Not Gladiators Night, Lose ArenaBowl 72-32
CLEVELAND - Let the disappointment sink in. Cleveland's golden night was anything but. A sellout crowd? Not quite. The free shirts cleverly masked empty seats, but make no mistake about it, the place wasn't full. A no-fly zone? Not even close. No big hits. In its place, plenty of broken coverages. A backup quarterback turned ArenaBowl winner? Shane Austin forced throws he never had.
All season long, Cleveland advanced as a team. It's a tired cliche, but in the Gladiators' case, it was especially true. They didn't have the best anything in the League. Just a solid everything. night, all of that fell apart. They fell as a team. Fell hard. By 40 points as a matter of fact. Everyone was bad. Make no mistake about it.
The Cleveland Gladiators embarrassed themselves on the big stage of ArenaBowl XXVII.
Shane Austin threw jump balls all night. He overthrew one or two end zone tries. He underthrew a few more for interceptions.
On Cleveland's first drive, as the Gladiators muddled through the red zone, Austin forced a throw right to Arizona's Kerry Reed. He later tried hitting wide receiver Thyron Lewis over the middle. Lewis was never open. There was no gleam, no tease, no reason to throw that ball. He did, for a pick. He later underthrew a jump ball to Collin Taylor, allowing for an easy interception. Roaming left in the second half, he fired another right into Reed's hands.
Austin completed less than 43.9 percent of his passes and threw four interceptions.
He proved he can be a starting quarterback in the Arena Football League this season. But his few bad games were truly awful - the kind that literally prevent a team from winning. That leave a team without a chance.
He wasn't helped by his wideouts.
A trio of receivers in Lewis, Dominick Goodman and Collin Taylor that were well-balanced and physical all year flopped.
They were never the most explosive group, but they generally were solid. They caught the ball.
Down 7-0 early, the Gladiators were in the red zone, with a quick chance to even the score. Austin's first throw was wild. Then, Taylor couldn't grab a quick out along the left sideline. The ball was right in his hands. He couldn't handle the bobble. On third down, Taylor was open in the end zone. The ball slid right out of his outstretched fingertips. That drop proved deadly, as a sure touchdown for a tie score turned into a desperate fourth down pick-six.
The receivers were miserable throughout. Lewis dropped at least two balls in the middle of the field. They didn't create much space. They didn't block well, taking the screen game out of the equation.
After the way they were bottled up against Philadelphia and Arizona, one wonders if they need one more truly fast, explosive wideout. A Tiger Jones type to balance the physicality of Dominick Goodman and open up holes in the slot for the bigger wideouts.
As a result, Cleveland never could find a leg to stand on. Every time Austin finally seemed to get on a roll, there was a bad drop. Or Austin would force one.
Meanwhile, the offensive line caved in. Already down 21-6, on their own goal line, they let Arizona break through and shove Austin into the back wall for a safety.
That part was disappointing, but not stunning. The offense struggled similarly in Pittsburgh and against Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs.
What was stunning was a suddenly toothless defense.
The defensive line couldn't get to Nick Davila. He surveyed the field. He had plenty of time. On Arizona's seventh touchdown of the game, Davila rolled left casually. No one was even able to get near him, as he calmly spotted Reed sprinting along the back wall.
The Gladiators defensive backs couldn't keep track of the Rattlers receivers. Of Arizona's six first-half touchdowns, one came on a diving catch, The rest were startlingly open. It started early, on the game's first score, when Arizona ran two wide receivers left. Cleveland inexplicably lost one of them, Rod Windsor, as he crossed the field.
It proved to be a game-long pattern.
Such as when Joe Phinisee lost Tysson Poots on a simple slant. Poots caught the ball easily for a 30-6 advantage. Arizona capped the first half with Windsor standing uncovered on the goal line. Multiple receivers were open. They threw it to Windsor. He caught it with no one within five yards of him. How was last year's ArenaBowl MVP left open? It's hard to say.
Not poetic enough for you. The final play of the half? Austin tripped over his own two feet.
The second half was no better. Cleveland tallied a few "garbage-time" scores, but make no mistake about it, it was a team-wide failure.
So where does that leave you, the fans? Be disappointed, not discouraged. Yes Nation took you a long way. All the way to an ArenaBowl. 2014 American Conference champions. No one can take that away from Cleveland. But what we learned tonight is the Gladiators are a long, long way away from an ArenaBowl title.
Arizona is the best team in Arena Football. Cleveland isn't even close.