Congrats goes out to the Arizona Rattlers for wrapping up an ArenaBowl three-peat on Saturday while simultaneously crushing the hearts of 18,404 rabid, title-hungry sports fans in Cleveland. In the first ArenaBowl I ever paid attention to (while at a laundromat in 2002, of all places) the Rattlers were badly beaten 52-14 by the rival San Jose SaberCats.
On Saturday, Arizona ravaged the Gladiators to the tune of 72-32 to claim their third ArenaBowl title in a row. It’s the fourth consecutive appearance in the ArenaBowl for the Rattlers since the AFL relaunched in 2010.
It’s partially why I’m pleading for someone (anyone!) to please save the Arena Football League.
Never mind the constant chatter alleging the abuse of the paltry salary structure by teams with kickbacks to players, or that an owner once told me he’d fix games so home teams won every time if he could. Forget about all of that, I’m just concerned with two particular tweaks that would help make the league feel a little more legit again.
It should be noted before moving on though that Arizona advanced to the ArenaBowl three-straight times from 2002-04, falling short in each outing. And that despite the “dynasty” talk being pushed upon viewers by the broadcast crew on ESPN, this version of the Rattlers would stand no chance against those teams from 10 years ago.
Arizona’s embarrassment of Cleveland is another example of why the league should go back to the days of seeding playoff teams by overall records, no matter conference affiliation. To give you an idea how lopsided the AFL has gotten, consider that the Rattlers became the first team to three-peat since the Detroit Drive did so from 1988-1990, when the league fluctuated between five and six teams total.
The issue of balance during the past five seasons is preventing the best teams from meeting in the ArenaBowl, never mind the weight of a perceived instability within the league after pulling teams out of 10 different cities since 2010 for various financial reasons.
This year the AFL fielded eight teams in the American Conference, made up primarily of teams from the east coast, but only six teams in the National Conference as made up of teams from the western part of the country.
The current setup allowed for each conference to qualify four teams for the postseason, even if you’re the 2014 version of the Portland Thunder that finished the regular season 5-13 overall. Or if you’re the Orlando Predators (7-11) and Tampa Bay Storm (7-11) of 2013 or New Orleans VooDoo (8-10) of 2012, each of whom were sub-.500 teams playing in a playoff game.
If altering the playoff format is too much to ask, at least even out the schedule to create regular season matchups between some of the top teams from the previous season. Assuming there can be someway to control the habitual turnover in rosters for most franchises.
Cleveland ran through the regular season with a 17-1 record while facing Eastern Division foes Pittsburgh (15-3), Philadelphia (9-9) and Iowa (6-12) three times each and South Division teams Tampa Bay (8-10) and New Orleans (3-15) twice. The Gladiators also played Jacksonville (7-11) from the South but were not scheduled to play Orlando (11-7). Of the six teams out west, they played Los Angeles (3-15) twice and one game each against Spokane (11-7), Portland (5-13) and San Antonio (3-15).
Arizona (15-3) was grouped in with Los Angeles (3-15) and Portland (3-15) in the West Division but only played each of them twice. Instead, the Rattlers faced Pacific Division teams San Jose (13-5), Spokane (11-7) and Portland (5-13) three times each. I can only imagine what the schedules must have looked like for other teams around the league.
Can we point to the result of the ArenaBowl and assume the schedule imbalance and layout of the league is to blame? Maybe, but it’s doubtful to hold up. I just don’t see the point in dividing teams into conferences when you’re unable to divide them evenly to begin with. No team ever in the history of sports deserves to play in a postseason game with a 5-13 record. Scrapping the conferences and evening out the schedule would help make the postseason a bit more intriguing, if not validate it.
It’s no secret to any fan that’s followed the arena game for more than five years that the current product of the AFL pales in comparison to the height of the league’s success in the mid-2000s.
But the AFL is banking new fans won’t realize there was ever a difference before the lost season of 2009 and what was birthed with its relaunch, and that their WWE approach will appeal just enough to those that aren’t all that concerned with the details.