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Preds prowl with Whelihan

Ex-Chargers QB has revived defending champion Orlando.

By JOHN C. COTEY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 10, 2001


Jay Gruden remembers the phone call from Craig Whelihan. The quarterback was looking for work, and the Orlando coach was looking for a quarterback.

A perfect match?

Not quite.

"I remember I hit the save button right away and figured I wasn't even going to call him back," said Gruden, admitting he was uninterested. "I was looking at some other guys."

The next day, Gruden's brother, Jon, called. The Oakland Raiders coach had brought Whelihan, who played much of two seasons with San Diego, into camp and before cutting him had entertained the thought of adding Whelihan to his roster.

He told his brother he ought to do the same.

Heeding his brother's advice, Gruden worked Whelihan out on a Wednesday, started him on a Friday, and the Predators have been reborn. Bouncing back from an 0-3 start, Orlando has won four straight and become the second-hottest team in the Arena League.

At 3 p.m. today, it meets the hottest team as the Storm (7-0) invades Orlando in the renewal of the league's fiercest rivalry.

In a nationally televised game, the teams meet for the 27th time and will break a 13-13 tie in the series.

Tampa Bay has scored nine more points (1,038-1,029) than Orlando and each has scored 137 touchdowns against the other.

Rarely is the game a letdown, unless you're a Storm player counting the season-ending playoff losses each of the past three years. But four weeks ago, the luster of today's meeting was threatened by the Predators' poor start.

Gruden passed on re-signing quarterbacks Connell Maynor (the ArenaBowl MVP) and Pat O'Hara, who found better offers as free agents. Offensive specialist Joe Douglas, a Storm killer, and receiver Ty Law left for bigger bucks too.

Gruden figured defense was the team's strength and used the money to bolster it, signing defensive backs Kenny McIntyre (the 2000 defensive player of the year) and Damon Mason (league leader in tackles) to three-year deals. They would lead the team back to ArenaBowl, they would carry new quarterback Braniff Bonaventure, they would be the spark.

Just not right away.

"Everything was out of synch," Gruden said. "We couldn't pass the ball, we couldn't pass rush, we couldn't block or tackle. You ever see Space Jam? It was like that. I asked them, "Did someone steal your talent?' "

After Orlando twice scored 25 points to open the season, Gruden made the move that changed the fortunes of his team. He signed Whelihan, who instantly hit it off with rookie offensive specialist Siaha Burley, and the offense was no longer a liability.

The defense reappeared, and today's meeting with the Storm regained its status as a marquee event for the league.

"I thought we could get by with a mediocre quarterback because of our defense," Gruden said. "But no one rallied around Braniff. He didn't have those leadership qualities, really. And he wasn't very confident.

"Soon as Craig came in here and they saw the way he throws, it was different. The offense played better, the defense played better. It was a completely different team."

Orlando's resurgence is identical to the Storm's of 2000. After P.T. Willis retired, coach Tim Marcum brought in Thad Busby to run the offense. After three losses, he went searching for a cure and found John Kaleo and James Bowden. The Storm is 16-4 since; two of the losses came against Orlando.

While the Storm has emerged as the favorite to win the ArenaBowl, the defending champions have found their voice and may have something to say about that.

"We were 0-3 with Nashville, San Jose, Toronto and Tampa Bay coming up," Gruden said. "Hell yeah, I was very concerned.

"We're still not out of the woods yet. We got a ways to go. I don't think we can say that we're all the way back by beating the Storm, but it means a great deal for us because they are 7-0 and the best team in the league right now. If we beat them, then I guess we have to be considered one of the top teams."

TODAY: STORM AT ORLANDO

WHEN/WHERE: 3; TD Waterhouse Centre.

TV/RADIO: TNN; WDAE-AM 620. RECORDS: Storm 7-0, Orlando 4-3.

COACHES: Tampa Bay -- Tim Marcum (133-37, 13th season). Orlando -- Jay Gruden (39-19, fourth season).

SERIES: Tied at 13.

OUTLOOK: The hottest teams in the league square off in another big test for the Storm, which is coming off a 58-51 overtime win over Carolina and has won seven straight. The Storm is trying to become the first team to finish with a perfect regular-season record, but must beat arch-rival Orlando twice in the next four weeks. The game pits two of the league's top offensive specialists as the Storm's James Bowden goes against the team that cut him last year and its star, Siaha Burley. Bowden has scored 22 touchdowns (19 receiving) this season and has 782 yards receiving. Burley has 625 yards and 16 touchdown catches, and has returned three kicks for scores. Since signing former NFL QB Craig Whelihan (27 TDs, 111.1 rating in five games), the Preds have four straight wins.

- Compiled by John C. Cotey.

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