The 2016 Arena Football League season has officially come to an end, but what a year full of twists and turns this year brought fans.
If there was one word to describe and summarize the AFL this year, it would be its unpredictable.
The beginning of the 2016 season did was not kind to the league as four teams closed up shop in the AFL including the Spokane Shock, New Orleans Voodoo, Las Vegas Outlaws, and most notably, the defending ArenaBowl champions, the San Jose Sabercats.
The league was reduced down to eight teams, four teams per conference, with all the teams guaranteed a playoff spot. Going into the season there was four major title contenders: the Arizona Rattlers, Philadelphia Soul, Orlando Predators, and the runner ups from the 2015 ArenaBowl, the Jacksonville Sharks.
The unpredictability of the 2016 season started the very week the season kicked off with the Los Angeles KISS getting a huge 25 point win over the Sharks. In fact, for the second straight year, Jacksonville had an incredibly disappointing start to their season, starting 1-4.
The Rattlers are known for winning. That is all the team does. They are the perennial juggernaut of this league. However, when Arizona walked into the Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay on May 29 the game was seen as an afterthought from the beginning, but the, at the time, winless Tampa Bay Storm beat the Rattlers in a game that shocked everyone in the league.
The Predators quickly jumped out and made themselves the team to beat, starting the year off with seven straight wins and clinching a first round home game just 12 games into the season. But in that game against Jacksonville on June 18, Orlando’s season changed as quarterback Randy Hippeard was injured for the rest of the season, leaving backup Bernard Morris to fill in for an ArenaBowl contending team. Morris filled in the role maybe as well as he could, going 2-2. In those four games he started, he showed he definitely had the talent to be a starter rather than just a backup.
Philadelphia stayed consistently good throughout the length of the entire season, sweeping the Orlando and splitting the season series with both the Rattlers and Sharks. The Soul were beating the teams they were supposed to and splitting with the teams they were not, key to creating a very successful team.
They had the best defensive player in the league, Jake Metz, who led the league in sacks and had one of the most dynamic receiving groups in the league led by Darius Reynolds.
As the season began winding down and getting nearer and nearer to the postseason, it was a battle between Orlando and Arizona to see who was going to host ArenaBowl XXIX, and on July 18, a major step had been taken to deciding who would host the big one.
The Rattlers needed to win by 19 or more to control their own destiny with only one week left in the season after the Orlando game. Trailing by 20 points late in the fourth, Orlando coach Rob Keefe kills the clock to virtually no time left and kicks a chip shot field goal to bring the deficit down to 17, saving Orlando’s tiebreaker. The Predators had escaped.
Two weeks later, Orlando needed to get a win over the Soul to preserve their chance at hosting the ArenaBowl, after the Rattlers closed their season with a big win over Cleveland. Orlando simply could not keep up with Philadelphia on July 30, dropping that game, the regular season title, and the No. 1 seed in the American Conference by a score of 67-54.
Then came the circus that was the 2016 Arena Football playoffs.
The seeding went as follows in the National Conference: Arizona Rattlers, LA KISS, having the best season in franchise history, Cleveland Gladiators, and the Portland Steel.
Over on the American side the lineup looked like this: Philadelphia at the top followed by the Orlando Predators, Jacksonville Sharks, and Tampa Bay Storm.
And it did not take long to get a couple of great games to start off the playoffs.
First, the Gladiators and KISS battled in a great back and forth game in the Valley View Casino Center in San Diego on Aug. 7, the first playoff game in LA’s franchise history. The Gladiators eventually got the win thanks to a 22 point fourth quarter.
Then over in Orlando, the Predators and Jacksonville put on what some are calling perhaps the greatest game in Arena Football postseason history. A missed extra point coming off a last second Orlando touchdown sent the teams into overtime, Orlando scored on their first possession and this time kicked the extra point through the uprights. Jacksonville responded with a score of their own but decided to go for it all, interim coach Bob Landsee decided to go for two, and a Derrick Ross carry later saw the Sharks upset the Predators in Orlando, history had repeated itself.
Orlando had gone from being a single win away from having the chance to host the ArenaBowl to out of the playoffs in the first round just like that, showing that nothing is guaranteed in the Arena Football League.
The next week, after coming off of an emotional win the Sharks had to go to Allentown, PA to face off with the Soul to determine who would go on to face Arizona in the ArenaBowl, who had disposed of Portland and Cleveland in their two games, winning both by about 40.
The game could not have gotten off to a better start for Jacksonville as AFL Fan Zone QB of the Year, Dan Raudabaugh threw a pick six on the very first drive of the game killing the Allentown crowd. Both teams traded leads until two turnovers to start off the second half ultimately did Jacksonville in and secured the American Conference championship for Philadelphia.
The stage was set. Philadelphia vs Arizona III for ArenaBowl XXIX.
Both teams brought in a lot of the big season awards, Kevin Guy and Clint Dolziel won Co-Coaches of the Year, for sharing identical records (13-3) and both being on top of their conferences. Philadelphia’s Jake Metz won AFL Defensive Player of the Year, and Nick Davila won his third MVP award.
Going into the game the consensus was it was going to be a close game but in the end the Rattlers were at “home” (Gila River Arena in Glendale) and have not done a lot of losing at home, in fact they went undefeated at home in the regular season in 2016, so while it would be competitive, Arizona would come out on top.
That could not be further from what actually happened on the field.
Thanks to two Arizona turnovers, the Soul jumped out to a 21-0 lead. The first time Arizona trailed 21-0 since Guy has taken over as coach. The Rattlers being down by 21 at home, who could have predicted that?
Arizona eventually tied the game but had to play catch up the entire game and could not keep up with the Soul, Philadelphia played practically a perfect game, only turning the ball over a single time the entire game. Philadelphia won ArenaBowl XXIX by a final score of 56-42 in Arizona, with a much deserved win.
However, along with being a very unpredictable season, the 2016 season could also be the season of “what ifs” for a lot of teams. What if Randy Hippeard never got injured? What if LA started Pete Thomas or Nathan Stanley in the playoffs? What if Jacksonville did not turn over the ball twice to start off the second half against the Soul? What if Tommy Grady threw a hail mary pass to Joe Hills rather than a pass out on the flat to end the American Conference Championship game? What if the Rattlers did not give the Soul two free touchdowns to start off the ArenaBowl? Those 14 points off turnovers were the difference in the game.
While those questions remain hypothetical, the finish stays the same, the Philadelphia Soul led by owner Ron Jaworski, coach Clint Dolezel, and quarterback Dan Raudabaugh captured the Soul’s first title since 2008 in one of the most unique seasons in recent memory.