Closing Out the Season
One the keys to their recent success has been Arizona’s ability to quickly build an early lead. Early in the season, the Rattlers often found themselves trailing, sometimes by two or more scores, which took them out of their game plan and put pressure on the team to make plays.
"Anytime you can get up on teams early, especially by two touchdowns or more, I think guys feel a little more relaxed," said Rattlers WR/DB Randy Gatewood. "They understand there’s a little room for error. It gives a certain amount of confidence, too. We’ve done that the last few weeks and any time we can do that it’s big for us, especially considering the way things have gone early on this year."
After winning five of their last seven games to regain at least some respect, the Rattlers now finish off the 2005 season in Las Vegas, the city that will host ArenaBowl XIX on June 12th. It is a game that could cost the Gladiators a chance at the playoffs should the Rattlers continue to take control of the game’s pace like they have done the last two weeks.
"I don’t know if we’re looking at it from the standpoint of if we beat them they’re out," said Gatewood. "We just want to go in and play well, and if we win the game and they’re out that’s just the name of the game."
As the Rattlers have shown the past few games, the first half the season did not show their true ability. Learning can sometimes be a slow process, as evidenced by the early season struggles. We all fear change to some degree, and the uncertainty of change makes it hard to accept, which can keep a team from realizing its full potential.
"I know early in the season there was some opposition to it because it’s learning something new when you’ve been doing something for so long," said Rattlers head coach Todd Shell. "I think that was a little bit of a distraction early."
That distraction cost the Rattlers a chance at the playoffs, especially in a season where an 8-8 team might just make the playoffs in the American Conference. Early losses put the Rattlers into a hole turned out to be too deep.
"We knew if we got to 8-8 that we’d have a real opportunity," said Shell. "I felt confident that 8-8 would get us in. As it turns out it would have, but right now we’re playing the spoiler role."
It’s not a role any team takes willingly, although the Rattlers have already left their mark on the playoffs these past two weeks, beating two teams that are in the thick of the American Conference playoff race. The Gladiators will be the third Rattlers opponent in three weeks that is looking to make the postseason dance, but that is only part of the motivation this week.
"We’re just going to play it as if it’s another game. We’re going to try to go out and execute, and play like we’ve played the last few weeks. I think we’ve found ourselves as a team the last few weeks. Overall, we’ve played great on offense and defense. We’ve put together a complete game the last two or three weeks. We’re going to try to just do that again and finish this thing on a high note. And then we’ll find out what our future is in the next few weeks; whether or not we’ll be around."
Beyond this game is that uncertainty of what lies ahead and it has hovered over this Rattlers team since the beginning of the season. While it may not have been a tremendous distraction for most, the thought of this franchise’s future continues to stick at the back everyone’s minds.
"The biggest thing right now is for us to win this football game and make sure this team is going to be here," said Shell. "Gene Nudo and I are working on it and I think we’re going to pull something together."
Despite the uncertainty, there does remain some optimism. As he was quoted in a recent article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Nudo has been working to help find the support that will keep this team around, even if it means a change to who is still involved when all is said and done.
Current owner Robert Sarver has remained tight-lipped about the future, which hasn’t given fans much confidence, but according to Nudo there are suitors out there, which is good news for the team and fans. Whatever happens, there are about five weeks until July 1st, when teams begin preparation for the next season, so change must come quickly.
"It’s got to happen within the next month or so," said Shell. "I would say by July just because operations are going to start for the next season."
In Las Vegas one of the things that makes life interesting for visiting opponents is the rounded corners in the end zone, which makes the already abbreviated end zones a little less friendly. Similar to the accommodations to the arena required in Orlando, the end zone configuration takes away certain playcalling options and acts as a ninth defender, particularly when the offense nears the goal line.
"It changes the play calling a little bit in the red zone, especially when you get inside the five- or ten-yard-line," said Gatewood. "If you don’t have those corners you can’t throw any fade routes. Slant routes are pretty difficult to get in because the defensive backs are usually closer. It does have an effect on certain play calling. It pretty much sets you up to run the football and that’s what a lot of teams are sitting there and waiting for. There are a few things you can do, but it’s tough. I prefer to have the wide-open end zones."
Patrick Daly has been an Arena Football League enthusiast since he first stumbled across the late-night ESPN broadcasts and has followed the Arizona Rattlers since their inaugural season in 1992. He graduated from Arizona State University with an engineering degree and is currently a member of a web development team for Direct Alliance in Tempe. Patrick currently resides in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, Arizona with his beautiful wife, son and a very large football helmet collection.