2015 Season Preview: San Jose SaberCats
Following three seasons of adequate regular season play (38-16), but less-than-stellar postseason play (1-3), the San Jose SaberCats are looking to finally break the spell and get over that last hump to the franchise's fourth ArenaBowl championship. Frustration has ensued these past three postseasons as their historical rival, the Arizona Rattlers have knocked them out of the playoffs three years in a row on their way to three consecutive ArenaBowl titles. While the pattern may seem inevitable to repeat for a fourth time, there are plenty of reasons for fans to be anxious for this season and to have hope that the playoff curse may finally be broken come August of 2015.
2014 in review
Following two wild-card berths and two one-and-done postseason appearances in 2012 and 2013, the 2014 campaign proved to be San Jose's most successful one since the 2011 reboot, achieving a ninth division title and a decisive 55-28 playoff victory over the Spokane Shock. Of course, many struggles were had along the way, as a 2-0 start eventually led to a seemingly insurmountable 2-3 record, but the ensuing 10-1 run after division rival Spokane's injury plague proved to be more than enough to clinch the Pacific Division title. In the midst of it all, San Jose was constantly flip-flopping between quarterbacks Russ Michna and Nathan Stanley due to both injuries and momentum. In the end, however, neither quarterback was capable of bringing the SaberCats to the ArenaBowl, as a 72-56 meltdown to the eventual champion Rattlers put another frustrating end into the record books.
Without a doubt, the most significant move made by the SaberCats this past offseason was the acquisition of quarterback Erik Meyer from Spokane. While there is certainly some debate as to whether or not San Jose really wants to once again change their starter, there is one unique aspect of Meyer that neither Michna nor Stanley have to offer: mobility. Meyer's mobility to extend plays and reach the end zone on the ground is so significant that he eventually earned the honor of AFL MVP in 2013. If Meyer can easily adapt into the SaberCats' offensive system, a process that Michna and Stanley had little trouble with, San Jose may have found its new starting quarterback. This move not only helps San Jose at the quarterback position, but it also weakens that of division rival Spokane, making a championship significantly easier to reach in multiple ways.
In addition, the SaberCats were fortunate to obtain 2013 First-Team All-Arena defensive back Virgil Gray from the Pittsburgh Power, who managed 11 interceptions, two touchdowns, 23 broken passes, and 297 interception return yards in 2014 despite only starting 11 games. These statistics made him last season's league leader in interceptions per game, pass break ups per game, and total interception return yards. The SaberCats' secondary was already deadly with Clevan Thomas, David Hyland, Simeon Castille, and Ken Fontenette, but now with the addition of Gray, a tough decision will certainly have to be made in terms of starting positions.
The third primary addition for the SaberCats was 2014 Second-Team All-Arena wide receiver Darius Reynolds from the Iowa Barnstormers. Head coach Darren Arbet described Reynolds as a receiver with "elite" potential, and it is difficult to argue with that statement. In 2014 alone, Reynolds had 126 receptions for 1,885 yards and 39 touchdowns, plus eight touchdowns on the ground. Such achievements placed him high on many single-season statistics lists, including total receptions (4th), receiving yards (2nd), points scored (4th), all-purpose yards per game (8th), and many more. Of these lists, wide receiver Reggie Gray was the only SaberCats player to appear on any of these lists (7th in all-purpose yards per game), showing the strength and starting potential that was added to San Jose's receiving corps as a result of this transaction.
Other notable additions include defensive back Eric Crocker (led the Portland Thunder with ten interceptions), wide receiver Adron Tenell (2013 First-Team All-Arena and Wide Receiver of the Year from the Shock), defensive lineman Thomas Keiser (NFL experience), and returning offensive coach Terry Malley (played a key role in all three of the SaberCats' ArenaBowl titles).
There are two significant drops that may be costly, but they are certainly replaceable given San Jose's additions this past offseason. The first drastic loss is that of defensive lineman Joe Sykes to the Jacksonville Sharks, who received First-Team All-Arena honors twice (2012 and 2013) as well as the AFL Defensive Player of the Year recognition (2012). Sykes was certainly critical for the SaberCats in both 2012 and 2014, but this past season, he only played seven games, so it isn't too bold to say that his lack of presence won't completely destroy San Jose's defensive line.
The other notable loss is wide receiver Dominique Curry to the Philadelphia Soul. With 28 receiving touchdowns and five rushing touchdowns in 15 games, Curry played a crucial role in dragging the SaberCats out of their sluggish 2-3 start. While he will certainly be missed, the addition of multiple receivers, including Reynolds, makes this transaction much easier to cope with.
The 2015 season will be a success if…
They can beat the Arizona Rattlers in the desert. This may be extremely obvious and go without saying, but whether it's in the regular season to avoid a road playoff game, or in the postseason itself, the SaberCats need to find a way to defeat the three-time ArenaBowl champions in their house, not just at home. These past few seasons have proven that, no matter how successful you are in the first 18 games of each season, a championship can't be reached unless you successfully beat the best teams in the most hostile environments. So far, the Rattlers are the only team to give San Jose trouble in the postseason these past few years, albeit on an extremely consistent basis. They are the final hump to a fourth ring, and if the SaberCats can beat Arizona on the road, then it's safe to say that they can beat any team in any stadium.
San Jose's 2015 MVP will be…
Meyer. We do know one thing: the SaberCats need to change their formula if they want to have a deep playoff run, for once. Attempting the same original formula over and over again and expecting different results won't get you any further in this league, and San Jose is successful and experienced as a franchise to know that. Meyer's unique mobility might be the ultimate way to change that formula and finally give the rest of the league, including the defending champions, a run for its money.
In 2015, the San Jose SaberCats will win…
14 games in the regular season. Winning 12 or 13 games these past three seasons, it is not too unfathomable, especially with the stacked and loaded roster that they currently have, to think that the SaberCats can reach 14 wins this upcoming season. While it certainly won't be easy, especially with two tough matchups against Arizona and strong matchups against critical contenders such as the Jacksonville Sharks and Cleveland Gladiators, this appears to be the year where the SaberCats are able to make that final push given the current status of their roster and coaching staff. Of course, it's a tad early to predict an ArenaBowl title, but honestly, that wouldn't be too shocking in and of itself.