Desperados coach Will McClay jokingly calls it the "Dallas curse." But after two consecutive years of premature playoff exits despite going 13-3 and 15-1 during the regular season, Dallas is out to reverse that curse.
"The players talk about the disappointment," McClay said. "But we just need to focus on getting better and not worry about the Dallas playoff cloud that is hanging around us."
Last year, their 15 regular season wins was an AFL record, but the Desperados lost to the 7-9 Columbus Destroyers in the playoffs.
Two years ago, Dallas won 13 games only to lose in the conference championship to the Orlando Predators. If nothing else, it's taught the Desperados that nothing is guaranteed no matter how much regular season success they have.
The players talk about the disappointment. But we just need to focus on getting better and not worry about the Dallas playoff cloud that is hanging around us.
--Dallas coach Will McClay
Dallas had a lead going into the second half against Columbus when Peter Martinez, who now
kicks for Kansas City, bounced two kicks off the iron. Both turned into touchdowns giving Columbus a 42-38 lead. The mistakes did not end there. Dallas missed two potential scoring opportunities when Willie Marshall fumbled near the end zone and veteran QB Clint Dolezel threw a red zone interception. Like the Patriots after their Super Bowl loss, the Desperados had a similar feeling of emptiness.
"Fifteen and one means nothing," said Dolezel after the game.
"Sometimes we took our success for granted last year," said wide receiver Will Pettis, who missed the fourth quarter against Columbus with back spasms. " We went into games thinking we were going to blow people out. That happened on several occasions. Even though we went 15-1, we still never played a complete game. I think we did not do a lot of the little things last year."
The Desperados open the season when they visit Georgia on Saturday (ABC, 1 p.m. ET). McClay spent the first three weeks of training camp keeping his players focused on their assignments -- route running, covering receivers and blocking. Still, it's difficult to forget about last year. The Desperados saw Martinez when they scrimmaged against the Brigade earlier this month.
"You see that guy's face and it is like holy smokes," McClay said.
But Dallas has reason to be optimistic as it returns almost everyone of their key players--something that is difficult to accomplish in the AFL because most players sign one-year contracts. Players have taken less money to remain with Dallas since the organization is one of the most respected in the league. The Desperados still have Dolezel and Pettis -- a quarterback-receiver combination responsible for more than 100 catches and 1,000 receiving yards last year. Pettis also plays on special teams and at defensive back. His four kickoff returns for touchdowns were second in the league.
"I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with Clint," Pettis said. "He is a very smart player, but he is not arrogant. He will listen to guys like myself and (wide receiver) Marcus Nash who have a lot of experience."
Dallas added offensive lineman Troy Reddick, who spent his rookie season with the San Jose SaberCats last year and blocked for NFL running backs Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown at Auburn. David Dixon, a rookie linebacker, adds speed to the defense. Dallas also signed kicker Remy Hamilton from the Los Angeles Avengers.
Coaches are excited about two players who have developed in their system over the last couple of years. Anthony Armstrong should be the Desperados' third wide receiver. Armstrong was cut at the end of training camp last year, but contributed towards the end of the season. Linebacker Bobby Perry could thrive at the jack linebacker position, given the new rulers that allow the jack to move out of the five yard box in the middle of the field. The jack can rush the passer and drop back into coverage. McClay, a defensive-minded coach, likes the additional flexibility. Still, Pettis knows that none of these additions will mean anything if Dallas isn't celebrating in New Orleans at the end of the year.
"We have to look at this season as 19 one-game seasons and hopefully we will be hoisting the championship trophy at the end," Pettis said.
William Bendetson covers football for ESPN.com.