2015 Season Preview: Cleveland Gladiators
2014 in review
2014 read like a fairy tale for the Cleveland Gladiators. A previously moribund franchise went on the run of a lifetime, finishing 17-1 and hosting the ArenaBowl in front of a near-sellout crowd. A backup quarterback turned in the third-best quarterback efficiency and eighth-most rushing yards in the Arena Football League. The 13th-best scoring defense transformed into the third-best. All of which begs the question: Is a repeat possible?
The Gladiators did a pretty good job protecting QB Shane Austin last year, and there’s no reason to think they can’t do it again, especially with 6-foot-8, 320-pound behemoth Daniel Baldridge fresh out of the National Football League – albeit the Jacksonville Jaguars. Baldridge will join regulars CJ Cobb, Kitt O’Brien and Chad Schofield in providing consistency and security. Austin will also benefit from Amarri Jackson, who had 110 catches and 1,341 receiving yards for the Tampa Bay Storm last year, and Andrae Thurman, who posted consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns in 2012 and 2013.
The Gladiators picked up a number of veterans on defense. It’s hard not to like the addition of Columbus native Mike Alston, who spent time in the Buckeye State with the Toledo Rockets and the Cleveland Browns. Alston had 9.5 sacks last year for the New Orleans VooDoo. Less clear is what they’ll get out of a 36-year-old hometown boy in Tim Cheatwood. The last two seasons the Cleveland-bred, Ohio State product spent with the Gladiators, he had a total of 19.5 sacks. Since then, he has been an assistant coach and has been out of the league. Also unclear is 31-year-old, former All-Arena defensive back Fred Shaw, who had a tremendous 2013 for the San Antonio Talons before spending much of 2014 on the bench.
The Gladiators suffered a huge loss in Thyron Lewis, who developed the type of chemistry you simply can’t teach with Austin on deep routes. Their timing was impeccable, á la Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, and as good as Jackson and Thurman are, it’s hard to imagine anyone replacing Lewis’ production. On the bright side, the East lost the Pittsburgh Power, eliminating what was shaping up to be a deadly threat.
The 2015 season will be a success if...
... The Gladiators win the East for the second straight year. Another division title would show that Cleveland’s magical 2014 wasn’t a fluke. It would also set the stage for the Gladiators emerging as a consistent contender – the type of team that free agents want to sign with. Cleveland is close to becoming an elite destination, especially when you consider Ohio is the home state of so many elite football players.
The Gladiators’ 2015 MVP will be...
Ron James. A very good defense last year might have gotten even better with the addition of James. He did a fine job in Pittsburgh last year, leading the Power to a 15-2 record, 36 interceptions and just 43.2 points allowed per game. Imagine what he’ll do with Dominic Jones.
In 2015, the Gladiators will win...
13 games, benefitting from a highly charitable schedule. They should begin 6-2 or 7-1, losing to Arizona (and perhaps Philadelphia on the road). Just take a look at last year’s ArenaBowl, and you’ll see why I’m betting on the Rattlers. Otherwise, their schedule is filled with New Orleans, Orlando and Tampa Bay – not exactly the cream of the Arena Football League crop though the Predators’ Randy Hippeard/Bernard Morris-Greg Carr combination does intrigue. The question is really Philadelphia, whose all-star linebacker duo of Beau Bell and Joe Goosby might be Cleveland’s greatest obstacle to another ArenaBowl appearance. Without Rayshaun Kizer (who tormented Cleveland in last year’s playoffs) and Derrick Ross, I think Cleveland takes the American Conference again, only to fall to Kizer-led Arizona in a neat little case of déjà vu.