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Sunday, February 12, 2006

AFL: Brigade gameday

11:44 a.m. - First impressions
The floor of Kemper Arena is covered with the unmarred surface of a brand new football field. Danni Boatwright is over to the side, chatting up the suddenly famous Wingman. The stadium is filling fast. There was already quite a stir when the Brigade came through the tunnel for pregame stretches. There is a dancing snow cone bustin' a move in the aisle. Ah, the sights and sounds of Arena Football.

As the local Arena Football expert and officially sanctioned media professional (or what HST would call a media wizard) I felt it was my duty to record my observations from this, my first in-person AFL game. Well, to tell the truth, I just really don't have anything better to do and I brought my computer.

My seat is a precarious one. I'm right behind the south end zone, right up against the rear wall underneath the goalpost support. Having watched many arena games this season, I have good reason to fear for the life of my laptop. These guys are big and fast and they come hurtling against the sideboards with an unnatural momentum. I've seen quite a few player / fan communions but, thankfully, none that resulted in bodily injury. Nevertheless, if you cough up the $110 for a front row seat, stay alert.

I see that Brian Poli-Dixon is suited up. Been wondering what happened to him. I know he has to learn the arena game, no small task. Plus he's built pretty slight. If he's not the offensive specialist, it'll be interesting to see him play defense. But, on offense, I've seen how a big, tall receiver like Colorado's Andy McCullough or Georgia's Derek Lee can really be an important weapon in the red zone. (And, yes, the arena game has a red zone. And it's not the whole field.)

More to come ...

12:28 p.m. - How I learned to stop worrying and love the arena game
Since I have made myself a local AFL guru, perhaps I should take the opportunity to explain my genesis. I had watched only a couple of Arena games up to last season. Didn't know much about the game or league. But with the Sprint Center going up, I knew that Kansas City would at some point get a shot at getting a team. So I started to watch and quickly became a convert. Since then, I tape every game I can get with my TiVo and satellite dish. Entering this week, I've watched well over half the games played and listened to several others through Web broadcasts.
(Consumer warning: If you ever desire to listen to a Dallas Desperados game, do everything you can to find the broadcast of the opposing team. The home radio broadcast is the most annoying thing I've encountered since the heyday of Gilbert Gottfried.)

There is a whole dynamic to arena football that sets it apart from the stadium game as a truly unique and different sport, not just a gimmicky imitation of the NFL. The game has tremendous pace and rhythm. No replays. Running clocks. With so many two-way players, it is fascinating to watch the mano-a-mano matchups.

Most of all, I really love the concept that teams are expected to score a touchdown on the majority of their possessions. Through last night, teams have scored on 276 of 514 possessions, or 53.7%. The best teams push that conversion figure to 75-80%. If you can't score at that pace, you can't win consistently in the AFL.

Last night, the New York Dragons beat the Utah Blaze 84-81 in the second-highest scoring game in Arena history. They fell two points short and Utah had the ball deep in New York territory when the game ended. In such a contest, it's the defensive stops (if one ever occurs) and the quirky bounces of kickoffs off the net that decide the contest. Most games go to the final minute, even the ones that don't look so close on the final scoreboard. A quick touchdown and an onsides kick can get teams back into a game in a hurry. I still love the stadium game, the battles for field position, teams establishing a power running game, etc. But, as I say, this game is different. Has a whole different dynamic. And it truly stands on its own as a game to appreciate.

So enough of that. I just looked up and saw that the place is nearly full and the crowd is really buzzing. I'll be back with some more comments on the first half. Hope you enjoy the game. This is nuts - I've never been in Kemper Arena when it was even half-capacity.

12:54 p.m. - Do I have any eyebrows left?
Man, these pyrotechnics are hot. I have to admit. I not much one for these pregame shenanigans. Flip the coin. Kickoff. That's plenty for me. The crowd seems to like it though. Of course. Is there a fire marshal in the house?

1:05 p.m. - Obstructed view
The cheerleaders are standing right in front of me, blocking the coin flip which involves the league's enormous commissioner and the mayor. This is a complaint. Really.

2:15 p.m. - Halftime. No, really. This time it's halftime.
Not the prettiest first half I've seen. Having watched all of Austin's games this season, I can tell you that no team, except perhaps Orlando, can uglify a game like Skip Foster's bunch. Wranglers' WR/LB Kevin Nickerson, who went to Central High and Central Missouri, scored two first-half touchdowns in his return to K.C.

We had our first Brian Poli-Dixon sighting of the season. He didn't do much. On defense he was playing "mac linebacker." That's the one that just sort of slides back and forth like a foosball piece. Dixon does not look like a defender. Andy Kelly didn't look his way but with his height, I was surprised Dixon didn't get a look down near the end zone.

The half seemed to end once when Steve Smith was tackled inbounds. Kelly frantically signaled for a timeout but the inattentive officials allowed several seconds elapse. As they stood around and deliberated, Austin cleared out and headed for the locker room, while Kelly jumped and down and waved his arms frantically in the officials' face.

After about three minutes and with the Cobras ready to start their halftime presentation, they finally decided to put 3. 5 seconds back on the clock. Austin was recalled from the bowels of Kemper Arena and Tim Seder missed a long field goal to end the half.

These end-of-game, end-of-half time issues are the biggest complaint that I have about the AFL at this point. I'm glad they don't have instant replay, which I think really disrupts the rhythm of a game. But there should be some apparatus in place that allows officials to check the clock at the end of a half. The Brigade were burned on this last week at Orlando. Utah suffered the same fate last night. Seems like it would be an easy loophole to close. Gigantic AFL commissioner David Baker is speaking at the postgame press conference. I might ask him about this but, at the same time, I'm concerned he might crush me like a grape.

It's 24-17 Austin. Kelly threw one touchdown. Entering this week, he trailed New York's Aaron Garcia for the all-time league lead. But Garcia threw 10 touchdowns last night in that wild game at Utah. (Utah quarterback Joe Germaine also racked up 10 TD passes. Both tied for second-most in a league game. Garcia is among those who hold the record of 11.)

2:57 p.m. - One quarter to go
Brigade trail 31-30 after three quarters. Action was more brisk in the third quarter and the crowd is still really into the game. Tim Seder just missed a long field goal, which was really a glorified punt. This puts the Brigade down a possession, pending the outcome of the current Austin set. K.C. has nine possessions in the game, Austin has completed eight. If the Wranglers score, the Brigade will be behind by one possession. A field goal puts them down 1/2 possession. This is how you have to score Arena football and is why I always keep a simple scorecard of drive outcomes. Of course, I also apply average point values, etc. Austin has 6.20 efficiency right now, the Brigade are at 5.14.

5:31 p.m. - And they all went home semi-happy
It was another last minute disappointment for the Brigade as Andy Kelly overthrew a receiver in the back of the end zone as time expired. Austin won 37-33. Wasn't the most artistic game, not many of the big plays that earmark most AFL contests.

After the game, there seemed to be a lot of fans who took advantage of the AFL's policy of having players come back onto the field to sign autographs after the game. Players from both teams milled around, chatting with fans, as did AFL commissioner David Baker. The game was a success at the gate, to be sure. And the crowd was into it all the way through and stayed till the end. Sometimes it seemed like they didn't know what they were cheering for. As Austin coach Skip Foster told me after the game, it sometimes takes awhile for fans to learn the nuances in Arena games. Of course, that is sort of my mission with my Arena notebook - to shorten the learning curve.

It was an interesting game and the Brigade are showing that they can go toe-to-toe with good AFL teams. In the razor-thin margin of error in most Arena games, it is the playmakers who make the difference: the big hitters, the ballhawks, the surehanded receiver who can grab the floater in the red zone. So far, the Brigade haven't had as many of those players or those plays as their opponents. The result? 0-3.

But does that really matter to 16,532 fans who packed the stands at Kemper this afternoon? I don't think so, not at this point. Brigade coach Kevin Porter praised the atmosphere created by the fans, who seemed to definitely take their cues from their collective Arrowhead Stadium background. (At the end of the national anthem, was that a Chiefs! I heard?) He also hoped that K.C. showed enough to bring them back next week.

My guess is that the Brigade showed plenty.

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