The Storm's coach never doubted that a playoff run could emerge from a 3-7 start.
By FRANK PASTOR
Published May 30, 2004
TAMPA - Tim Marcum's team was in trouble. It had lost seven of its first 10 games and five of its previous six. The five-time ArenaBowl champion had slipped to 16th in the 19-team league.
The Storm's playoff streak of 13 seasons and Marcum's personal stretch of 15 were in jeopardy.
But no matter how bad things got, Marcum said, he never wavered in his belief in the Storm.
"I believed the whole time," Marcum said. "I believed that we had a good football team. I believed that if we quit making those dumb mistakes and got our players back and got some consistency at the quarterback position, I believed we had a good team.
"I believed when we were 3-7 that we could do this, and I still believe."
With five consecutive victories, the Storm has brought itself to the brink of one of the most improbable comebacks in the Arena League's 18 years. With a win today at Dallas (6-9), Tampa Bay (8-7) will qualify for the postseason, likely as the No. 7 or 8 seed.
The game is the last of what amounted to six elimination games against teams with a combined 48-42 record. Lose any one and the Storm was out of the playoff picture.
"We were just being lackadaisical early in the season," wide receiver/linebacker David Saunders said. "We weren't really playing like the champs. We were just going like we were going to make a run for another one; then we were surprised. People jumped in our mouths early, and we realized we've got to play the game."
The Storm shored up its pass protection with the addition of center Louis Williams and improved its running game by signing fullback/linebacker Umar Muhammad. Nyle Wiren put off shoulder surgery that would have ended his season to ignite the pass rush.
Quarterback Shane Stafford quickened his release and improved his decision-making under the tutelage of quarterbacks coach Steve DeBerg. Special teams went from one of the team's biggest weaknesses to one of its strengths.
Still, the Storm remains a work in progress.
"We're still trying to find that perfect game," receiver/defensive back T.T. Toliver said. "It's still not close. We put positives together, but as far as the whole special teams, defense, offense, we're searching for that. Hopefully, it'll come at the right time. It seems like it's coming, but we've got to keep working."
A 58-52 victory over Austin on April 18 started Tampa Bay's turnaround, and a 63-55 win over Los Angeles on May 9 solidified it.
The Storm trailed the Wranglers by three with 28 seconds left, but Austin failed to move the ball on four downs, and Ignacio Brache kicked a tying 36-yard field goal as time expired. Tampa Bay won on Lawrence Samuels' 28-yard return of a John Kaleo fumble in overtime.
"That sparked this whole thing," Marcum said. "It got us to where these guys believe we can win it in the fourth quarter because we won it in the last minute of the game. They believe in themselves, and they believe in what we're doing."
That belief carried into the Los Angeles game, in which Tampa Bay faced one of the league's most potent offenses. But Stafford outplayed Avengers quarterback Tony Graziani, and Tramain Jones intercepted two passes to offset big plays by Los Angeles.
"I felt like that was going to be our biggest test," Marcum said.
Now, one obstacle remains: slumping Dallas, which has lost six consecutive games and eight of nine after a 5-1 start.
And though Marcum won't overlook the Desperados, he will wait until after the season to reflect on his team's turnaround.
He expects more football to be played.
"It's like saying you've framed up your house here and saying, "Are you really enjoying this house as much as you have your other houses?' " Marcum said. "No, because it ain't finished. When it's finished and I move in, I can look back and say, "Boy, this is a nice house.' "
TODAY: STORM AT DALLAS
WHEN/WHERE: 4 p.m.; American Airlines Center, Dallas.
COACHES: Storm - Tim Marcum (166-62, 16th season), Desperados - Will McClay (first season).
SERIES: Tied 1-1.
NOTES: The Storm, unbeaten in five games, can clinch a 14th consecutive playoff berth with a victory over the Desperados, who have lost six consecutive games and eight of nine after a 5-1 start. Tampa Bay quarterback Shane Stafford was named offensive player of the week after leading nine scoring drives in last week's victory over New Orleans. Former Michigan and Detroit Lions quarterback Scott Dreisbach will make his second start for Dallas in place of former USF quarterback Glen Gauntt. Storm lineman Nyle Wiren has a career-high six sacks despite playing with a torn labrum in his left shoulder and a broken rib. Offensive specialist Freddie Solomon has caught a touchdown in 20 consecutive games. Receiver/linebacker Lawrence Samuels needs 42 yards to reach 1,000 for the season. Fullback/linebacker David White (hamstring) is questionable.