I wanted to believe 2014 would be different for the Pittsburgh Power.
I wanted to believe their franchise quarterback, a rugged refugee who boldly stepped through the same revolving door on Fifth Avenue as others who failed miserably, had finally arrived.
I wanted to believe their ownership, which brought in two other decorated ringers as part of a Michael Jackson-esque makeover on and off of the field, was no longer a rudderless ship.
I wanted to believe their beleaguered coach, equipped with a completely new staff rich in Arena Football League experience and absent the stench of nepotism, would be vindicated.
I wanted to believe them when they said it was their time.
Heck, they even made that into a hashtag.
But as the Cleveland Gladiators reminded the charitably calculated CONSOL Energy Center crowd of 7,472, until they see the Power donning commemorative T-shirts and/or hoisting trophies, they shouldn't rush to suspend disbelief.
"Going into halftime I said, 'You guys control the game,'" head coach Derek Stingley recalled.
Then, as few besides the Power could do, they lost control.
"I think we have guys in that locker room who are accustomed to winning, and they kind of relaxed a little bit," Stingley elaborated after a season-opening 63-53 loss. "We didn't underestimate our opponent, but we thought we were still in control."
That was before they were outscored 28-8 in the fourth quarter.
"Cleveland got some bounces that went their way, and went against us."
The Power held a 31-28 edge when they received Stingley's message. Despite the seesaw nature of this rivalry game, and despite the resilience of fellow veteran quarterback Chris Dieker, the prevailing story of this lid-lifter was how new signal-caller Tommy Grady was living up to the hype surrounding his Power debut.
Grady started 10-of-12 for 124 yards and three touchdowns in the first quarter alone. He became the 13th quarterback in AFL history to throw 400 career touchdown passes when he found Prechae Rodriguez for the second of his three scores with 1:35 left in the opening frame.
As only could happen to the Power, he appeared hurt on his first play from scrimmage after narrowly avoiding a sack. What he later described as an aggravation of an old rib injury only kept him out for one play, and he immediately hit Rodriguez for an impressive 47-yard scoring strike on 3rd-and-10 upon his return.
"We came out with a sense of urgency. We were breaking the huddle and getting up to the ball ready to go," Grady explained.
Can we safely say the 2012 version of Grady, the one that rewrote the league record book, is back?
He showered the Gladiators with offense in the first half, using the entire field effectively. But that early poise and excellence didn't stop the 2013 version, the one that got benched for Jason Boltus in Utah, from reappearing.
Rodriguez, whom Cleveland shut down much of the second half, was overthrown twice on key plays. Two puzzling offside penalties involving longtime Grady teammate Aaron Lesue killed an important drive, and his fumble prematurely ended another. A horrible miscommunication led to a LaRoche Jackson interception after the Glads had extended their only lead of the night.
"We didn't have that same sense of urgency as the first half, and that's my fault. We've got to play with that all game long," Grady lamented. "It was everybody. It was me, it was the receivers, it was the linemen, it was everyone put together. The defense played good enough to win the game."
Reassigned defensive back Virgil Gray, who is coming off of another All-Arena campaign in Arizona, was the Power's best player on the other side of the ball.
Can he, like Grady, be the young star and team leader of old?
He was responsible for a diving interception in the end zone that preserved a 31-28 halftime lead for the hosts.
He was also responsible for getting burned twice by Thyron Lewis for a pair of scores, including a critical one that followed Jackson's pick.
The Power, unlike past seasons, did not stage a preseason game or scrimmage of any kind. It was the first live action for a group entirely new to each other except for five returnees.
That means fine-tuning the man coverage the Power lived and died by in this East Division sword fight. It also means a defensive line conditioned to get pressure on the quarterback when it absolutely has to. Four of the nine scores accounted for by Dieker came on the ground.
"I don't think that's an excuse for this. We still should have come up with the win," Gray said. "I felt like I didn't make enough plays, and we didn't win because the defense didn't make enough plays."
Still, the operative word is "enough."
While finishing 24-of-37 for 235 yards and five TDs, Grady brought a greater sense of stability to his position than any quarterback in team history, with the vague exception of charter member Bernard Morris. He helped the Power to a 21-13 first-quarter advantage—more points than they scored in three games last season.
Julian Rauch was sharp all night, netting a franchise-record 49-yard field goal and making a tackle along the wall to stem a long kick return by Dominic Jones. When the Power finally stabilized their kickoff coverage, Arvell Nelson, Grady's backup, secured a loose ball for a net recovery touchdown. It was the kind of splash play this team seldom made last year.
Is it a sign post toward a different era for the Pittsburgh Power?
Or is it just another sad reminder they are their own worst enemy?
Between bad signings, bad hires and bad politics, people still distrust the organization. Frittering away a 17-point lead on a night when, through two-and-a-half quarters, it was the better team, not just the better hyped team, is no way to tear down that distrust.
The Power have two weeks to prepare to host a San Jose SaberCats club, led by former Chicago gunslinger Russ Michna, that flattened the in-over-their-head Portland Thunder in the latter's first-ever AFL game.
Stingley, who is stuck on seven wins in two-and-a-half years at the helm of his current team, has to be the one to lead that crusade. He's been outfoxed on a pretty regular basis, and he has to bear the brunt of at least some of the criticism for the way his counterpart, Steve Thonn, figured out his offense.
"I told those guys I don't know what team has ever won a championship in Week 1. At the same time, we expected a better performance," Stingley said.
Maybe, for the Pittsburgh Power, that better, more complete performance will come in Week 3.
Maybe it will be the first of many.
(Statistics courtesy of ArenaFootball.com. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.)