Arizona needs to shore up special teams
It's tough to be too critical when you have won the last three ArenaBowl championships, but most will agree the weakest part of the Arizona Rattlers' game in their run to a dynasty has been special teams -- the kicking game and kickoff/missed field goal coverage.
This season it has been especially difficult to watch.
The combination of missed kicks and lackluster coverage has already cost Arizona one game, a shocking loss to the expansion Las Vegas Outlaws. There seems to be a revolving door at the kicker position, and the Rattlers need to get a handle on these nagging issues before it costs them another game and possibly home field advantage in the playoffs.
When Craig Ratanamorn decided to retire after a solid 2014 season, it was back to square one searching for a kicker. A total of 14 kickers tried out in training camp, and based on what we have seen so far, video of those tryouts will not be going viral anytime soon.
Jeremy Shelley, a rookie from Alabama, won the job. But from the very start, fans' confidence was shaken when Shelley could not consistently get his kickoffs to reach the rebound nets. After Shelley missed two very makeable field goals at Las Vegas, each returned for touchdowns to spark the Outlaws to victory and Vince Neil to another round of drinks, confidence was completely gone.
The snaps were not perfect, but as a professional, those are kicks that should be made. And when the football sailed wide, Arizona twice suffered major breakdowns trying to take down Outlaws' return man Gerald Young. It didn't help that the Rattlers were also missing their two best receivers that game -- it was the perfect storm for a massive upset.
I said publicly I thought the young kicker's Rattlers career was done. To me and many other fans' surprise, there was Shelley on the sidelines at Quicken Loans Arena for a Week 3 matchup against the Cleveland Gladiators. Much respect to Rattlers Head Coach/General Manager Kevin Guy for having faith in the young player.
Given a reprieve, Shelley did nothing to help his cause. Shelley never hit the net on kickoffs all night then missed a critical short field goal that would have iced the game in the last minute. Fortunately, Jeremy Kellem snagged a game-clinching interception as Cleveland was driving down the field.
Enough was enough. Shelley, exit stage left. The merry go round continues.
Enter Fabrizio Scaccia, who kicked for Arizona in 2010 and 2011. Waived earlier this season by the Jacksonville Sharks after struggling mightily, the Rattlers brought him back for the Week 4 game against the Portland Thunder.
But a pulled muscle sidelined the veteran kicker. Arizona was forced to call Alex Zendejas on the day of the game for emergency duty. Zendejas quickly found the 9-foot wide goalposts to be quite the challenge -- he missed four extra points and had two kickoffs sail wide of the massive rebound nets. Zendejas' AFL career lasted about three hours.
The Rattlers haven't always had these problems.
Remember Garrett Lindholm? He earned First Team All-Arena and Kicker of the Year honors after setting AFL records with 158 PAT conversions and 167 PAT attempts with the Rattlers in 2013. Unfortunately, he left the desert in 2014 to play closer to home for the now-defunct San Antonio Talons.
Now he's kicking in front of no one for the hapless New Orleans VooDoo. Is there any way the Rattlers can bring him back as part of the "future considerations" in the Rayshaun Kizer deal?
The Rattlers have seemingly found their way, having won a pair of games after that surprising loss in Sin City. But given the importance of the kicker, this special teams situation needs to be stabilized quickly.
One point, especially in the playoffs, can make all the difference.