The Pittsburgh Power have grown all too accustomed to startling setbacks and the cold, menacing, between-the-eyes stare of adversity. But it seemed, following an early-season coaching change, the forlorn fourth-year franchise would be able to make that stress subside.
Now that the Cleveland Gladiators short-circuited the Power's revamped offense for the second time this season in a disappointing 55-28 decision before 11,087 at Quicken Loans Arena, Pittsburgh has been reduced from the talk of the league to simply an above-average team that's failed to take advantage of above-average opportunities.
With consecutive losses to the Glads and to the two-time ArenaBowl champion Arizona Rattlers, the Power sit at 3-3 as they head home for a critical East Division contest against the two-time American Conference champion Philadelphia Soul Saturday at 7 p.m. EDT on ESPN3. Like the Soul (3-3), who have dealt with early-season woes of their own, they find themselves in a crowded pack of playoff hopefuls.
The top four teams in each conference, led by each division winner, qualify for the AFL postseason. In the East and the South, the Gladiators (6-0) and the Orlando Predators (5-2), respectively, have taken comfortable leads. Beneath them are five teams separated by just one game entering Week 8, including the Power.
Since their inaugural season in 2011, in which they fell one game short of a playoff berth, the Power haven't come close, and the road this year will be no less perilous. Philadelphia, which is coming off a last-minute win over the East rival Iowa Barnstormers Sunday, begins a daunting stretch of schedule for the locals this weekend.
The following Friday sees the Power travel to Spokane to take on the 4-2 Shock, who have nudged out in front of the National Conference's Pacific Division. Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, native Mike "The Joystick" Washington, the Power's erstwhile franchise player and all-time leader in every major receiving category, has become a major threat for his new club with 374 yards and a team-best nine touchdowns.
The only thing resembling a respite for the Power this approaching month comes back in Pittsburgh Sat., May 17 when they host the expansion Los Angeles KISS (2-4). Still, despite offensive struggles, L.A.'s defense, which has allowed the second-fewest points per game in the AFL, is keeping the KISS in games.
After that, the Power go right back into the gauntlet at Orlando May 24, where the Preds have won four of five, and where their dual-threat QB is looking like a potential league MVP. Jason Boltus ranks second in the AFL with 46 touchdown passes.
Saturday was an exercise in futility by the Power against the Glads, but it was also an exercise in misfortune that has typified the younger of the two organizations.
For starters, having to play two undefeated teams in a row at this stage is a quirk nobody could have foreseen. It was a tough draw for the Power, who, before they could even think about earning rings, were focused on earning respect. They did while delivering near-flawless and emotionally cleansing butt-whippings to the San Antonio Talons and New Orleans VooDoo. Now they have to earn it back.
Secondly, who could have guessed Shane Austin would turn into Kurt Warner? The 24-year-old Austin, who led Cleveland with 201 passing yards and seven scores in Week 7, took a turn under center for the Power as a rookie in 2013 and generally looked overmatched in doing so. Since relieving Chris Dieker early in Week 4, however, he has been one of the chief reasons behind Cleveland's unexpectedly hot start.
Most importantly, the Power have received bites from the injury bug, and without a healthy receiving corps, the offense bites.
Prechae Rodriguez was money from the moment he donned his new uniform, scoring seven touchdowns for the Power before succumbing to a foot injury during his second game. A handful of replacements have combined for just five TDs in the four-plus games since.
Avid rugby player Aaron Lesue, who had provided the same spunk to the offense that Washington once did, may be lost for even longer. He suffered a serious-looking knee injury Saturday and awaits the results of an MRI Monday, according to Jerry DiPaola of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
The strides made by the Power's offense this season haven't been just a byproduct of new quarterback Tommy Grady's skill. It's been a result of Grady having options.
Shaun Kauleinamoku, like Lesue, was one of Grady's teammates with the defunct Utah Blaze. So those two, obviously, have strong chemistry, and the Hawaiian has a nice five touchdowns on 15 catches in his last two games. But depriving the Power of Rodriguez and now Lesue doesn't leave much behind him. That makes this offense, as the Gladiators just demonstrated, much easier to break down.
So how do the Power survive a month of May that is shaping up to be anything but merry, and could bury them?
The thing those other receivers have in common is each of them, on a daily basis, is just one phone call away from being replaced. If the Power have to replace Lesue in the long term, a suitable substitute might not come from within. This could make for an interesting week on the AFL transaction wire.
Whoever lines up on his side of the ball, Grady can help them out by picking up his own game. What he has given the Power in terms of execution, he has taken away in terms of efficiency.
Grady ranks fourth in the league with 32 touchdown tosses, and he needs just 429 yards to become the 14th quarterback in AFL history to throw for 20,000 in his career. Currently, though, he doesn't even crack the top 10 with his completion percentage or passer rating.
On Saturday, the Power were a combined 7-of-20 on third and fourth downs. The key number there isn't the seven. It's the 20. Several of those early third and fourth downs were not very manageable. Furthermore, the Power held the ball for over 10 minutes of the third quarter, but they only scored once.
The Soul will come to Consol Energy Center with a balanced attack that has averaged a healthier 61 points per game during their ongoing winning streak after averaging 45 over three losses.
Save for a sloppy outing in Week 6 against the Jacksonville Sharks, veteran quarterback Dan Raudabaugh has looked quite sharp. But he's had help from fullback Derrick Ross, who became the AFL's all-time rushing leader during his last trip to Pittsburgh, and he once again leads the league in all major rushing categories.
Power fullback Tommy Taggart has contributed steadily, tying for fourth overall with six TDs on the ground. Plus, thanks in part to Taggart, they've done a considerably better job protecting their quarterback this season. As long as the Power can block for him, mixing it up a little more with Taggart might open things up for Grady and whichever receivers get the nod in Week 8.
On the other side of the ball, the Power need their best player to be just that. All-Arena cornerback Virgil Gray has gotten off to a fabulous start in his first season in Pittsburgh, and the team's decision to play a little more zone served him well statistically, as he led the Power with 5.5 tackles and one breakup in Week 7.
But it wasn't enough. Gray got beat early, and Pittsburgh's ball-hawk defense, unable to right the ship in time, lost the turnover battle. Spotting another opponent a multiple-possession lead won't cut it against Philadelphia, which, unlike the Power, has relied less on its defense and more on its ability to outgun the competition.
Make no mistake, the Power, regardless of these last two outcomes, are a better, more capable team under Ron James. They're merely getting their first big taste of adversity since James came to town, and adversity begets opportunity.
The schedule for May presents an opportunity for the Power to get a leg up in the playoff race and an opportunity for James, just two years removed from being there, to prove he still knows how to mold a winner.