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Dragons Step It Up Against Force

Dwayne Smith
Monday March 14, 2005

On Saturday night, the New York Dragons took another step toward establishing themselves as championship contenders with an exciting 53-51 victory over the first place Georgia Force. This was a back and forth game that was marked by the continuing emergence of an Arena Football League star, a true Ironman performance and big plays from a defense that continues to out perform expectations.

With OS Kevin Swayne placed on injured reserve for the second time this season days before the game, New York would continue to be bitten by the injury bug as WR/DB Will Holder was hurt during warm-ups before the game. This and a later injury to WR/LB Chris Anthony forced the Dragons to dig deep into the roster, extending some players beyond the extent of their normal workload. At the top of the list was DS Corey Johnson, who essentially was called upon to play the entire game with very few breaks. Johnson explained, "I usually just play defense… unfortunately we had some guys go down and I had to play offense. The (coaching staff) made me comfortable and put me in a position to make plays."

The plays that Johnson made were a kickoff return, missed field goal return and reception for touchdowns, making him the Ironman of the game. Johnson is symbolic of a team that head coach Weylon Harding continues to be impressed with, "We fight, I’m blessed to have a team that believes to the bitter end, they fight to the bitter end, I couldn’t ask for anything more."

Part of what New York had to fight was an impressive performance by a very strong Force defensive line and their young star WR/LB Derek Lee. The Dragons crowd of 11,451 was introduced to Lee on Georgia’s first play of the game when he received a perfect pass from QB Matt Nagy for a 31-yard score. The play silenced a crowd that had just been on their feet for the Dragons opening score and quickly informed them that this would be a struggle all night. Lee would end the game with 6 TDs from his 11 receptions for 148 yards and at times appeared unstoppable for the very strong Dragons secondary.

The Dragons also needed to battle the Georgia defensive line, which kept the heat on New York QB Aaron Garcia to the tune of 3 sacks, a safety and a pressure which forced the only interception by the Force. Despite this, Garcia defended his line, "As good as their front was, our line played real well,"

Still, the Dragons were able to have a strong game offensively with Garcia throwing for 275 yards and 5 TDs, considering they had to call on players to step up due to injury.

One of those players continues to be OS Mike Horacek who filled in for Swayne without any drop-off. Horacek led the team with 8 receptions for 100 yards and 3 huge TDs and may prove to be the most important off-season acquisition for the Dragons. Horacek, like Swayne, is a playmaker of unquestioned ability and could be the go to guy for any Arena Football League team. His decision to come to New York and accept Swayne being the starter at OS while moving to WR/LB shows his desire to win. As a player who a few years ago was the Offensive Player of the Year, this parallels the decision made by New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, in giving up a position at which he was a Gold Glove winner, in order to win a championship.

The more you watch the New York Dragons play, the more you get the feeling that this could be the start of something special. At the same time, the team with a brand new coaching staff still appears to be a work in progress and still manages to lead their division at 5-1, while winning close games. The Dragons still commit too many penalties and have breakdowns in their secondary. To their credit, they also come up with big plays in the defensive backfield, as illustrated by three interceptions of a good QB by three different players.

The last interception by DS Billy Parker sealed the game for New York. This defensive play has not gone unnoticed by the offense. Garcia explained, "I’m having a blast right now. Even when I’m on the sideline, for the first time I’m watching the defense knowing that a big play could be coming."

Even with the stellar defensive play, the game would come down to kicker Rob Bironas, who himself was having a sub-par game up to that point with two blocked extra points and a couple of kickoffs out of bounds. Despite this, Coach Harding had complete faith in his kicker, who with 15 seconds left calmly booted a 32-yard field goal to give the Dragons a two-point victory.

New York’s defense, deep offense and Coach Harding’s inspired leadership are starting to get attention from many around the league that had the Dragons falling off from last season due to the upheaval of a head coach walking away. Now at 5-1 and defeating a great Georgia team, New York is established as a contender in a league that according to Coach Harding has, "a lot of parity this year… there’s no one dominant team, we want to be one of those in the mix."

Dwayne Smith covers Arena Football and the NFL for different web outlets along with providing a fantasy column to Dwayne has also been a contributor to other online and print outlets, including the Dallas Morning News. In 2003, he covered the NFL Draft from the Headquarters of the New York Jets.
The opinions expressed in the article above are only those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, or official stance of ArenaFan Online or its staff, or the Arena Football League, or any AFL or af2 teams.
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