A reasonable person would have a hard time referring to a 3-13 season as a successful one for the Portland Steel. A deductive person, however, would conclude that the 2016 AFL season could have gone much more poorly for the Oregon-based franchise.
After suffering an 80-28 annihilation at the hands of the Arizona Rattlers in their home- and season-opener, Portland proceeded to play their next seven games on the road. No other team underwent such a travel schedule. The Cleveland Gladiators finished their season with six straight games as the visiting side, and tacked on two more in the playoffs, but they had the opportunity to get some experience and momentum under their belt first. Six of their first seven games (and eight of their first ten) were at home, providing stability and more time to focus on improving as a team without worrying about a travel schedule. Portland had no such luck.
In fact, they were supposed to have a home game against the L.A. KISS in early May, but the Portland Trailblazers of the NBA were in the middle of a playoff run and took priority in a conflicting day with the AFL schedule, so that game was played in Los Angeles (well, Anaheim) instead. Feeling unified and comfortable on the field is a difficult task when you are shipped away every week.
Consider also the inauspicious beginnings Portland had to 2016 before the season even began. Following the 2015 season, a new coaching staff was in place, lead by head coach Andy Olson. That entire staff was unceremoniously dismissed before coaching a single down due to the league taking control of the team away from owner Terry Emmert. Subsequently enlisting a completely new staff, with head coach Ron James at the top, and a new name and image (goodbye Thunder, hello Steel), the organization was full of excitement as 2016 was getting ready to unfold. Things took a sour turn in no time at all, beginning with difficulties under center.
The quarterback roulette began with Danny Southwick, who went on to be rostered by two other teams before the season ended. Kasey Peters filled in unspectacularly from time-to-time. Local legend Darron Thomas made his Portland return, and underwhelmed rather expectedly. Highly heralded Shane Austin completed the cycle ably, including a three-game stretch of 17 touchdown passes to one interception.
Unfortunately, his other eight games wrought merely 31 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. (For the sake of mild comparison, Jacksonville’s Tommy Grady attempted a league-high total of 589 passes and threw just 7 interceptions, one every 84 attempts. Austin averaged one pick every 22 attempts. Among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts, only Tampa Bay’s Adam Kennedy was worse, at 18 attempts per interception.)
The entirety of Portland’s season is easily summed up by looking at a handful of key team statistics (keeping in mind there are eight teams in the league):
– seventh in scoring offense (41.9/game)
– seventh in yards gained (252/game)
– seventh in scoring defense (58.2/game)
– eighth in passing offense, passing efficiency, and defensive passing efficiency
-sixth in third-down conversions (43%)
– eighth in opponents’ third-down conversions (57%)
– eighth in turnover margin (-22, -1.38/game)
– seventh in Red Zone offense (73%)
– eighth in Red Zone defense (87%)
In short, a recipe for disaster in the Arena Football League looks something like this: Score occasionally while relinquishing points often. Struggle to move the ball through the air, though making it easy for the other team to do so. Give the ball away regularly without ever getting it back, and allow the other team to score whenever they get close.
In case there is doubt as to whether the afore-mentioned statistics had an effect on fan support, Portland finished dead last in average home attendance, drawing 5,056 attendees per game. Los Angeles was the next-most sparsely viewed, at 7,056. In fact, the three games the Steel played at Arizona this season, including a playoff game, totaled more attendants (over 39,000) than all seven Steel home games (under 36,000).
All things considered, winning three games seems to be a monumental accomplishment for Portland. While wrestling the distinction of “Last Team to Win A Game” away from Tampa Bay, Portland managed to finish the season one win ahead of the Storm. In such a precarious position looking toward 2017, Portland would do well to remember to relish all of their victories (moral, metaphorical or otherwise) wherever possible.