<
>

Even winless teams still have shot at playoffs

3/27/2008

If you're a Kansas City Brigade fan, chances are you're not enjoying life right about now. Surely no amount of barbecue can dull the pain of watching the Grand Rapids Rampage drop 92 points on the Brigade on Monday. After that jaw-dropping loss, Kansas City is now 0-4.

If you're a Utah Blaze fan, you're probably not too happy either. Head coach Danny White has seemingly tried everything, from booting long-time kicker Steve Videtich to trading for veteran DB Damon Mason. After making those moves, Utah is now 0-4.

The only two teams that have yet to win an AFL game this year are now the Brigade and the Blaze. I'm visualizing AFL fans wandering aimlessly around the Crown Center and Temple Square, wondering how it all went wrong and whether there is any hope for their teams this year.

Believe it or not, there actually are some reasons not to push the panic button in Kansas City and Utah. In fact, I can think of two big ones off the top of my head.

For one reason not to bail out on the Brigade and the Blaze just yet, check the AFL history books. This is my eleventh season following arena football and I've seen teams salvage their seasons by pulling off Bills-vs.-Oilers-style comebacks too many times to think it can't happen again this year.

I remember the 1999 Milwaukee Mustangs getting off the mat from an 0-5 start, winning seven of their final nine games and sneaking into the playoffs. I also remember the 2002 Tampa Bay Storm, losers of five of their first six games, somehow getting hot enough to make the playoffs with a 6-8 record and even winning their first-round game.

Of course, for a more recent example, take a look at last year's edition of the Storm. Their 2007 season started off as a sad drizzle. They lost their first five games en route to a 1-6 record. Then Brett Dietz and the fellas got hot, put it together, won eight of their final nine games and waltzed into the playoffs as a 3-seed.

See? It can happen. Heck, it has happened … several times!

But for the biggest reason not to panic in Kansas City and Utah, look no further than one simple fact: In a 17-team league, twelve teams make the playoffs. The league may have dropped two teams this offseason, but the playoff field kept its size, making it even easier for teams to qualify for the AFL postseason.

No wonder the Arizona Rattlers guaranteed their season-ticket holders their money back if Arizona misses the playoffs this year. With only 17 teams fighting for twelve postseason berths, the Rattlers had a 70-percent chance of going to the playoffs before they even stepped on the field! There may not be an AFL team in Las Vegas anymore, but that's almost like playing with house money … all that's missing is a trip to see the Omelet Man down at Mandalay Bay with your buddies afterwards.

All of this may mean that a 6-10 regular-season record -- and to be honest, I'm not even ruling out 5-11 -- will probably be good enough to stay in the race for ArenaBowl XXII. If that holds true, then by my complex and precise calculations, this means that all the Brigade and the Blaze have to do is split their final twelve games and they're probably in the playoffs. And if your team can make the playoffs, no matter what their regular-season record may be, anything can happen.

Ask the 2007 Columbus Destroyers what can happen when you sneak into the playoffs. At 7-9, they were the only team to make the postseason with a losing record. A couple of huge defensive plays and some eye-opening wins later, they represented the National Conference in ArenaBowl XXI.

You can also ask the 2006 Chicago Rush for their thoughts on this. That team not only sputtered through their regular season with an unimpressive 7-9 record and made the playoffs, but they ended up winning the whole ball of wax!

It's not how your team starts, folks … it's how it finishes. So take heart, Brigade and Blaze fans. Now isn't quite the time to push "eject" on your teams' seasons. But if San Jose hangs a hundred on the Brigade this week, or if Utah's defense keeps up its point-a-minute pace, you may need to start reaching for the button.

Troy Clardy hosts "Inside the AFL", ESPN's official arena football podcast, posted Thursdays on ESPN's PodCenter. You can drop him a line at troy.clardy@espn.com.