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SaberCats remain unknown despite consistent success

7/5/2008

The San Jose SaberCats are the closest thing to a dynasty the AFL has seen this decade. The defending ArenaBowl champions have won three titles since 2002 and 101 regular-season games since 2000; no other team has won more than 85. They own the Western Division, winners of 18 straight division games. This week, they begin their ninth straight playoff appearance by hosting the Colorado Crush (Saturday, 3 :00 p.m. ET, ESPN).

But as dominant as the SaberCats have been, they might be the best team no one knows about. Outside of the Western Division, few seem to know the way to San Jose.

Only one AFL quarterback threw 100 touchdowns this season. Do you know him?

That would be Mark Grieb, the 11th-year veteran who has been the key to the SaberCats' offensive success. Grieb is pumped to be standing alone atop the passing touchdown list in 2008.

"It's pretty cool. It's a nice thing to have, and it's something you share with everybody on the offense," he says. "To get the ball in the end zone, it starts with the guys up front. They’ve got to give you time, and our guys really improved as the year went along. Our three main receivers all have over 1,000 yards and over 20 touchdown catches. Those guys made the plays. They made it easy for me to get 100."

Grieb has the smarts on the field, with a career TD-INT ratio of 715-to-97. He has the smarts off the field, majoring in biochemistry at UC Davis and owning a Masters' degree in education from Stanford. That intelligence, along with receivers James Roe, Cleannord Saintil, and Rodney Wright, allowed San Jose to put 945 points on the board during the regular season.

"We're a very explosive group," Grieb says of his offense. "We're capable of hitting the big plays. But we're also capable of taking what the defense gives us. We’re a versatile offense that will try to go at your weakest link and try to score as many points as we can."

Grieb is currently fifth all-time in the AFL in passing touchdowns and yardage, and third all-time in passer rating. He has placed himself among Clint Dolezel, Aaron Garcia, Sherdrick Bonner, and Jay Gruden on the list of the AFL's all-time great quarterbacks.

Where does Grieb think he ranks among the greats? "Oh, No. 1, no question," Grieb chuckles. “I don’t know. If you’re looking at ArenaBowl wins, or QB rating, or touchdowns, I'm definitely up there. It's an honor to be mentioned with those guys. I've seen those guys play, and I've played against many of them. I know full well how good those guys are. But what’s more important is what the guys who I’ve played with think of me."

Grieb isn't the only unknown in San Jose, though. One AFL kicker made 16 tackles this season, the most by any kicker in the league this season. Do you know him?

That would be A.J. Haglund, a second-year kicker who plays much bigger than his 5-foot-8 frame might suggest.

"I think most kickers just want to kick, but I bring the mentality that I want to make a play for the team," says Haglund. "Who knows? I might cause a fumble. I might give us an extra possession. I've got to help the team out any way I can."

"You don't want the opposing team to start on a short field. The field’s short enough as it is. So, kickers have to get involved in the coverage. I always played football growing up, so I've always been an athlete and I've always been tackling."

In a game at Utah this year, one Haglund hit up-ended a Blaze return man into the second row of the EnergySolutions Arena. Says Haglund of arguably his greatest hit, "I thought I hit him a little harder. But everybody gave some 'oohs' and 'aahs' in film session the next day."

Haglund's tackling has earned him praise from his teammates and his kicking has earned him first-team All-Arena honors this season.

"It feels great. I think being on a great team and having a great offense helps bring individual awards," he said. "I'm glad to be a part of a great organization, and that's why I've been able to put up such great numbers over the last two years."

Some would argue that kicking requires more concentration and mental preparation than any other position on the field. Haglund would agree.

"You have to stay focused. And when you do miss a kick, don't get down on yourself. In this league, you're going to miss kicks. Some of the younger kickers come in and think they're going to make every kick, and that's just not possible.

"You’ve got to have a short memory in this league, and that’s true for any position," says Haglund. "You've got to forget the last play and move on. Otherwise you're going to get beaten. That’s just how the game is."

Quick, name the team that won the Western Division, finishing the year with a six-game winning streak. The one that rebounded from a 5-5 start that had some experts around the league wondering whether they could truly be considered a contender. That's right, it's the SaberCats.

"We definitely had our bumps in the road," Grieb says about the SaberCats' regular season. "It wasn’t clear sailing. As we lost to Philadelphia, Dallas, Orlando and New Orleans, we knew we had to get better. Being the defending champs, we got everyone's best shot. It took us a while with the [linebacker] rule change, trying to replace Ben [Nelson, now with Colorado] in the middle, and some changes on the offensive line. We had some pretty big holes to fill, and it took everyone a while to get on the same page. But we"re here."

Haglund adds, "We've won eight of our last nine. We're playing well at the right time, just like last year. We've got a lot of veterans who have won championships, guys who have come up huge in pressure-time situations."

So which AFL team's championship rings are among the most luxurious and expensive in professional sports? Do you know?

The SaberCats have three championship rings and the latest one, from 2007, is "huge, the size of an Arena football field," according to Grieb.

"It’s almost too big for my hand," Haglund told the San Jose Mercury News in March. He's kidding ... we think. White gold, diamonds, emeralds; the SaberCats' ring has enough bling to make a rapper blush.

One San Jose player had his rings appraised this year, and an incomplete appraisal of the 2007 ring returned an approximate value of around $25,000. The 2002 ring was valued at $17,000. The 2004 ring was appraised at $37,000.

In comparison, the NHL limits the cost of Stanley Cup rings to $7,500. The NFL's championship ring limit is $5,000. No such cap exists in the NBA, Major League Baseball, or the AFL. "I think our owners take a lot of pride in being able to give us the best championship ring in sports," says Grieb.

Despite the hardware, the wins, the players, and the rings, this team is still largely unknown compared to other AFL teams.

Compared to Philadelphia, Dallas, Chicago, and Colorado, the SaberCats tend to fly under the radar during the regular season. Asked whether his team gets the recognition befitting a three-time ArenaBowl champion, Grieb answers, "I don't think that we do. I don't think that we ever have."

“I don’t know, you could make up some reasons for why that is. We’re on the West Coast, and by the time our scores come in everyone’s been asleep for three hours," says Grieb. "But whatever those reasons might be, it really doesn't matter. I don't play for the recognition of the media. We appreciate their support, because it helps our league to get better. But I don't really concern myself with that. When I'm done playing, I want to know that I played the best I could and tried the best I could to win a championship. That's more important than the recognition."

While few seem to know about San Jose, the SaberCats know about winning. This year, they hope to know about repeating as ArenaBowl champions.

"It’s hard to repeat. We've got the target on our backs," Haglund says. "But if we play well in all three phases of the game, I don't think anybody can beat us."

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.