Here We Go Again...

The Way I See It...

By Andrew Mason
Content Editor

August 15, 1997

TAMPA, Fla. - The team names are familiar. The date is familiar. The playoff round---semifinal---is familiar. Only the venue has changed. Welcome to Storm-Rattlers, Chapter II. Another titanic battle for postseason supremacy looms Saturday night at Phoenix's America West Arena.

Last year, Arizona, 55-54 losers, fell nine seconds and eight yards short. Nine seconds being the time at which a potential game-winning two-point conversion fell short, and eight yards being the distance from the goal line that Rattler FB/LB Michael "Bo" Kelly was from the goal line after being met by a swarm of Storm defenders on the conversion try.

Bo Kelly tackled by Sylvester Bembery
The Storm's Sylvester Bembery helps bring down Arizona's Bo Kelly on the game-saving two-point conversion stop last year at the ThunderDome. Photo by Chris Arnold.
However, to think that was Arizona's only chance to put the final crush on the Storm is ridiculous. The Rattlers had a 38-29 lead late in the third quarter, and had held the Storm's offense scoreless in over a quarter of play. The Rattlers had control and had the Storm by the jugular. Then, on one play, they let Tampa Bay escape, allowing George LaFrance to catch a 42-yard touchdown pass from QB Jay Gruden.

Including the LaFrance score---one of five he had on the night---the Storm outscored the Rattlers 26-16 to close the game. Were it not for two straight missed extra points by Jorge Cimadevilla, the Rattlers would not have even been in a position to go for two in the final seconds.

Now fast forward to this season. How will the result be different?

First, start with the brief summary of some of the events of last year's game as listed above. Take out the names of Cimadevilla and Gruden---they're both in Nashville. While Rich Fall has strengthened the kicking game, many feel that Peter Tom Willis has been a few steps back of Gruden in the performance ladder. They could be right, but Willis has been playing his best football of the season in the last month. He has thrown 19 touchdowns in the last six games, and has accounted for an average of 233.8 yards per game. Most important is his interception total---just six in the last six games and none in the last two weeks. In fact, of Willis' 19 interceptions this season, only nine have come in the last ten games; ten came in the first five.

What is different for the Rattlers, though, is defense. Especially in one player---tackling machine Cedric Walker, the AFL's leader in that department this season. Walker brought steadiness to a unit renowned for the spectacular. The result? Arizona allowed an average of 12.1 fewer yards than last year, as well as 7.5 fewer points per game.

This is what Willis must contend with. He is improved, but he faces a defense that is equally on the upswing. Consider these numbers:

...In 1997, the Rattlers allowed just two teams to score more than 50 points. In 1996, five teams eclipsed the 50-point barrier against Arizona...

...Opponents gained 18.5 fewer passing yards per game against the Rattlers in 1997 than they did last year....

...The average-per-play against the Rattlers dropped by a whole yard, from 6.7 to 5.7...

...The Rattlers forced 31 turnovers in 1997, compared to 28 in 1996...

...The Rattlers allowed 13.2 yards per completion in 1996, but gave up 11.9 yards per completion in 1997...

...Arizona allowed the opposition to complete 59 percent of their passes in 1996, but gave up a percentage of 55 percent in 1997.

If the Storm loses this one, it won't be because their offense was any worse---after all, Tampa Bay has averaged a healthy 52.8 points per game in the last five weeks. No, it'll be due to the Rattlers' venomous defense, which is the best in team history.

If Arizona goes on to win the title in 1997, coach Danny White will owe a big thanks to defensive coordinator Doug Kay, and will probably be muttering the phrase "defense wins championships" to himself in celebration for months to come.

And that's the way I see it.

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