Thunder Hope to Hit Rattlers and Roll Over Champs
First of all, let’s give credit where it is due. Two weeks ago the Arizona Rattlers took advantage of a large number of Portland Thunder miscues to right their ever so slightly floundering ship with a 65-55 win.
Rattlers' Hall of Fame QB Nick Davila, despite another fierce showing by the aggressive Thunder defense, did what he does best and managed a 10-point win. However, once again, the new Portland team left it all on the field, employing its now trademark "hit ‘em all and let god sort ‘em out style," and it nearly worked.
Let's skip forward a week where, to my joyous surprise, I missed my guess when I stated that there would be no shortage of laundry being thrown around last Saturday when the Thunder faced the Spokane Shock. In front of a record 12,848 rowdy Thunder (and Shock) fans, and in a game in which veteran Kyle Rowley gave the keys to rookie Darron Thomas for the entirety of the evening, the Thunder looked almost disciplined on defense. If -- and I do mean if -- Portland can manage to cut down on some of the free yardage and automatic first downs this coming Sunday in Arizona, then boys and girls, there could be real trouble in River City.
The Thunder, just finishing their inaugural season, have shown time and time again that they prefer the aggressive and highly physical side of the tactical coin. The last two meetings between what should be master and pupil have not quite gone according to plan with the upstart Thunder knocking the champs around a bit before finally succumbing to their own youthful miscues. In fact the new squad’s penchant for "talk loudly and deliver a big stick” has set an AFL record for most penalties in a single campaign. The Thunder finished game 18 with a total of 208 penalties for 1,344 yards.
After the first Arizona win in Portland (a whippin’ to be sure), I had to ask Rod Windsor about Portland's new defense. His response was that the Thunder hit hard but, “We just do what we do.”
…Then he limped gingerly to the bus.
In contrast and during the last meeting in Arizona, a few things stood out. First, Portland held a significant edge in time of possession over the Rattlers, keeping the rock for 10+ minutes longer than the champs. Second, Rowley out-threw Davila by 65 yards and only an unfortunate miscommunication with a young receiver may have cost the Thunder a chance at a huge upset. Third, the Thunder posted high numbers with a group of three receivers coming in at 152, 104, and 76 yards respectively. This kind of production while spreading the ball around is tough to cover and is a possibly indicative of three areas of concern Arizona may be facing.
The first problem for the four-time ArenaBowl champions has been previously outlined. Rowley spread the ball around to three young, large and athletic receivers, who just two weeks ago were able beat coverage in Arizona to the tune of a combined 332 yards and 55 points.
The second problem is what that 55 points and the diverse receiving numbers really mean when looked at critically. Rowley is a long time AFL veteran and an examination of his passing stats as they relate to primary receivers versus choosing a second and third check down would be very interesting. Without even that data however we can conclude one painful reality for the Rattlers: If his primary guy was covered, Rowley had the time to find someone else... too much time if you wear Rattlers colors.
With the Rattlers coming in at second to last in total defense and the Portland offense moving up to a final regular season posting of sixth in total offense, there needs to be more pressure on Rowley if Arizona wants to put Portland away for a fourth time this season.
"You can't pay attention to their record. They've upgraded their personnel all season long. We're gonna be in a fight in the first round because there are no gimmes in this league," said Coach Kevin Guy in a recent piece by ArenaFan's own Matt Loeschman. He is right.
The third and final conundrum the facing Guy could very bad news for many future opponents and the Rattlers on Sunday in particular. The Thomas-led Oregon Ducks-style package, under construction most of the season, now seems complete. With the addition of its passing component being field tested in dramatic and successful fashion versus… wait for it… Arizona, the Rattlers seemed to have no answer. Thomas accounted for two Thunder touchdowns and a pair of two point conversions in 55 seconds using speed and agility to avoid heavy pressure and throw on the run to Douglas McNeil III all four times. It was indeed vintage Thomas, and it caused the ESPN broadcast team to comment on the young QB’s athleticism and arm strength as well as his highly improved grasp of life on an AFL field.
Thomas is young and green, green, green at the AFL game, but last week against the Shock the former Duck led the team to six touchdowns, four in the air and two with his feet. He had eight dropped balls, or his fair to middling stat line would have been quite good. Forcing Arizona to game plan against a new and potent weapon is as valuable both in the time it takes Coach Guy to prepare, taking time from other things, and in its on-field production.
Then there is Rowley. Rowley, the first starting quarterback to ever win the ArenaBowl and the ArenaCup, is the constant, the known quantity. However, to an Arizona team who failed to fully solve his Thunder offense in early July, Rowley just may be the biggest threat to the Rattlers championship aspirations. Under the direction of Coach Sauk, Rowley’s offensive coordinator during the Spokane title run of 2010, Rowley has given the Thunder what they lacked when he was not a part of the team or was injured, a veteran presence on the offensive side of the ball. The young squad has responded to the ArenaBowl MVP’s leadership, and though limiting turnovers is a huge must and has been a problem, the Thunder ability to put points on the board is no longer a question.
Offensive improvement aside, this team has made its bones on a recognizable brand of defense and though it has been torched at times it has come back swinging time and again. It seems heedless of the score, reckless in its desire to punish opponents and with the same message every single time, “Hulk smash."
So, lets take a deep breath and relax a moment here. To count the champs out, before having the courtesy to actually play the game, would be ignorant and dangerous for the Thunder. The Rattlers have been pretty lucky in both player loyalty and injury avoidance as well as having two of the better receivers in the league. Then there is this dude named Davila, my vote for this year's MVP. Davila truly continues to, “Do what he does,” as his teammate noted. The gunslinger again this season has kept himself and his receivers in the top ten in statistical categories, and if he is not routinely pressed, knocked down and generally harassed by the Thunder defense then its goodnight Irene. He has brought his team to three straight ArenaBowls; that is no coincidence.
However there is a growing threat in the West and it is not just this writer who sees it looming.
Arizona Republic writer Richard Obert says, “Portland has gotten closer to beating the Rattlers in each meeting. The first round is always tough. But the Rattlers will come in very angry after losing 3 of their final 4 games."
Obert is spot on, but the Thunder have shown an amazing amount of disinterest in being impressed with any of the leagues big names or marquee teams.
In fact, at last meeting, and following what seems to be a pre-game motivational routine defensive end Donte Paige-Moss sauntered toward midfield during the shared warm-up period and had some apparently unappreciated thoughts for an Arizona player or two. Donte has had pre kickoff “philosophical discussions” with the Rattlers, SaberCats and Barnstormers to name a few, and as such no one can claim the mercurial defensive line man picks on the little guy. In fact, it seems the bigger dogs that draw his disdain most often.
Hard hitting football players seem to be a Sauk trademark and it at times this defense operates on that very frenetic edge of success or self-destruction that gave rock and roll hall of famers Guns and Roses its taut, ferocious and visceral appeal. Win or die, succeed or crash and burn, all or nothing. This, for the uninitiated, is the only way to play the game of football and it seems to have become a blue and grey theme.
In the final analysis the Portland Thunder are a prohibitive underdog and all the logical money is on the Rattlers. That’s fair, I suppose. Arizona has earned the respect; they are, after all, one of the great teams in the sport.
Continues Obert, “The Rattlers will come in very angry… This is a close group that has built a strong brotherhood, especially with the death of QB Nick Davila’s father, during the season. The Rattlers motto is ‘championship or bust’ and they won’t be looking past anybody.”
I imagine if I were forced to put up my home as collateral in a wager, I’d do what everyone else would. However, the market is still terrible, so who wants my mortgage anyhow?
You all think I'm nuts. In fact I believe one editor who's name may or may not rhyme with Madam Barkowitz referred to my condition as, "Bat guano (edited) crazy." OK fair enough, but I know this team. I know football and I look into Bryce Peila's eyes on accident every now and again... brrrr!
Strap up champs, despite the whole AFL world knowing you Rattlers will easily handle, Sauk, Peila, Paige-Moss, Rowley and Thomas and the rest of the young 'uns from the north west...I think the Portland Thunder are gonna come down to the dry heat and, just for fun, play that ol' game anyhow.
I’ll take the Thunder by 10.
Dave White is a freelance writer covering the Portland Thunder of the Arena Football League. He played Quarterback most of his 25 years in the game in various semipro leagues and hung up the cleats in 2012 at age 45. He "moonlights" as a Surgical Technologist in a large Oregon hospital and has preformed hundreds of procedures on athletes ranging from Pop Warner to the NBA. Dave spent 11 years in LA in the rock and roll business and in recent years has decided to take writing, a life long hobby, to the next level. While currently producing two works of fiction he will produce the column you will see here and is looking forward to it greatly. Dave is a die hard Central High School, Western Oregon Wolves, Beavers, Ducks and proud new Portland Thunder fan. He lives in Monmouth Oregon with his fiancée and their combined five kids...yep five.