The Columbus Destroyers are playing well enough to derail next week's potential matchup of undefeated teams.
Pop quiz time!
1. Name the only Eastern Division team to appear in an ArenaBowl.
2. Name the only team to appear in last year's playoffs despite a losing regular-season record.
3. And finally, name the only thing that can prevent a battle of undefeated teams when Dallas meets Philadelphia on April 28.
OK, pencils down. The answers are: Columbus Destroyers; Columbus Destroyers; and Columbus Destroyers.
Columbus hosts 7-0 Philadelphia on Monday night (8:00 p.m. ET on ESPN2) in a critical Eastern Division matchup. For the Soul, a win means staying unbeaten (along with the Desperados) and setting the stage for their matchup with Dallas (also known as the National Conference semi-championship game).
For the Destroyers, Monday marks a more modest opportunity. "This is an opportunity for us to show everybody what we can do on national television," Columbus QB Matt Nagy told ESPN.com this week. "We'll have the crowd on our side, which is always important when you're playing on Monday Night Football. I'm excited for us. When you're 2-5, you're looking for these types of opportunities to get you going."
Nagy and the Destroyers are trying to get going after a disappointing start to the 2008 season. Then again, 2007 wasn't so hot for Columbus either, as it floundered into the playoffs at 7-9. But it got hot in the playoffs and surprised everyone by advancing to ArenaBowl XXI.
Despite their fantastic finish, the Destroyers' stumbling start nagged Nagy and Columbus head coach Doug Kay. "Obviously we caught a hot streak, won five in a row and beat some pretty good teams," said Nagy. "But [Coach Kay's] expectations really weren't 7-9, and he'd like to get better than that. Anytime you're 7-9, you're doing something wrong."
So instead of standing pat, Columbus went to work. It overhauled the same defense that helped pave its road to the ArenaBowl. It added dangerously freakish WR Derek Lee ("He's the Randy Moss of the arena league right now," Nagy said).
Yet, five games into 2008, Columbus was staring a 1-4 record in the face. The Destroyers kept tinkering, naming veteran AFL coach Larry Kuharich as offensive coordinator in Week 6. Of all the new faces Nagy has had to adjust to this year, this change was the biggest. He admits, "It's difficult to throw the offense away when you're in the sixth game of the season and move on to something that, terminology-wise, is completely different."
Although they're still learning to speak the same language, Nagy is glad to have Kuharich in the fold. "It's been good. He knows the game inside and out. I've been really excited learning some things I hadn't learned in a while." Even with the coordinator change, Nagy has still been as efficient as ever, completing over 63 percent of his passes and tossing 32 touchdown passes against three interceptions.
Despite Nagy's numbers, the new defense, the new offensive weapons and the new offensive coordinator, Columbus is 2-5. The Destroyers have been losing games, but Nagy, a seven-year AFL veteran who knows how to read the pulse of his team, knew his squad had lost something else. "We had a swagger last year towards the end of the season with that playoff run, and right now that swagger isn't around. We feel like we get it one week and the next it slips away. We're trying to find our mode right now, trying to find our identity."
Normally, a team coming off an ArenaBowl appearance the year before is known as "The Hunted." But there is no championship mark on the Destroyers' backs, a fact that frustrates Nagy. "It's a struggle," he admits. "I think the biggest test for us as players is how we handle it. Are we going to fold up the tent and give up on the season? Or are we going to try to play through it and make it to the playoffs where anything can happen, which we proved last year?"
A win for Columbus on Monday would help put the Destroyers back in the playoff picture, but Nagy knows getting that win will be a tall task.
"There's a reason they're 7-0," Nagy says of Philadelphia. "They're playing really well this year in all phases of the game. They've jumped on top of teams and beaten them badly. They also came back last week against San Jose, down 26 points, and won in the final plays. They're showing why they're such a good football team."
In Philadelphia, offense and defense have worked together. That hasn't been the case so far in Columbus, according to Nagy. "If you look at our season this year, part of our problem is that we get a stop on defense, but we don't turn it into seven points. Or, if we get a couple of touchdowns back-to-back, we struggle in getting the stops.
"We're getting stops, and we're getting touchdowns. We're just not getting them at the same time."
Columbus will be looking to put it all together for a full 60 minutes against the Soul, but Nagy is well aware that the stakes are high for both teams. "Philly is sitting at 7-0, and they have that big game against Dallas that everyone in the league is talking about. So they're not going to overlook us, either.
"But I'll tell you this much: There's not a person on this Columbus Destroyers team that is going to back down from anybody, much less Philadelphia or Dallas. We're going to keep fighting. Our coaching staff is going to keep fighting."
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 email@example.com.
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