The San Jose SaberCats win ArenaBowl XXI in New Orleans

As a self-described football junkie, I spent a good portion of my Sunday watching this year’s rendition of the ArenaBowl. It was great to see the minor league’s version of the “Super Bowl” where players get paid much less, but will still go over the middle and into a “wall” no less if needed to get a ball. I know some NFL snobs out there maybe saying “Why are we talking about an Arena Football Game?” The reasons include: NFL Camps are just starting with veterans finally arriving, the game was a huge step in the re-birth of New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina (17,056 tickets purchased, was the first ArenaBowl sellout at a neutral site), and the indoor version of football offers a family oriented high octane product. For NFL fans, the AFL provides an off-season football fix and as AFL Commissioner David Baker said “People don’t stop being NFL fans when the Super Bowl is over, they’re year-round fans.”

In the game, the SaberCats (16-3) became the most successful AFL franchise this decade capturing their third Arena League championship in six years. The 55-33 victory over the Columbus Destroyers capped a 3½-month winning streak and solidified San Jose Head Coach Darren Arbet as one of the greatest coaches in AFL history. Arbet and the SaberCats are 3-0 all-time in ArenaBowls having knocked off Arizona the other two times before Sunday (52-14 in 2002 and 69-62 in 2004). Since his arrival in San Jose, Arbet has a 13-8 career playoff record.

The star and the MVP of the game was former UC-Davis quarterback Mark Grieb, who completed 24 of 29 passes for 218 yards and with four touchdowns. Conversely Columbus quarterback Matt Nagy was only 24 of 43 for 203 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions. Nagy and the National Conference Champion Columbus Destroyers (10-10) were trying to complete an improbable run going from the lowest playoff seed to champion after wining three consecutive road games against the 3 highest seeds to get to the final.

San Jose took the lead for good in the second quarter when Trestin George returned a kickoff 56 yards for a touchdown to break a 14-14 tie. Then, on a fourth-and-1 play, Grieb found George Williams with a shovel pass, giving the SaberCats a 27-14 halftime advantage. The San Jose defense continued their staunch ways (second in the AFL in points allowed) keeping the Destroyers out of the end zone for nearly 11 minutes to end the first half, which was a feat considering Columbus averaged 50.1 points a game this season and 63 points in the playoffs. Nagy keyed several drives hitting Cole Magner with a 3-yard touchdown pass to pull the Destroyers within 27-21 with 8:09 remaining in the third quarter and a 4-yard scoring pass from Grieb to Ben Nelson gave the SaberCats a 34-21 lead. But Damien Groce caught a 39-yard touchdown pass from Nagy to pull Columbus within 34-27 as the third quarter ended. A 1-yard run by Phil Glover five minutes into the fourth quarter put San Jose up 41-27 and pretty much ending the game. To end the scoring for the SabreCats Grieb found James Roe for a second time with 5:57 left, hitting him for a 20-yard touchdown to make it 48-27.

Lloyd’s AFL Leftovers

  • The AFL may not have the panache of the NFL, but they know the “working man” is their biggest customer and the ArenaBowl was sold out with attendance at 15,147 people. Tickets to ArenaBowl XXI were priced accordingly ($16.00 dollars to as high as $175.00 dollars) for their fans, who make the league what it is. The high of $175.00 dollars is a far cry from the thousands of dollars people pay each year to be at the “corporate” Super Bowl.
  • The two previous ArenaBowls were held in Las Vegas, but liked that the game was held in an arena in an area that needed it. Before that, the team with the better record hosted the game and there were nine straight sellouts. The 2005 game drew 10,822 and the 2006 ArenaBowl had a crowd of 13,476.
  • The telecast of the ArenaBowl XXI was part of a five-year multimedia deal with ESPN, signed in December of 2006. ESPN owns 10% of the 19-team AFL, making it the league’s largest owner. At the end of the deal, ESPN can sell its share back to the AFL or to another investor. They had a 29-game agreement for 2007 including 14 Monday night telecasts on ESPN2, giving the network Monday night football programming nearly 60% of the year.
  • To give the game an NFL feel ESPN and ABC rolled out their Monday Night Football “B” team of Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic. The two have been very popular on ESPN Morning radio and they have done a decent job learning and talking about the AFL this season.
  • The AFL may not have huge names on the field but they do have some star power when it comes to owners. Big time NFL and entertainment people involved in the AFL include: John Elway (Denver Crush), John Bon Jovi and Ron Jaworski (Philadelphia Soul), Joey Galloway (Columbus Destroyers), Mike Ditka (Chicago Rush), Tom Benson (New Orleans VooDoo), Tim McGraw (Nashville Kats), Deion Sanders (Austin Wranglers), Jerry Jones (Dallas Desperados), and others.
  • For the 2007 season, the AFL had an average attendance of around 12,300, and the league’s telecasts on ESPN averaged a 0.3 national rating. Those are respectable numbers compared with the 2006 attendance of established, but following off leagues NHL (16,907) and NBA (17,704). With the AFL’s success and exposure they are looking to add a 20th franchise in time for the 2008 season, with the prime contenders for a new team being Washington, D.C., and South Florida.
  • With NFL Europa shutting down there has been talk of the AFL becoming an “official” NFL minor league.   According to Pro Football Talk, an indoor football source told them that former Broncos quarterback John Elway plans to push for the Arena Football League to become the new NFL developmental league. To get there, the word is that Elway, co-owner and CEO of the Colorado Crush, first plans to target AFL Commissioner David Baker for removal, due to the fact that plenty of the teams are consistently losing money.
  • Though the AFL boasts many former NFL players, some current NFL players have an AFL pedigree including: BPR #70 Guest Detroit Lions WR Mike Furrey, Chicago Bears Wide receiver Rashied Davis (four years in the AFL), New Patriots “ironman” WR/DB Troy Brown, Arizona Cardinal QB Kurt Warner, and others. Warner was a record setting quarterback with the AFL’s Iowa Barnstormers, before he gained NFL notoriety for winning two MVP awards and a Super Bowl MVP award while leading the St. Louis Rams to a victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. Warner credits the AFL for allowing him to make quick reads due to the fast pace of their game.
  • I have been told that the AFL now has a display in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, which I will verify this weekend as I head up to the enshrinement ceremonies.
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