STORM 52, PREDATORS 41: Some of the names have changed, but the defending champs open season on top.
By FRANK PASTOR
Published February 9, 2004
[Special to the Times: Matt May]
Storm players celebrate the fourth-quarter TD of Freddie Solomon, front, his third of the game.
TAMPA - As We Are The Champions played in the background, the Storm's 2003 ArenaBowl championship banner was raised to the ceiling of the St. Pete Times Forum on Sunday afternoon.
Less than three hours later, it was unceremoniously lowered and relocated near the banners from 1991, '93, '95 and '96 and the Lightning's 2002-03 Southeast Division championship.
Presumably, leaving room for more.
"It's exciting knowing I was part of an ArenaBowl championship team," Storm wide receiver/defensive back T.T. Toliver said. "The only thing is, it motivates you to win another one."
The Storm took the first step in defense of its title with a 52-41 win over Orlando in front of 15,404 that left little doubt who remains the team to beat.
Tampa Bay answered questions in its opener about how it will fill free-agent losses at quarterback, along the offensive and defensive lines and in the secondary, while Orlando showed it could be a few weeks before rookie quarterback Joe Hamilton and 16 new players hit their stride.
Tampa Bay evened the all-time series at 17 wins each and defeated Orlando a third consecutive time. The Storm had not beaten the Predators in three straight meetings since a five-game win streak between 1994-96.
In many ways, the teams went as their quarterbacks did. The Storm's Shane Stafford threw five touchdowns, including three to offensive specialist Freddie Solomon, and rushed for a career-high 23 yards and a touchdown in his first league start since 2002. Stafford played in NFL Europe last season.
"I liked that we won, that's the big thing, but there's a lot of things we need to correct," Stafford said. "It wasn't clean."
Hamilton, a former Bucs backup, completed 23 of 40 for 270 yards and four touchdowns in his first start. He was sacked once, by Cyron Brown, but was pressured into several errant throws.
"Joe's going to be our guy," Orlando coach and former quarterback Jay Gruden said. "You can see he's got a lot of ability. He's got to get the timing down live with people coming at him, and our receivers have got to slow down a little bit, too. They were a little too quick on their routes a lot."
When Hamilton got in trouble, he usually looked for Cory Fleming. The eighth-year receiver caught 13 passes for 151 yards and three touchdowns. He might have had more if not for the work of Shea Showers, who had six tackles and a pass breakup while matched up with the 6-foot-2, 218-pound Fleming.
"Once we found out (2003 Rookie of the Year) Travis McGriff wasn't going to play, we felt they were going to try to get him the ball pretty much all the time," said the 5-10, 185-pound Showers. "Here and there they threw it around to someone else, but for the most part they threw it to him."
Two early gambles backfired on the Predators.
Gruden opted to go for a first down on fourth and 6 from Orlando's 9 on the opening possession. Hamilton overthrew Fleming, and the Storm made the Predators pay four plays later as Stafford found Solomon tip-toeing along the back of the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown.
After trading scores, Tampa Bay turned a second Orlando gamble into a two-touchdown advantage.
Hamilton threw deep to Bret Cooper on fourth and 5 from the Predators 17 early in the second quarter, but Toliver batted down the ball. The Storm cashed in immediately, as Stafford hit Solomon in the right corner of the end zone on the next play for a 21-7 Tampa Bay lead.
Orlando closed to 31-27 early in the fourth quarter before a judgment call by officials sealed its fate. Kenny McEntyre appeared to intercept Stafford in the end zone, but it was ruled he did not have control of the ball as he hit the sideline barrier. One play later, Toliver caught a 19-yard touchdown for an 11-point lead.
"That was a tough one," Gruden said of the call. "It looked like in my mind he had it, but what are you going to do now?"
NEW ORLEANS 42, PHILLIE 34: John Fitzgerald threw four touchdowns to help the visiting VooDoo beat Jon Bon Jovi's Soul in the first game for both expansion franchises. Soul co-owner Bon Jovi and guitarist Richie Sambora, who holds a 2-percent stake in the team, mingled with Bill Belichick and Doug Flutie before the game, which drew 17,484.
CHICAGO 50, GRAND RAPIDS 30: QB Raymond Philyaw debuted with three touchdowns rushing and two passing for host Rush. Philyaw, who played for Indiana last year, used screen passes and his quick feet to lift the Rush in front of 15,082.
CAROLINA 67, DALLAS 41: Matt Nagy threw six touchdowns and ran for another for the visiting Cobras, who ended a league record 17-game losing streak.
NEW YORK 54, GEORGIA 28: Aaron Garcia threw five touchdowns and ran for another to lead the visiting Dragons, who scored touchdowns on eight of their 10 possessions.
L.A. 51, ARIZONA 32: Tony Graziani passed for 214 yards and six touchdowns, leading the visiting Avengers. Arizona dropped its season opener for the fourth straight year, the past three to San Jose.