Coaches playfully talk about David and Goliath matchup

It's hardly surprising San Jose is in ArenaBowl XXI, but it is a little shock to see Columbus, writes William Bendetson.

Originally Published: July 28, 2007
By William Bendetson | ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- After more than 200 volunteers, including San Jose coach Darren Arbet and Columbus coach Doug Kay, built a new playground for J.W. Johnson Elementary School on Thursday, a school that was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina, Arbet and Kay fittingly got a little playful when breaking down Sunday's ArenaBowl XXI.

"We are like David against Goliath," Kay said. "San Jose has a great football team. They have great players and a terrific coaching staff. Heck, I don't know why we are here."

"I don't know who is David and who is Goliath," Arbet responded. "Columbus is a great football team."

ArenaBowl all grown up

NEW ORLEANS---ArenaBowl XXI is in New Orleans with countless events every night and celebrities roaming around while fans enjoy Bourbon Street. It wasn't always this way. In the first ArenaBowl in 1987, the Denver Dynamite defeated the host Pittsburgh Gladiators 45-16. Pittsburgh was awarded the game because it had the better attendance that season. Here are some other fun facts:

• Only the Washington Post and the Associated Press wrote about the game.
• Hardees, USA Wet, Riddell and Wilson were the four national sponsors.
• Teams stayed at the Holiday Inn in Greentree, Pittsburgh.
• The first season was only six games and both Pittsburgh and Denver finished with a 4-2 record.
• Current Chicago Rush coach Mike Hohensee was the QB for Pittsburgh. Hohensee fumbled two snaps in the first quarter.
• The attendence was 12,232.
• Tampa Bay Storm coach Tim Marcum was Denver's coach.
• The winning Trophy was named the "Hardees Cup."

-- William Bendetson

But the analogy is easy to see. Columbus went from 6-9 and needing a win in their season finale to earn a playoff berth to being one win away from being the AFL champions. The Destroyers won three road playoff games, including wins at 15-1 Dallas and 14-2 Georgia. Meanwhile, San Jose, who won ArenaBowls in 2002 and 2004, is back in the title game on a 12 game win streak. They meet on Sunday (ABC, 3 ET) in ArenaBowl XXI.

"I really think Dallas and Georgia took Columbus lightly. Both of those teams are capable of playing much better games than they played. It is a mistake that we will not make," said SaberCats defensive lineman Ronald Jones. "Coach Arbet has reminded us that we cannot take Columbus lightly many times over the past two weeks."

It's been a quick rise to success for Kay and the Destroyers. Columbus finished 2-14 in 2005 before they hired Kay, who overhauled the Destroyers roster and kept only three players from the previous year. They went 8-8 in 2006 and now have 10 wins this season. More importantly, the team believes in itself. Any doubts about that were removed in a meeting called before the Dallas game.

"He used a lot of one-syllable words," said Columbus defensive back Brandon Hefflin. "He pretty much told us we were a better team than what we showed on the field and that we were not having fun playing the game. A lot of players spoke on how they felt and we grew as a team because of that meeting."

But while Columbus may be playing better, it's still facing one of the AFL's best and most consistent teams. The key may be defense. If a team makes three or four defensive stops in a game, they are likely to win. What makes the San Jose defense so dangerous is they can pressure the QB with only three defenders rushing the passer. George Williams, Alan Harper, and Jones makeup one of the more talented defenses fronts in the AFL.

But Columbus' defense is playing well too. Kay is one of the AFL's best defensive minds and the Destroyers defense has played better in each game of the playoffs, capped off by a three turnover performance against Georgia, including a Jerald Brown interception return for a touchdown

"Coach Kay has been telling us all week that we need to get the little things right," said Columbus defensive lineman Bernard Riley. "We need to collapse the pocket on Mark Grieb and force him to throw the ball when he doesn't want to."

Stopping San Jose's diverse receiving corps will be a big challenge for Columbus. James Roe, Rodney Wright, and Nelson all had more than 1,000 yards this season and their strengths compliment one another. Roe is the go-to receiver in the red zone, Wright uses his speed and hauls in the quick passes while Nelson has the height to catch jump balls. Wright missed last season with turf toe, but his return has allowed San Jose to stretch the field and be less predictable.

"It is almost like picking your poison," Nelson said. "If you play one style of defense, we will beat you this way and if you play another style we will beat you another way."

Directing that attack is quarterback Mark Grieb, who has been nothing short of brilliant in the playoffs. He's thrown for 596 yards, 15 TDs and just one INT.

"He throws the ball so well that you almost have no choice but to catch it," Roe said.

Roe, though, like the rest of his teammates is ready to catch passes in game situations. Friday was just a walk through, and besides a few team meetings on Saturday, players have the day off.

"I have watched the same film so many times that I am getting sick of it already," Nelson said. "At this point, you have seen the tendencies of each team and are ready to play."

William Bendetson covers football for ESPN.com.