While all of our football seasons are getting ready to ramp up — high school, college and pro — another has played its season, crowned a champion and has put its pads away.
Who played over the summer in total anonymity?
The Arena Football League — football players enough to do it indoors during the summer — crowned the Washington Valor their ArenaBowl XXXI champions on Saturday over rival, and neighbor, Baltimore Brigade, 69-55.
They might as well call it the I-95 League now as the Valor, Brigade, Philadelphia Soul and Albany Empire were the only teams in the league this year. The Cleveland Gladiators sat out this year and will next year as renovations are made to the host Quicken Loans Arena. (Or, since they share the building with the Cavaliers, they didn’t want LeBron James getting any crazy ideas that now don’t matter).
You remember the AFL, right? It had one heck of a run around here decades ago, when the Orlando Predators were in the running for a handful of ArenaBowls. If they didn’t win it, they had an impact on who did. A couple times a year, they’d get together with the Tampa Bay Storm and the rival fans would spit ill-natured hate at each other to add spice to the original “War on I-4” as longtime Storm Coach Tim Marcum once called Predator fans, “The result of what happens when cousins marry.”
I bring up the AFL only because, on Saturday night, I was flipping through the channels and stumbled onto the ArenaBowl. On a cable channel between the Outdoor Channel and Big 10 Network. You should never “stumble” onto the championship game of anything. But that’s what’s happened to the Arena League.
About that championship game. Washington, your 2018 Arena Football League champions, came into the ArenaBowl with a stout record of — I swear on Kurt Warner’s arm — 3-11.
In the regular season, really a series of preseason games apparently, the Valor dropped 10 of their first 11 games before ending the season with a win over, fittingly, Baltimore. The lost by an average of two touchdowns per game, which is hard to do all year long in the ‘you score-but I score-but you score-but I score last and I win’ nature of arena football where games are generally decided by one score.
The playoff semifinals were two-game aggregate totals. Albany, led by the Predators’ final head coach, Rob Keefe, beat Washington in their three in-season games, and the first leg of the playoffs, 57-56. But the Valor, who in two seasons are 7-26, chose the right time to get inspired and won the second leg, then took advantage of Baltimore’s sloppy game in the ArenaBowl.
The whole league sounds sloppy, but it didn’t used to be that way, like in the AFL’s heyday of the ‘90s. The league had anywhere from 12 to 16 teams. There were the ‘haves’, like the Predators and Storm and Arizona Rattlers and Nashville Kats, and the ‘have nots’, like the Memphis Pharoahs and Minnesota Fighting Pike, who came and went into some Friday night, which was game night when it was great.
Why was it great? Because it pulled no punches on what it was — grassroots football, played by guys grateful for the chance to play for a couple hundred bucks a night. Most guys played both ways — it was in the rules, actually. And the only rules were on the field, as it was a free-for-all in the stands with the beer (careful on the steps), the babes (careful with their shirts) and — I’ll save the other details for the imagination. They played on Friday, maybe a couple Saturday nights when ESPN had nothing to show on a weekend.
Then money guys like Jon Bon Jovi, John Elway and Jerry Jones got involved. The season got longer, NBC started airing it on Sundays — and took it waaaay too seriously, with studio crews and postgame shows. Salaries went up as guys became coveted free agents, and no more Ironman football. Families flooded the stands, and who wants to get tipsy and have to mind yourself at 1 p.m. on Sunday?
Geez, you get one Kurt Warner, and suddenly your league is the “Cradle of Quarterbacks” and the “Realm of Receivers”.
The business model caved in on itself. When half the teams were ready to fold, the league shut down for 2009. A few guys who learned their lessons revived it a year later, teams like Orlando and Tampa Bay eventually came back, and things from the stands looked fun again.
But, there were hidden tumors. Games were made to fit into TV production windows of two-and-a-half to three hours, and dragged on in person. An 18-team league in 2011 shrank to eight in 2016, the final year for the Predators. History will show they lost their final game in overtime to the Jacksonville Sharks before folding weeks later “due to the reduced number of teams remaining in the Arena Football League as well as pending disagreements with the League.” The Sharks left to go to another hastily-formed league. The Storm folded up after the 2017 season and the AFL muddled along with five teams, then four this year.
And a 4-11 team led them all.
Now there’s the rival National Arena League, Champions Indoor Football and the Indoor Football League, which includes the long-running Arizona Rattlers and is rumored to be bringing teams to Lakeland and, depending on who you talk to, Kissimmee, so stay tuned the rest of this summer.
Ah, summertime football.
I think I’ll head out to a high school practice tomorrow morning. Won’t be any shade, though, or air conditioning.