For openers, Tampa Bay's Tim Marcum and Arizona's Danny White are Arena Football League Hall of Fame coaches and are the two winningest coaches in the league's history. That's a great matchup for ArenaBowl XVII.
Marcum says everyone is running pretty much the same plays, but he also says White has been one of the most innovative coaches in the league and he actually has copied some of the plays Danny has run.
What makes Marcum particularly interesting is the way he manages the game in the last minute of each half. There are so many nuances in that last minute, and he's so adept at making things happen in such a positive way for the Storm. There are a lot of close games in this league, a lot that come down to the last series or two. And he has been remarkably good late in games. He's thinking way, way, ahead.
White, on the other hand, is so unconventional and difficult to coach against. One of his games this year, he had five onside kicks. I don't know how you prepare for those things. In the Arena league, teams recover onside kicks a little less than 20 percent of the time, about twice the rate of the outdoor game. It has become an offensive strategy for White. No one uses the kicking game as an offensive weapon as much as he does.
Marcum also is an old-fashioned coach. He doesn't coddle players. Perform or you're gone. It has worked for him. He has won six Arena league championships. White is very much the opposite, very laid-back.
Freddie Solomon, Tampa Bay's offensive specialist, caught 10 passes and scored three touchdowns in his first game and hasn't slowed down since.
He is exceptionally quick, but what separates him from a lot of offensive specialists is that he has decent size so he doesn't disappear inside the 10-yard line. When you get to the 10, into the red zone, the field gets so small. And if you have a small offensive specialist, sometimes it's difficult for him to get noticed and get open.
But Freddie is 5 feet 11, 185 pounds. So he's good on his own 5-yard line and the opponent's 5-yard line. You can't say that of some other offensive specialists. And Lawrence Samuels caught 77 passes. Tampa Bay has other good receivers, but these two have dominated the position for the Storm.
Orshawante Bryant has had a very good year, particularly in the playoffs with five touchdowns. Arizona spreads it around. Randy Gatewood has 83 catches, five for scores against San Jose in the playoff semifinal, and Hunkie Cooper stepped up. But Bryant has done a more than adequate job replacing Chris Horn as Arizona's offensive specialist.
The wild card is Tampa Bay's Antoine Toliver. He's coming on and Marcum thinks very highly of him. He thinks Antoine is going to make it back to the NFL. He could be the kind of guy who emerges to have a breakout game.
I thought at the start of the season that defense was never going to make a big difference, but Arizona is No. 1 in the playoffs in scoring defense, interception-return yardage and touchdowns. The Rattlers created 10 turnovers in three playoff games.
And Tampa Bay rushes the passer better than anybody. There are better individual pass rushers and guys with more sacks, but collectively, these guys on the Storm have been phenomenal this season: 29 sacks, No. 1 in the league, the No. 1 run defense, red-zone defense and fumble-return yardage. And Tampa Bay rotates six or seven guys so that the pass rush in the fourth quarter is just as good as it is in the first quarter.
Arizona quarterback Sherdrick Bonner is really kind of amazing - 6-4, 240 pounds, lettered in football, basketball, volleyball and track. He's an unbelievable athlete, a very powerful guy. You generally don't say that about a quarterback.
One thing, though: He holds onto the ball a little longer than most guys in this league, so he has a tendency to get hit more. But he protects the ball particularly well. He's a dominant player, the class of the league now for a few years.
Tampa Bay's John Kaleo, unfortunately, has gotten lost in the shuffle at the quarterback position. There have been so many great ones this year - Aaron Garcia in New York, Jim Kubiak in Dallas, Andy Kelly in Detroit, Clint Dolezel with Grand Rapids - that you tend to forget that Kaleo has had his best year.
There are going to be a lot of touchdowns, but I think ArenaBowl XVII is going to turn on a play in the last two minutes. And I really believe it's going to be some player you don't read a lot about. It could be an Al Lucas getting in Bonner's face or a Nikia Adderson knocking the ball out of Kaleo's hand. Or an interception by a Cooper for Arizona or a Corey Sawyer for the Storm. Or a tackle that causes a fumble. I think it's going to be a defensive guy who makes the key play that wins the game.
- NBC Arena Football League analyst Pat Haden quarterbacked Southern California to national championships in 1972 (AP, UPI) and 1974 (UPI) and spent 1976-81 with the NFL's Los Angeles Rams. He is a Rhodes Scholar and holds a law degree. Haden spoke with Times staff writer Bruce Lowitt.