Cleveland Gladiators 2011 AFL Preview
After high expectations and strong goals for the 2010 season, the Cleveland Gladiators limped off the field last July with a 7-9 record.
At times, the team resembled the squad that took the city by storm in 2008, but mistakes down the stretch and costly losses left the team watching the playoffs from the couch.
Can Cleveland recapture the success of 2008 and make another deep playoff run? That remains to be seen.
Here's a look at the team going into the 2011 season.
After career highs in passing yards and touchdowns, John Dutton will retake the helm at quarterback for the Gladiators in 2011.
Dutton threw for over 4,000 yards for the sixth straight season, pairing 5,104 yards through the air with 100 passing touchdowns. His experience in two Arena Bowl games and reputation as one of the best signal-callers in league history is vital to the young Gladiators' success.
Although the team is bringing back its leader and captain, the Gladiators lost their best receivers statistically from 2010: Ben Nelson, Brett Holmes and Chris Johnson.
Expected to fill the void from the first snap is returning 2008 starter Robert Redd.
He, along with Quorey Payne and a cast of young players, are expected to take the place of the departed trio. Russell Monk returns at fullback, where he started in 13 games and scored 10 touchdowns last season.
Dutton will be protected once again by Adam Tadisch and Billy Eisenhardt on the offensive line. Tadisch emerged as one of the team's stars last season, and his success almost landed him a gig with the New York Jets in the offseason. The two men up front are expected to create another perpetual pocket for Dutton to throw in once again.
While casual fans may not think of defense when they watch arena football, Cleveland played its fair share of hard-nosed defense in 2010.
For most fans though, when they think of the Gladiators defense two words come to mind: Tim Cheatwood.
The Ohio State graduate and local product endeared himself to fans when he recovered three fumbles in one game against the Utah Blaze. Joining Cheatwood on the line is returning lineman Anthony Hoke.
The linebacking corps returns names like Victor Williams and Mike Bragg, as well as a cast of young players new to the league. Bragg had 75 tackles last season as well as a fumble recovery for a score.
In the secondary, familiar names like Bragg, Joe Phinisee, Levy Brown and Davion Mitchell return, giving the backfield a similar look to 2010. The foursome totaled 13 interceptions last season. Brown set a team record for interception yards on his four picks, including one score.
Special teams woes were one of the key reasons the Gladiators struggled in close games in 2010.
Kicker Matt Denny only converted on seven of 14 field-goal attempts, and the kickoff team surrendered multiple touchdowns. Expect explosive returns from the Gladiators this season, with Davion Mitchell and newcomer Quorey Payne hoping to capitalize on their combined three touchdowns last season.
Steve Thonn enters his second season as head coach. Thonn (pictured) took over the Gladiators as head coach/director of football operations in 2010. Before joining Cleveland, Thonn led the Grand Rapids Rampage to the American Conference Championship Game in 2008 behind an explosive offense that was ranked second in the league.
He replaced Mike Wilpolt, who let the Gladiators to the National Conference Championship Game in the same season, but was not retained when the team was reorganized.
While 2010 may have been a bit of a disappointment, look for the Gladiators to rebound in 2011.
Expect John Dutton to capitalize on his successes in 2010 and polish up his chemistry with the offense. The early goings may be tough due to new receivers and a difficult early test against defending champ Spokane, but the offense should mesh well under Thonn and Dutton's leadership.
Question marks on defense and special teams make them tough to forecast, but the players who have been there before should help the younger pieces fit into the team from the beginning.
Players to Watch: John Dutton, Robert Redd, Adam Tadisch, Tim Cheatwood, Davion Mitchell.
Prediction: 12-6, first in American Conference East. Look for competitive games in the division with Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh.