What's Going On?

View From the Press Box

Joe Kauffman
Technical Editor

May 31, 1997

TAMPA, Fla. - Murphy's Law states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Murphy must have been refering to the fourth quarter of Friday night's Storm game against the Milwaukee Mustangs (3-2).

In front of an all-time low attendance of 9,888, the Tampa Bay Storm (3-2) did something they had never done before---they lost two at home in a season. In six previous seasons, the Storm had lost only one home game each year. Fortunately for Tampa Bay's Arena Football team, the Orlando Predators also lost.

The blame for the Storm's failure can be spread around. There were many factors that added up to this upset of the defending ArenaBowl champions. Turnovers plagued the team, the officials made some controversial calls, wide receiver/defensive back Johnnie Harris was ejected and the Milwaukee Mustangs played an all-around solid football game.

"We made the plays in the past to win games in the fourth quarter," said Storm coach Tim Marcum. "they [Milwaukee] made the plays tonight."

The Storm, who fall to 1-2 at home, committed five turnovers in the 52-41 loss to the Mustangs. Storm Quarterback Peter Tom Willis threw three interceptions---one was returned by Milwaukee WR/LB Gary Compton for a touchdown---and both he and Stevie Thomas fumbled once. These were costly turnovers that led to Milwukee's insurmountable lead with only a few minutes remaining in the game.

Marcum was upset about the call that referee Buddy Ward made after the missed field goal off the net with 12:40 remaining in the fourth quarter. Quoting from the rule book, he said,"It says here 'If the ball rebounds [off the net] beyond the line [of scrimmage] and touches the ground or is caught in the area with no receivers near, the kickers [kicking team] will have to make the line-to-gain for a first down. If not, first-and-ten for the receiving team.'"

Those who watched the game saw that the line-to-gain for a first down was mere inches from the goal line, and the officials spotted the recovered ball at the two-yard line. By rule, as quoted above, the Storm should have received the ball at that spot. Instead, Milwaukee scored a touchdown two plays later to take a 38-35 lead early in the fourth quarter. If the officials had gotten the call correctly, the Storm would have had the lead, and may even have extended it further. Instead, it turned the tide of the game.

"To be honest, I really don't know what's going on," said Storm receiver/linebacker Stevie Thomas, who had one interception and the lost fumble. "We just ain't getting the job done. There's always been a hex about every time a team moves to Tampa, they start doing bad. Right now we've got to do some soul-searching."

Thomas isn't the only one that is wondering what happened to the Storm of old. Many of the fans are beginning to doubt their new quarterback, who is trying hard to replace future AFL hall-of-famer Jay Gruden. Willis is getting beaten up behind the line of scrimmage, but that is hardly his fault. On most pass plays the last few weeks, he has had virtually no time to throw, as his offensive line has not kept the pass rush out of the backfield.

"To be honest with you, I think I played real good," said Willis who was asked to evaluate his performance despite two interceptions late in the game. "We played well offensively tonight. We matched them score for score. It came down to two plays tonight. They made them and we didn't."

The two plays Willis was refering to were the missed field goal off the net and the interception returned for a touchdown off a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage. Despite what his critics say, Willis was right. The offense performed exceptionally as game MVP George LaFrance added four more touchdowns to total 13 in five games. Willis threw five touchdown passes, including the longest of the season---42 yards---to Lawrence Samuels.

What the Storm needs is to return to the fundamentals. The front line needs to block better on offense and, with only one quarterback sack on the season, needs to improve its pass rush. The quarterback position may not be flawless, but it's the line that needs some serious work.

"We've got to fight through all of this adversity," said Marcum. "[We need to] get the right guys in here that want to win, that want to play hard and make plays. We're going to be okay."

The fans in Tampa Bay have gotten used to winning football from the Storm. In this season of unusually low attendance for the Storm, many fans may decide to spend their summer entertainment dollars somewhere else. The team needs to improve their fan-base, but loosing two straight at home will not fill the seats in the Ice Palace. The Storm needs to make some changes, and, like Marcum said, bring in some players who will win for this team. If they don't it will be a long, disastrous descent for the four- time ArenaBowl champions.

That's my view from the press box.

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