Saturday, April 23, 2011

Philadelphia Soul 61 at San Jose SaberCats 68 - April 22, 2011

The Arena Football League (AFL) began in 1987 and continued until 2008, when the recession forced it to skip a year. But it returned last season and is operating with 18 teams this year. Like the NFL, seeing Arena Football games on roadtrips can be tough as they only play once a week. In all my travels, I had never been in a city while there was a game, but that finally changed on this journey, when the San Jose SaberCats were home while I was in the Bay Area. The game was originally scheduled for Saturday night, but the NHL playoffs take precedence and the Sharks pushed the SaberCats to Friday evening. The visitors were the Philadelphia Soul, making it a rematch of the 2008 Arena Bowl. Both teams were inactive last season, so this was their first meeting in 3 years.

HP Pavilion

The SaberCats play in the HP Pavilion, the same venue used by the Sharks. I'm going there for game 5 of the Sharks first-round series, so I won't talk in detail about the arena here. The upper bowl is closed off at the ends for AFL games and the number of open concession stands is about half, so it's not a true arena experience.

However, there are some differences that are worth noting. Before the game you can stand right by the boards (they keep the hockey boards up and pad them to act as the sideline) to watch the teams warm up.

You have to be careful though, the players come right to the boards and sometimes fall into the crowd. Sitting in the first row can be dangerous!

Tickets start at $16 at the box office, but you can find cheaper seats outside the stadium. One good deal is 4 tickets, 4 hot dogs, 4 sodas and 4 bags of chips for $60, which makes it an affordable, if slightly unhealthy, evening for a family. Ushers didn't seem to check tickets entering the lower bowl, so you can sit where you want.

Arena Football

The basic rules are the same as American Football: 4 downs to get 10 yards, 6-point touchdowns, 3-point field goals, etc. However, there are significant differences in other aspects of the game. The field is only 50 yards long with 8 yard end zones. The uprights are very narrow and have large rebound nets to either side (below). When kickoffs, missed field goals, and passes hit these nets, the ball remains live. Kickoffs that go beyond the end zone or out of bounds are touchbacks and placed at the 5-yard line. There is no punting since the field is so small.

There are only eight players on the field for each team with three linemen on both sides of scrimmage. The offense has the QB, a running back who usually blocks and three receivers, while the defense generally uses two linebackers and three defensive backs. One receiver runs from deep in the backfield and crosses the line of scrimmage just as the ball is snapped. There are other rule differences that are described in detail here.

With such a short field, strategy is entirely different. There are almost no running plays, but since the clock doesn't stop after incomplete passes, ball control is not an issue. With fewer stoppages, there are fewer plays in a typical game, which takes about 2.5 hours.

The players stand in the hockey bench area. Coaches are actually on the field between plays to talk to the QB.

SaberCats QB Mark Grieb is in his 11th AFL season

The Game

Recapping this game would be exceedingly dull. San Jose had the ball 12 times and scored 8 TDs and 2 FGs. Philly scored 9 TDs on their 14 possessions, missing three field goals. Each team was intercepted once but the SaberCats returned theirs for a TD. Despite the close final, the Soul never threatened and only used a couple of garbage time touchdowns to avoid a blowout.

The two pictures above were taken from the upper deck - the lower shot shows Soul QB Justin Allgood throwing for a TD. Things weren't all good for him though as he was injured later and replaced by Ryan Vena.

The two photos below show a TD pass from Grieb and the subsequent catch by Nichirin Flowers.

The biggest problem with the game was the number of penalties. As this was my first AFL affair, I'm not sure if so many penalties is typical, but the crowd was convinced that the referees were the worst ever. I'd estimate that 1/3 of plays resulted in a flag. In one case, a quarter began with two penalties and nearly two minutes was run off the clock, a total waste of time for fans. The clock should be stopped after each penalty.

The other issue with Arena Football is that there are no real drives. In the NFL, you can have drives of 10 or 12 plays that keep the defense guessing, take time off the clock, and allow you to exploit your offensive advantages. Here, nearly every play is a pass so there's not much variety and a long drive is not possible on the short field.

The final score and a happy SaberKitten

I found the game to be far more interesting when I was sitting down low. Unlike the NFL, you don't lose perspective when close to the field. There were some great plays and it is frightening but exciting to watch these guys go head first over the boards.

Overall, I found the AFL to be entertaining but not compelling. I'm not planning an AFL roadtrip anytime soon but if I'm in town and there's a game on, I'll check it out again.


After the game, the players and SaberKittens had a short autograph session. That's Flowers below signing for some kids.

When San Jose scores 60 points, a local pizzeria gives 50% off a large pizza. So I know what I'm having for lunch (and dinner) today.

The fans are quite loud and many bring cowbells to drown out the opponent's offense. I noticed several fans, particularly children, were wearing earplugs in the lower bowl.

Schedule Change

I've decided to go to Fresno on Sunday after all. The pitching matchup in San Francisco (Beachy vs Sanchez) isn't that intriguing and it would take an hour to get there from San Jose, followed by a five-hour drive to Bakersfield afterwards. It's easier to make the 3-hour drive to Fresno, watch the game, and then finish the last hour and a bit to Bakersfield, arriving in time to catch the last half of Sunday night baseball.

Today, I've got a two-sport doubleheader: the San Jose Earthquakes host Chivas USA in MLS action in the afternoon while the Sharks take on the LA Kings in game 5 of their first-round series in the evening. Check back to see if I witness the Kings' elimination for the second straight season.



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