinals in both 1993 and 2003.
Dominance has always been a part of AFL history. Of the 26 ArenaBowls played since ArenaBowl I when none of these teams I'm about to list existed, 19 have been won by some combination of Arizona (5), Tampa Bay (5), Detroit (4), San Jose (3) and Orlando (2). Of the 52 teams which have played in the ArenaBowl since ArenaBowl 26, 34 of them have either been named the Rattlers (9), Storm (8), Predators (7), Drive (6) or SaberCats (4). At least one of these five teams have played in all but two ArenaBowls since ArenaBowl I.
In fact, there is only one team in the history of the AFL (since ArenaBowl I) who won the ArenaBowl without having to beat at least one of these storied franchises, that being the 2001 Grand Rapids Rampage, who beat the Chicago Rush, Indiana Firebirds and Nashville Kats to capture the ArenaBowl.
So why are we bellyaching about having parity in our game? Sure, there are teams which have more resources than others in the game nowadays, and even the most naïve of fan would realize that not all standard player contracts are truly created equally in the way they play out. I'm not breaking any news when I say that. But it was never equitable back in the '90s or the '00s either. You don't think that Tim Marcum was bending the rules just a bit in Detroit and Tampa Bay? Or that the famed San Jose jet wasn't luring plays to the West Coast in the 2000s?
And even if they weren't bending the rules, just having Marcum coaching your team might as well have been a built-in unfair advantage for the Drive and the Storm. The man knew the ins and outs of the Arena Football League better than anyone else ever did or ever will. Plus, it shouldn't be a surprise that the teams in the football hotbed that is the Sunshine State had two successful teams back in the day when guys who played this game were more or less regional. It was easier to find football players in Orlando and Tampa Bay than in Indianapolis or Charlotte or Milwaukee.
Instead, we should appreciate this as fans. Sure, we had to endure four blowouts in the opening round of the playoffs to get to this point, but now that we're here, would you hazard to take a guess as to which combination of the four teams standing will win and lose the ArenaBowl? Certainly, you could make a gripe for any of the four teams left.
San Jose: The best team in AFL history if you just look at numbers. The SaberCats slaughtered teams by 22.2 points per game, and they allowed fewer points in 18 games than any team ever did in 16 games in league history. Plus, they have home field advantage, though that home field edge is going to be diluted just a bit this week for having to play in Stockton. Send in the clowns.
Philadelphia: It's tough to argue with a 15-3 team. You know how many teams have had a winning percentage of .833 or better in league history? Just 24. Seventeen of those 24 went on to at least play in the ArenaBowl. The Soul haven't lost a game at home in the playoffs in their history, and they clearly have the man who was the most effective quarterback in the league this year in Dan Raudabaugh.
Arizona: They're the champs until someone knocks them off. Nick Davila is 91-24 in his career as a starting quarterback (and 1-0 in relief), and he is 12-2 in the playoffs at the AFL level. The Rattlers have won 10 straight playoff games, and when they went on the road last year in what was supposed to be the challenge of all challenges at Cleveland, the only other team to go 17-1 in AFL history, they won 72-32.
Jacksonville: The "Dream Team." A team which has already has two wins against Philadelphia this year and one which gave San Jose arguably its best game of the season in the first three months of the campaign. Les Moss has been around this game longer than Kevin Guy or Darren Arbet, which is saying something, and he has been to more championship games at the AFL and af2 level than anyone else out there. P.S.: The Sharks are 10-3 since starting at 1-5.
The four best quarterbacks in the AFL? In no particular order, they're definitively Nick Davila, Erik Meyer, Dan Raudabaugh and Tommy Grady. They're also the four winningest active quarterbacks in the league by a country mile. The four best defenses this year? In order, San Jose, Philadelphia, Arizona and Jacksonville. The two best offenses? San Jose and Philadelphia. Arizona and Jacksonville slacked at fourth and fifth respectively.
And for good measure, the most wins by teams in the AFL v2.0 era? Arizona (1st), Jacksonville (2nd), San Jose (4th) and Philadelphia (5th). And by the way, San Jose and Philly didn't play in 2010, and those two teams still have more wins than Orlando and Tampa Bay and are only just off from Spokane, teams which played all of those seasons.
I can understand anyone who was bellyaching about the first 21 weeks of this year. It wasn't great football at times, and there were so many scratch-your-head moments about how the front office of the league was handled.
But this is our reward. There might only be three games left to the 2015 Arena Football League season, but these three games should be as good as it gets. Whether you're a fan of any of these four teams left standing in the battle for the Foster Trophy or not, you have to respect the actual product on the field. We're all fans of this game for games like this.
Greatness should be respected, embraced and enjoyed.