Ron James knows he and the rest of the Utah contingent in town had nothing to do with the misfortunes of the Pittsburgh Power through the first three years of the Power's existence. These problems were followed by a setback at home to open the Power's fourth season, a loss courtesy of the rival Cleveland Gladiators.
The new head coach of the Power, who was named the Arena Football League's Coach of the Year while at the helm of the now-defunct Blaze in 2012, also knows that doesn't prohibit them from doing something about it.
"It's been an unexpected journey, but one I'm embracing fully," James said after practice at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex on Pittsburgh's South Side Thursday night. "It's about building teamwork, continuity, and consistency, and making sure the players understand every facet of the game."
The Power (0-1) could use more consistency when they host the San Jose SaberCats (2-0) at CONSOL Energy Center Saturday at 5:00 p.m. on ESPN3 in Week 3 AFL action.
They could also stand to better understand every facet of the game after (to put it bluntly) stinking in every facet of it for much of 2013, especially in the last meeting between these two teams.
"Coach James has repeatedly shown the ability to lead players and coach successful teams," Power co-owner Lynn Swann stated in a Mar. 21 press release. "Our goal is to bring a championship to Pittsburgh."
It's a good time for the Power to welcome new leadership after exiled coach Derek Stingley, who won only seven games in two-plus seasons in Pittsburgh, watched his team blow a divisional contest it controlled for the first 40 minutes. Furthermore, with the first of its two bye weeks in the books, Pittsburgh has had more time to integrate its third head coach in four years—as many coaches as Swann's Steelers have had in 44 years.
It's not necessarily a good time for the Power to welcome the SaberCats, a perennial powerhouse that just humiliated the two-time American Conference champion Philadelphia Soul and did the same to the Power on July 13, 2013, in the most lopsided win (58 points) by a visiting team in league history.
"They're probably one of the most, if not the most, physical teams we're going to line up against. It's difficult for our team, because we're trying to gain confidence against a very confident club," James said. "But it will allow us to see what kind of chinks there are in the armor right away, and that could be of great benefit to us in the weeks to come."
Power quarterback and fellow Utah refugee Tommy Grady initially dazzled in his Pittsburgh debut. But he fizzled down the stretch, losing his accuracy, losing the turnover battle, and losing his pocket as well, finishing 28-of-44 passing for 271 yards, five TDs and two picks.
"The protection was a little bit problematic for him, which didn't allow him to set his feet the way he normally would," James explained, "and he pressed a little bit in the second half when his team got behind, which is natural for a competitor [like him]. We just want to settle things down a little bit, and I just want to help with the play-calling and selection. Those two things should help him play a lot better."
To mitigate that physical advantage held by San Jose, which leads the league in scoring defense, James assigned former Utah center Antonio Narcisse (6'2", 340 lbs.) to line up in front of Grady this week.
"It's all about a fit. You can throw all the talent you want out there, but you've still got to play together. I mesh real well with Tommy, I love protecting him, and I feel that's my job," Narcisse said. "I'd give my right leg to Tommy."
"You traditionally build up the middle in arena football, so to bring in a quality center was important to us," James said. "When you have a quarterback like Tommy, you want to make sure the protection is at a premium. When he's on, he's very accurate, and he's one of the smarter players around the game."
Expectations, intrinsically and externally, remain high for Grady, who is trying to recapture the magic of that 2012 campaign under James. While his coach was earning kudos for his work on the bench that year, Grady was tearing up the turf en route to league MVP honors.
"I don't think they could have brought in a much better head coach," Grady said, having shaken the shock of Stingley's removal. "He knows his stuff, and he knows how to win in this league. [In Utah] he built a structure and held everybody accountable, and made sure everyone was working hard every day."
Indeed, for the Power to have a puncher's chance Saturday, Grady has to take ownership of his mistakes in the lid-lifter. The SaberCats have an AFL-best plus-3 turnover margin through two games.
"We just got away from what we like to do offensively," Grady said of the Power's Week 1 loss. "We had some breakdowns at all positions, and I think we let up a little bit, and the game got away from us."
Cleveland quarterback Chris Dieker gradually stole the spotlight from him by accounting for nine scores in the lid-lifter. The Power, in all probability, won't have to worry about facing another seasoned veteran in Russ Michna, who was concussed in Week 1.
But longtime San Jose coach Darren Arbet might be able to allay any fears after seeing rookie Nathan Stanley complete 64 percent of his passes for 249 yards and six TDs in the win over Philly. Stanley was named the AFL's Offensive Player of the Week.
He's been spreading the ball around to journeyman Rod Harper, who leads San Jose with 16 catches for 182 yards, and Reggie Gray, a three-time All-Arena selection with Michna's old Chicago Rush teams and a player whose seven touchdowns are tied for the league lead entering Week 3.
Saturday, incidentally, is also a homecoming game for another San Jose receiver, Jason Willis. He was an original member of the Power, caught the first touchdown pass in franchise history and also happened to catch a game-winning pass that same year against the SaberCats.
Despite their ongoing futility, the Power have led the league in total defense each of the past two seasons. After adding pieces in the offseason, they don't want to just trade offensive chances with the SaberCats, but they may have to given all the weapons on San Jose's bench.
Grady will have former Utah receivers Aaron Lesue, Shaun Kauleinamoku and newly added Alvance Robinson to throw to, and he's clicked with former Orlando wideout Prechae Rodriguez, who caught three TD passes in Week 1, including the 400th of Grady's AFL career.
"It's a great opportunity for us to come in and prove we're not a pushover team," Narcisse said.
Timing is everything. Today, fans might just see Ron James as the latest sucker to walk through the doors of CONSOL Energy Center and accept damaged goods. Tomorrow, if he can celebrate a signature win with his new team, that perception will start to change.
Regardless, James has won in this league before. This fanbase should give him and the Power a chance.
"They have a great team," Grady said of the SaberCats, against whom he is 2-3 lifetime. "But we think we have a great team ourselves."
Together they can still prove it to this city and to the rest of the Arena Football League.
As far as Ron James is concerned, it's just a matter of time.
Statistics courtesy of ArenaFootball.com and ArenaFan.com. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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