It's just not the same
It took 25 seasons, but this is the first time in AFL history that the league's two most storied franchises are not in the playoffs in the same season.
For the league's first 24 years either the Tampa Bay Storm, which has roots back to the AFL's beginnings as the Pittsburgh Gladiators, or Orlando Predators have been in the postseason in the same year. That streak ended this season with Orlando finishing 4-14 and Tampa Bay going 7-9.
The league's greatest rivalry has produced some of the greatest players and games in the history of the sport. Combined the two have seven ArenaBowl champions and 16 total ArenaBowl appearances. The Pittsburgh/Tampa Bay franchise (23-16) and Orlando (23-14) have played in more playoff games than any other teams in the history of the league.
This great rivalry began in 1991 when the Gladiators moved to the Sunshine State to become the Storm and Orlando was an expansion team. Fittingly, the first War on I-4 was the first game in Storm and Predators history. Orlando won that night, but it was Tampa Bay that hoisted the ArenaBowl trophy at the end of the season. That was the first of four titles in six seasons for Tampa Bay spanning three different head coaches. The Storm added a record fifth title in 2003, while Orlando won ArenaBowls in 1998 and 2000 with former Storm QB Jay Gruden as its head coach.
Despite making it to the ArenaBowl in 2010, the Storm has missed the playoffs four out of the last six years after making it to the postseason from 1987-2005. This includes the last two seasons under Dave Ewart in which the Storm suffered its first back-to-back losing seasons. The Storm's 7-2 home record this season was tied with Philadelphia for the best in the American Conference, but its 1-8 record away from the Tampa Bay Times Forum was second worst only to Orlando's 0-9.
After the opening-season win in 1991, Orlando finished 2-7 and missed the playoffs that year. The next season, the Predators began a run of 19 straight years making the postseason. This season, Orlando posted its first losing season since 1991. Many factors contributed to the Predators woes. Most notably was the Week One debacle involving the AFLPU and the firing of offensive coordinator Rob Keefe (now the defensive coordinator for the Utah Blaze) just four games into the season.
This year's Predators were absolutely horrible in the second half being outscored in the final 30 minutes in all but five games. Against San Antonio, Orlando led 34-27 at halftime only to be shutout in the second half losing 47-34. At Pittsburgh, the Preds were up by 31 with seven minutes to go in the third quarter only to lose in overtime. It is the biggest deficit overcome to win in league history. All told, Orlando lost three games in which it had at least a 20-point lead.
These powerhouse teams have been synonymous with Arena Football. The War on I-4 is more a battle of twins than just a sibling rivalry. In 50 overall contests, each team has won 21 in the regular season and four in the playoffs (including winning titles against each other). Of the 4,473 total points scored, the Storm holds just a nine-point advantage (2,241-2,232). The Storm/Gladiators franchise made it to the post season 19 straight seasons, and then the Predators went 19 consecutive years in the playoffs. Tampa Bay began a tailspin after the 19 straight and has failed to make it to the second season in four of the past six seasons. Will Orlando follow suit?
Watching the AFL playoffs that begin Friday night, it'll be something completely new not having the league's greatest rivalry. Luckily, the sport's second best rivalry, Arizona-San Jose, is the centerpiece of the opening round of the 2012 playoffs. Every year since 1993, either the Rattlers or SaberCats have been in the playoffs. This will be the sixth time that the two have played each other in the postseason. San Jose is 1-4 in those games, which includes wins in two ArenaBowls.
It's not the War on I-4, but what is?
Andy Lopusnak is an 11-year AFL front office veteran, spending time with the Tampa Bay Storm, San Diego Riptide and Grand Rapids Rampage. He works as a statistician for NFL and college sports for CBS Sports and is a freelance photographer. Lopusnak received two Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of South Florida and has been a fan of ArenaBall since its inception.