For Cleveland, Real Expectations Follow Real Success
Tonight is real.
When Cleveland hosts Philadelphia in the first round of the 2014 Arena Football League postseason tonight, it will be real.
All season long, it felt unreal.
There was the start. How could a Gladiators team that lost 12 of its first 14 last year, that didn't win its third game until July, go into Memorial Day 2014 undefeated?
How could a backup quarterback, who couldn't even start for then-lowly Pittsburgh, turn around and finish third in the League with a 117.9 passer rating?
How could a pass defense that gave up 7.7 yards per play and the second highest passer efficiency rating (116.8) in the League last year go down a whole yard per play (6.6) and 24 points with a 92.7 rating, good for fourth in the League?
Most of all, how could a team that went 4-14 last season start 9-0 and finish 17-1?
We may never entirely know. But it's at the heart of what keeps sports sacred. That we never know what will happen next. That no expert can dictate the future.
And while this may have looked like a fluke in May or June, it has proven anything but.
Cleveland has won some legitimate games. It took two of three from a powerful Pittsburgh team; won in Spokane, one of the toughest road environments in the Arena Football League; and knocked Tampa Bay out of the postseason with two wins in the season's final five weeks.
Yes, the Gladiators didn't play Arizona or San Jose, but the sample size is large enough. This is one of the great stories of all-time.
And it is real.
Real enough that the ArenaBowl will be played in Cleveland - if the Gladiators can make it there.
Their path will not be easy, starting tonight.
A team that just lost its leading ballhawk in Marrio Norman must figure out a way to stop a veteran quarterback in Dan Raudabaugh (112.4 passer rating) and one of the most dangerous receivers in the game in Tiger Jones.
Shane Austin, who has locked in on Dominick Goodman at times this season, may have to diversify against one of the game's best defensive backs in Rayshaun Kizer.
And as always they'll have to contend with Derrick Ross, a running back who has challenged the Arena Football League's reputation as an exclusive quarterbacks' club. He has five touchdowns in two outings against Cleveland this season.
And a young Cleveland team will have to fend off an experienced Philadelphia squad that has been here before.
And the Gladiators will have to try to beat the Soul a third time - never an easy task. Especially when the first two required a pair of onside kicks and a buzzer-beating Hail Mary off the defender's hands.
But that's the beauty of it. This is real. Cleveland is real and playing real one-and-done postseason football.
This team is real and it is good. The Gladiators thrashed the Sharks in their penultimate game, outscoring them 27-0 in the second half. Goodman and Thyron Lewis each topped 100 receiving yards. The Gladiators' aggressive defense forced turnovers on the Sharks' first three drives of the second half.
Last weekend, facing an opponent with everything to play for, Austin and the Gladiators receivers couldn't - wouldn't - be stopped. They reached the end zone on their first five drives, all taking place in seven plays or less, three requiring four plays or less. They ran crossing routes all night long. They ran them perfectly. They were virtually never challenged.
This team has a powerful, well-balanced offense.
Of Austin's 15 picks this season, 10 came in a six-game mid-season stretch. He's thrown just five (one multi-pick game) in eight games since. That's against 54 touchdowns.
Goodman, Lewis and Collin Taylor trade off, but in each of Cleveland's last four games, at least one has gone off for three-plus touchdowns. Last time Cleveland played Philadelphia, all three receivers ended up with at least three scores.
And that's to go with two of the hardest hitting defensive backs in the game, a proficient defensive line and a clutch kicker.
So Cleveland is real, and like any real team, it has built real expectations.
Expectations that could be crushed tonight - just like a fairy tale September of baseball was crushed in just one Wild Card game last season for the neighboring Indians.
But that's what you play for.
For one night.