The Storm. The Predators. Need we say more?
By Andrew Mason
At the time, it was impossible to tell which team would turn out better. Neither team looked particularly sound, but both had potential. Little did anyone know that so much would come from these two new teams duking it out on a humid Central Florida night.
Six years later, the rivalry has grown into the Arena Football League's answer to feuds like those of the Hatfields and McCoys and the Redskins and Cowboys. While this is partially due to the teams' entrenchment near the top of the AFL standings in the 1990s, and also to the nearly even record in the series (the Storm leads 8-7), it's mostly because of the distance---or lack thereof---between the teams. Tampa's Ice Palace and the Orlando Arena are separated by just 85 miles of highway, a distance that you can traverse in just over an hour on a good day. It's a trip that takes you through suburbs, flat stretches, strawberry fields and a place where nothing is real (Walt Disney World).
While these rivals aren't as close as college basketball enemies North Carolina and Duke---who are separated by eight miles of U.S. 15-501 between Chapel Hill and Durham---there's enough proximity to create mutual jealousy, and, by virtue of 15 games over the last six years, enough familiarity to breed sheer contempt.
The intensity of the on-field action, which includes skirmishes and near-brawls on seemingly every series, often carries over into the stands. Predator and Storm fans make road trips into each other's backyard for the games, and often spend time yelling back and forth at each other. This was especially evident in the ThunderDome, a place with a capacity (30,000) that allowed many Orlando fans to get seats for the big game. Orlando's fans would get going and yell, "In your face! In your face!" in reference to a team slogan adopted before the 1993 season. To this, some Storm fans often respond with an equally resounding cheer of "Check the score! Check the score!" when their team is ahead.
So bitter is the rivalry that Oliver Stone-esque conspiracy theories have emerged. When Storm defensive specialist Johnnie Harris was suspended by the league two weeks ago because of complications with his contract and supposed obligations to the Canadian Football League, it was Predator coach Perry Moss who brought it up, according to news reports. Conversely, some Predator fans accuse Storm coach Tim Marcum of pointing out a similar technicality that got lineman Webbie Burnett suspended from the teams' ArenaBowl IX meeting.
Let's take a look back at the series.
6/1/91 - Orlando 51, Tampa Bay 38
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Hard to believe, but Tampa Bay's legendary quarterback, Jay Gruden, wasn't supposed to start this one. He only started because of an injury to former Florida State standout Chip Ferguson. Gruden was solid, completing 25 of 39 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns. The star of the night was Orlando quarterback Reggie Collier, who threw for 252 yards and seven touchdowns. Orlando grabbed a 26-17 halftime lead and kept the Storm at arm's length the rest of the way, building the lead to 21 by the fourth quarter in what proved to be an inauspicious debut for Tampa Bay.
7/27/91 - Tampa Bay 26, Orlando 16
ORLANDO, Fla. - Bolstered by a fake field goal, the Storm rolled a win that clinched home-field advantage for the first round of the playoffs and knocked the Predators out of contention for the postseason. Leading 16-9 in the third quarter, backup quarterback John Darnell took the snap on what would have been a 41-yard field goal attempt by kicker Paul Hickert and and fired a pass for Hickert, hitting him for a 25-yard touchdown. Gruden missed the game with an injured shoulder, and Ferguson stepped in and ran the AFL's answer to a ball-control offense, as the Storm ran on 21 of 37 plays. Orlando also showed a fancy towards the running game, but had far less success, rushing 14 times for a total loss of one yard.
5/29/92 - Tampa Bay 39, Orlando 32
ORLANDO, Fla. - In a tight game that saw neither team lead by more than seven points, Tampa Bay struck last as Gruden hit lineman Ralph Jarvis for a three-yard touchdown pass with 4.5 seconds left in the game to win it for the Storm. Notable for the Predators in the loss was the debut of FB/LB Jerry Odom, who scored three touchdowns to keep the Predators in the thick of the game. It would be the last time Orlando would lose until ArenaBowl VI nearly three months later.
7/2/92 - Orlando 48, Tampa Bay 33
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - After the opening night defeat of the Predators, Tampa Bay won their next four. However, the Predators came in with a four-game winning streak after the opening loss, and silenced all remaining doubters by ending the Storm's nine-game winning streak and seven-game home winning streak. The Predators broke out to a 17-0 second quarter lead, but Tampa Bay battled back, outscoring the Predators 27-3 to take a 27-20 lead midway through the third quarter. Orlando struck back, though, and scored three straight touchdowns to grab a 41-27 lead with 4:36 left. But the Storm had one more rally left, scoring to pull within eight with 1:28 to go and then getting the ball back inside the final minute. Trailing 41-33 with less than a minute remaining, Tampa Bay thought they had pulled within two when Gruden hit Anthony Howard on a catch-and-run for an apparent touchdown. However, the officials ruled that the play was dead when Howard's knee touched the ground at midfield, even though there were no Predators around him. Storm fans showered the field with debris as a result, which only added to the mess on the field left by the halftime appearance of Dynamite Lady. A 21-yard interception return for a touchdown by Orlando's Carl Aikens provided the final margin in the first loss for the Storm in 349 calendar days. Tampa Bay racked up 353 yards, but five interceptions off the arm of Gruden killed the Storm's chances.
8/15/92 - Orlando 24, Tampa Bay 21
ORLANDO, Fla. - This AFL semifinal may be Storm fans' worst memory. Kicker Donald Igwebuike missed on a 30-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds that could have won it for the Storm. The lowest scoring game in the playoff histories of either team; it was a game dominated by defense---especially Orlando's. The Preds recorded two sacks on safeties of Gruden. Tampa Bay stayed in the game on the legs of FB/LB Doug "Tank" Landry, who gained 50 yards on ten carries. He thundered over the goal line twice to help the Storm battle back from a 12-3 third quarter deficit to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Both teams entered the playoffs at 9-1, but the Predators gained home field advantage by outscoring the Storm by eight in their regular season meetings. Most observers felt that this game, pitting the two best teams in the league in 1992, would determine the eventual ArenaBowl champion. However, Orlando used up their emotion in defeating the Storm, and, by comparison, had little fire left in the tank when they took on Marcum-coached Detroit in ArenaBowl VI one week later. Detroit grabbed a 14-9 lead early in the second quarter and was never seriously threatened as they spanked the Predators 56-38 for their fourth ArenaBowl title in five seasons.
5/21/93 - Orlando 46, Tampa Bay 34
ORLANDO, Fla. - Tampa Bay holds Orlando QB Ben Bennett to 18 completions in 45 attempts. However, Storm QB Jay Gruden was forced through one of his worst days as a pro, completing only ten passes for 120 yards and throwing three interceptions as the Predators rallied from a nine-point third quarter deficit to defeat the Storm for the fourth consecutive time. Orlando scored 20 unanswered points in the third and fourth quarters to gain a lead they would never relinquish.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - In front of an AFL-record regular season crowd of 28,745, the teams traded leads six times before Orlando scored 16 straight points in the second and third quarters to take a 39-24 lead. But two straight touchdowns plus a Gruden-to-Stevie Thomas two-point conversion forged a tie with 10:57 left. The Predators responded with an eight-play, 45-yard drive that ended in a 14-yard touchdown pass from Bennett to Aikens. Befitting the tit-for-tat, back-and-forth nature of this game, the Storm responded with a scoring drive of its own, pulling within one on a 12-yard pass from Gruden to Keith Browner with 2:29 left. Tampa Bay tried for a two-point conversion, but Gruden's pass for the end zone is thrown just behind Stevie Thomas and falls incomplete. Bennett led the Predators to a first down, and they ran out the last two minutes to gain what would prove to be an insurmountable one-game advantage in the race for the National Conference title. For the Storm, it was a game that was probably lost on extra points. Kicker Arden Czyzewski missed three of four PATs, and the Storm failed on two of three two-point conversions.
8/14/93 - Tampa Bay 55, Orlando 52
ORLANDO, Fla. - For the second consecutive year, the Storm and Preds met in the semifinals. For the second consecutive year, the game was decided by three points. This time, though, it was the Storm who left the O-rena with their season still alive. Orlando broke away to a 17-10 lead in the second quarter on the strength of two Bennett touchdown passes and a Jorge Cimadevilla field goal. Tampa Bay then went on a 21-3 run off of three Gruden touchdown passes to three different receivers, giving the Storm a 31-20 lead late in the first half. Orlando forced a 38-38 tie early in the fourth quarter, but never managed to take the lead again. An Arden Czyzewski field goal gave the Storm a 41-38 edge. On the ensuing kickoff, Storm WR/LB Jeff Mayes recovered the ball off the nets and ran six yards for a touchdown and a 10-point lead which proved to be too much for Orlando to overcome. A last minute touchdown pass from Bennett to Billy Owens pulled Orlando within three, but the Storm ran out the clock for the upset victory.
7/1/94 - Orlando 61, Tampa Bay 40
ORLANDO, Fla. - In spite of being ravaged by injuries, roster instability and dissension, Tampa Bay came in with a three-game winning streak. But it was a streak fashioned against losing teams and against the undefeated Predators, the Storm was clobbered. Tampa Bay fashioned a good enough start, using touchdowns by Lorenzo Graham and Les Barley to grab a 14-7 second quarter lead. It was at that point when things got ugly for the Storm. Bennett threw five touchdown passes as the Predators went on a 35-3 run to take a 42-17 lead. Tampa Bay closed the margin to 48-33 late but drew no closer.
8/13/94- Tampa Bay 40, Orlando 39
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - In any hostile rivalry, most feel that even in the worst of seasons, a thrilling win over the arch-rival can erase a good deal of the negative feelings. That was the case with this Tampa Bay win. The Storm came in at 6-5 and a huge underdog to the 11-0 Predators, bidding to become the first football team since the Miami Dolphins of 1972 to go undefeated in a season. But with Bennett out and backup Duke Tobin starting his first game, the Storm had a window of opportunity. In his first and only regular season game with the Storm, WR/DB Latrod Garner intercepted three Tobin passes. Storm kicker Mike Lazecki won it with an 18-yard field goal in the final seconds. Orlando only mustered seven first downs, a franchise low.
7/14/95 - Tampa Bay 51, Orlando 34
ORLANDO, Fla. - QB Jay Gruden completed 26 of 37 passes for 284 yards and four touchdowns as the Storm scored 21 unanswered points in the late third and early fourth quarters to defeat Orlando and gain a one-game lead in the race for the Southern Division title. The game went back and forth for most of the first three quarters, and when Barry Wagner caught a nine-yard touchdown pass from Ben Bennett, the Predators took a 26-24 lead. Then, Orlando fell apart. After the Storm scored on their next possession, the Predators saw two straight drives end with interceptions. Tampa Bay capitalized on both, scoring two touchdowns on the ensuing drives, and the Storm gained an insurmountable 45-26 lead with 3:13 left in the game. In the process of winning, the Storm knocked out Predator quarterbacks Pat O'Hara and Bennett, which would trigger a three-game losing streak that took Orlando out of the race for the division title and home-field advantage in the playoffs.
7/29/95 - Tampa Bay 44, Orlando 20
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The Storm entered at 8-2, the Predators at 6-4 and with a two-game losing streak in tow. In order for Orlando to stay alive in the race for the Southern Division title, they had to not only win, but do so by 18 points. By midway through the second quarter, Orlando's slim chances had disappeared into the vast ThunderDome ceiling as Tampa Bay scored 27 straight points to take a 34-14 lead into the locker room. Thanks to injuries to Ben Bennett, Pat O'Hara and Russ Young, the Preds were down to fourth-team quarterback Darin Hinshaw, who was signed just two weeks earlier. Hinshaw floundered in the spotlight, tossing three interceptions.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Finally, after two playoff meetings, the Storm and Preds meet in the big one, as they faced off in front of 25,087 at the ThunderDome and a national television audience on ESPN. Tampa Bay came in with an eight-game winning streak, highlighted by their semfinal win over Albany two weeks earlier when Stevie Thomas returned a kickoff for the winning touchdown with seven seconds left. Orlando finally got healthy for the playoffs and put together a run as the No. 6 seed, going on the road to knock off San Jose and Iowa to set the rivals up for their most meaningful game.
But if ever a Storm-Predators game was anticlimactic, it was this one. After the thriller over Albany, the championship game was a decidedly less difficult game for Tampa Bay. The Storm trailed 8-0 and later 15-8 before offensive specialist George LaFrance broke loose. For the last three minutes of the first quarter and all of the second quarter, the score would read LaFrance 21, Orlando 0.
LaFrance's run towards the game's MVP honors began after an O'Hara pass to Alex Shell for a touchdown pushed the lead to 15-8. He took the kickoff and ran 57 yards with it for the tying touchdown. Two short touchdown catches in the second quarter pushed the lead to 29-15 at halftime.
Orlando managed to draw closer in the second half, pulling within six points at 35-29 on a 14-yard touchdown run by then-Predator and current Storm OL/DL Flint Fleming with 11:16 left in the game. But after a Gruden touchdown run pushed the lead to 41-29, the Storm clinched the win with 2:15 left when Tracy Sanders intercepted an O'Hara pass and ran 47 yards in the other direction for his first career touchdown.
The loss was the third in as many ArenaBowls for Orlando, while the Storm upped their championship game mark to 3-0.
For the Predators, something larger may have come out of the playoffs and ArenaBowl---the emergence of O'Hara, whose first-season success and immense potential would squeeze Bennett out of the picture in Orlando.
5/18/96 - Tampa Bay 63, Orlando 42
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The conclusion appeared foregone when splendid WR/DB Barry Wagner broke a bone in his leg one week before in Orlando's win over the Florida Bobcats. Wagner's absence didn't stop Orlando from scoring consistently, as O'Hara completed 20 of 38 passes for 277 yards and six touchdowns. However, the Predators' defense was crippled by the loss of their defensive stalwart, as Tampa Bay scored a series-record 63 points. Orlando managed to forge a 14-14 deadlock early in the second quarter before a 42-14 Storm run broke the game wide open. Wagner's injury wasn't the only one for Orlando---WR/DB Alex Shell missed the game and OL/DL Flint Fleming injured a knee, knocking him out for the season. The win was the fifth straight for the Storm against Orlando, the longest streak by either team in the history of the series.
7/19/96 - Orlando 40, Tampa Bay 39
ORLANDO, Fla. - This gave fans the most controversial ending to a Storm-Predator game. Going in, the scenario was similar to the game at the end of the 1994 season, only the teams were reversed. Tampa Bay came into the game with a league-best 10-1 record and had already clinched the Southern Division title. Orlando entered the game 6-5 and looking to secure a bid into the playoffs. The Storm took a 24-13 third quarter lead, but Orlando fought back to grab a 25-24 edge early in the fourth quarter. The teams traded touchdowns, with a Storm two-point conversion helping boost Tampa Bay to a 39-32 lead as the Preds started their final possession. O'Hara moved the ball to the Tampa Bay 11-yard line, but got knocked out of the game on a crunching hit by Kent Wells. Backup Brad Lebo---who started the season with Memphis---came in and fired two incompletions before hitting Alex Shell in the end zone with no time left to pull Orlando within one. The Preds went for two, and on the conversion, Barry Wagner took the handoff, looked to run, then lofted an option pass that fell incomplete in the end zone. However, the play was called back when Wayne Williams of the Storm was whistled for illegal defense. Williams, thinking the play was a run, left the restricted area he was in as box linebacker and came after Wagner. When Wagner threw, Williams was out of his zone. Storm coach Tim Marcum cried foul, but to no avail. On the retry, Predator FB/LB Michael McClenton plowed over the left side of the line for the conversion and the win.
5/17/97 - Orlando 43, Tampa Bay 17
Check out our game coverage of this disaster.
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