Quirky 2016 schedule sets Rattlers up for ArenaBowl run
Trust me. I've already done plenty of bellyaching about the 2016 playoff format the AFL put in place on Thursday. Theoretically, the AFL should be a more competitively balanced league this year. We've removed teams from both the top (San Jose) and the bottom of the league (Las Vegas, New Orleans and Spokane), and what should be left is a bunch of teams who should all finish between 4-12 and 12-4.
Except that's not what the schedule suggests will happen.
Sometimes, things are out of your control. The Cleveland Gladiators are screwed this year. They have the Republican National Convention in town during the summer, and as a result, they have to play their final six games on the road. Their last home game is June 3. If by chance they do make the playoffs and have a Top 4 seed, their next home game will be the weekend of August 5.
The same problem exists in Philadelphia, where it will play its last game at the Wells Fargo Center on May 21 before playing six of its last eight games on the road along with two home games at locations to be determined. The Soul are being booted out of their home due to the Democratic National Convention.
Furthermore, Jacksonville is starting off the year with a big problem. The Sharks have to play their Week 2 game in Philadelphia on Monday, April 11, then turn around and come home to play the Predators on Friday, April 15.
It's what goes on at the end of the regular season which really has caught my eye, though. Portland and LA have to play against each other on Monday, August 1 to end the regular season. The playoffs start the next week, and either one of those teams could have to get on a plane and fly across the country for a first round game, perhaps as early as Friday, August 5.
But what's worse is what's happening with Arizona.
The Rattlers don't need any help. They played in four straight ArenaBowls before last season, and with San Jose out of the way, on paper, there doesn't seem to be any competition for them in the West. Sure, the KISS have loaded up with a lot of talent which departed San Jose, and Portland has a new coach in Andy Olsen and a new quarterback in Shane Austin, but neither of these teams are competing with mighty Arizona.
Nor is a team which has to play its last six games on the road and just lost its quarterback.
So let's just pencil in the Rattlers for the regular season conference title over those three teams.
Now, the Rattlers who will surely be hosting a first round game in the playoffs, will get a bye week in Week 18 to rest up for the postseason. Their potential first round foe could plausibly be either Portland or LA. If that's how this pans out, Arizona will play its last regular season game on July 22 and have 14 days off in a row, while the team it might be playing against could have just three.
That's not all for the Rattlers. Not only do they not play in Week 18, but they only have one road game after June 3 this year, that being their shortest road trip of the season in Los Angeles.
If the Rattlers start off at 2-0, the Western Conference (or whatever they're going to call it) will be effectively decided. Arizona starts with road games at Portland and LA, and if those games are won, there's probably literally zero way that either team can come back and knock the Rattlers from their perch atop the conference, especially with Portland having to play two games in the desert in Week 5 and Week 11.
As a result, the Rattlers will get an unfair start because of the bye week in Week 18, and they'll get at least two home games against lesser teams who have had to grind for three weeks in a row leading into the postseason.
I understand that scheduling is tough in this league. So many of these teams are co-tenants in their arenas with NBA or NHL franchises, and getting dates is tough. That schedule was made tougher in Philadelphia and in Cleveland by the elections in 2016. However, to come up with such a competitively imbalanced schedule is irresponsible.
Last year, many were penciling in San Jose to the ArenaBowl in December due to the imbalances on the field. This year, it isn't necessarily imbalances in the talent on the teams which will make as much of a difference as the imbalance on the schedule.
No one wins a championship in any sport four and a half months before the season starts, but in this case, I'd be stunned if the Rattlers aren't at least playing in the ArenaBowl for the fifth time in the last six seasons after seeing the release of this schedule.