Football fans, have no fear, starting tonight you can get your fix again!
From now through July 29th, the Arena Football League will be in action all across the country. The season kicks off with tonight's matchup between Columbus and Nashville, which will be available on AFLnet through Arenafootball.com. Unfortunately, it isn't free like it should be for the first game. Check your local listings for games throughout the weekend, including a game on Sunday that will be televised on ABC. This year's ArenaBowl (XXI for those keeping count) will be held in New Orleans. Don't tell Billy Hunter.
As with the past few years, some major changes have taken place this offseason. One rule change in particular has many league purists in an uproar.
For years, the AFL prided itself on being an "Ironman" league. Nearly all players played on both sides of the ball. Teams were only allowed 1 substition per position per quarter. This forced teams to leave players in the game. To succeed in the league, players needed to be good at catching passes and defending passes, rushing the ball and rushing the quarterback.
However, this season, the AFL has instituted a free substitution rule. What does this mean for the game? Well, for starters, it means the Ironman could be a thing of the past. Teams will be able to substitute at will, meaning that rather than having a wide receiver defending a wide receiver, you will have more defensive backs in the game. Theoretically, scoring should be down this year with the ability to substitute in better defenders, but that will remain to be seen. One other interesting result from this rule change is the effect that it has had on rosters. Multiple teams are only carrying one quarterback on their opening roster so they can gain more depth on defense.
Enough about the rule changes. Now let's talk a bit about some of the teams in the league. I'd love to talk about every team in the league, but with 19 teams, that would take this post into Easterbrook territory and I won't subject you to that. Instead, I'll just highlight the top 7 teams as chosen by you the fans in the AFL Preseason Power Poll. Why 7? Well, 7 is a nice football number. Also, the 2006 ArenaBowl Champions, the Chicago Rush were ranked at #7 and I couldn't very well leave the league champions out of the preview, could I?
Arena Football League Super 7 - Pre-season
7. Chicago Rush
You guys were harsh on the Rush. Chicago finished last season with a 7-9 record, but won their last 2 regular season games to build up momentum for their big playoff run. Don't let last year's record fool you. The Rush return almost all of their roster and will be out to prove that their championship was deserved. LB/RB Bob McMillen serves as a great veteran leader for the team, having won 3 ArenaBowl titles. He's also the cover boy for this year's Arena Football League video game. Chicago fans will be hoping the Madden curse doesn't extend to other EA football titles as well.
6. New York Dragons
After going 10-6 last season, the Dragons have high hopes for this season. However, they will start this season without star quarterback Aaron Garcia, who also missed the last 11 games of last season with a broken leg. It remains to be seen if and when he will be back. If he returns to action soon, the Dragons could contend for the title. If he doesn't, it could be a long season in New York.
5. Austin Wranglers
Like the Dragons, Austin also finished last season 10-6 and are looking to move to the next level. QB Adrian McPherson has returned to the AFL, and the Wranglers' high powered offense should be one of the best in the league. As long as McPherson avoids mascots on golf carts, he should have a big season.
4. Orlando Predators
10-6 was a pretty popular record last season. The Predators rode their record all the way to the ArenaBowl, where they were upset by Chicago. They will undoubtedly be hungry to get their revenge this season. Orlando is one of the league's oldest teams and has some of the strongest support in the league. Their fans will expect big things out of them this year as always.
Intermission: The Big Four
NHL fans are familiar with the Original Six. The Arena Football League has what I call the Big 4: the Orlando Predators, Tampa Bay Storm, San Jose Sabercats and Arizona Rattlers. These 4 teams combined to win 11 out of the last 16 ArenaBowls (and 10 out of 12 at one point). Since 1991, there has been only one season where none of those 4 teams made it to the ArenaBowl. I'm taking the intermission to give these teams their due. And to have an excuse to mention my hometown team, the Arizona Rattlers, who you people didn't deem worthy of being in the Super 7. NBC more or less ignored the history of these four teams during their coverage of the league, instead focusing on newer teams with celebrity owners. It remains to be seen if ESPN will do the same, or if they will acknowledge the past. Given the experience of some of their announcers, particularly Mike Golic, I have high hopes for their announcing teams. Back to the Super 7 we go...
3. San Jose Sabercats
Hey, look! Another team that went 10-6 last season! As mentioned above, the Sabercats are a perennial title contender. However, this season they have completely redone their roster, featuring a whopping 23 new players. If these moves pay off, the Bay Area fans will be happy. If not, they will be in for a long season.
2. Colorado Crush
Last season, the Crush went 11-5, but were unable to make it to the ArenaBowl to defend their 2005 title. Despite their limited time in the league, the team expects to win. Look for Colorado to make yet another playoff run this season with their veteran-led team.
1. Dallas Desperados
You guys chose Dallas as your #1 ranked team heading into this season. Despite going 13-3 in the regular season last year, Dallas was unable to even make it to the title game, being upended by Orlando in the Conference Championship game. Despite some roster changes, Dallas should remain a strong title contender.
There you have it, your Super 7 to start off this season! Look for a new poll on Monday after the first week of games. Now it's time for the action to start.
So get your picks in, grab a cold beverage of your choice, and sit back and watch one of the most exciting sports in the world as it kicks off this weekend.