On the heels of arguably one of the most historic Super Bowls of all time, the NFL season has officially come to an end. As we are now two months away from a 2017 season that’s seen a lot of build up, we look back at the five best ArenaBowls in league history.
#5 – Going Out on a High
The first era of the Arena Football League saw one last great game before going dark and saying goodbye. The Philadelphia Soul, having made the playoffs three straight years, were looking to finally get over the hump. Meanwhile, the San Jose SaberCats were looking for their fourth title in just seven years, having made the playoffs for the ninth year running.
The Soul, having escaped with a divisional round win, carried momentum from their conference title game into the ArenaBowl, and took control of the game in the second quarter after finishing the first tied at 20. After going on a 26-7 run to take what was sure to be an insurmountable lead, Mark Grieb led the ‘Cats back to within clawing distance, making up two scores to get to within 46-34 after throwing a 12-yard pass to Jason Geathers. The Soul matched score for score, and nearly locked the game up with 39 seconds left when Matt D’Orazio found Phil Bogle on a two-yard scoring pass.
Grieb then led a near miracle minute, with the SaberCats scoring in just 11 seconds, then doing it again after recovering an onside kick. Lightning couldn’t strike twice, and the Soul notched their first title with a 59-56 win.
#4 – Dynasty On the Line
In what was the fourth of what would be five consecutive ArenaBowl appearances, the Detroit Drive were on the verge of history in 1991. In just their fourth year of existence, the Drive were looking to win four straight titles and cement their legacy as the first dynasty in league history. On the other sideline, a budding franchise recently relocated from Pittsburgh called the Tampa Bay Storm were looking for their first trophy.
Three of the biggest names of the day, and still some of the biggest in league history, suited up that day: Storm quarterbaxck Jay Gruden, Storm offensive specialist George LaFrance, and Drive quarterback Art Schlichter. In front of a crowd of more than 20,000, Schlichter and Gruden went toe to toe, combining for five of the first seven touchdowns of the game.
After a tight first half where no one led by more than a score, Tampa Bay began to pull away in the third quarter thanks to two long Gruden scoring passes. Detroit, after scoring to open the quarter, could only manage a field goal and went into the last 15 minutes trailing 42-30.
Schlichter found his groove again in the fourth and led two scoring drives to tie the game, but Gruden had the last say in the final minutes with a 35-yard pass to WR/LB Stevie Thomas, sealing a 48-42 win and the franchise’s first title. Detroit would complete the dynasty the following year, but Gruden had his first of what would be many big moments on the big stage.
#3 – An Upset First
The Orlando Predators had an easy ride through the 1994 season, finishing 11-1 during the regular season and only finding resistance from the Massachusetts Marauders (who just moved from Detroit) in the semifinals. For the Arizona Rattlers, however, despite having Hall of Fame talent with Sherdrick Bonner, Calvin Schexnayder and head coach Danny White, it wasn’t as easy after an 8-4 season and needing one upset in the semifinals.
The Predators came in favored by 16 points, and head coach Perry Moss immediately dialed up the plays to get Orlando in the end zone first. Bonner responded with a 33-yard bomb, but Orlando kicked a field goal to take the lead before the end of the first quarter. The defense stiffened before the half, as both teams only scored a single touchdown in the second, and Luis Zendejas kicked two field goals to give Arizona a slim 20-17 halftime lead.
Ben Bennett and Bonner continued to navigate tough defenses in the second half, as Orlando matched Arizona score for score and the Rattlers couldn’t pull away. Down 30-24, Ironman of the Year Barry Wagner made his last say on the game with a four-yard touchdown run, but Bonner answered right back, finding Schexnayder for the second time of the game to take a 36-31 lead after a failed two-point conversion. Bennett had one last chance with a Hail Mary, but the pass fell incomplete and the Rattlers won their first ArenaBowl in franchise history, leaving the Predators just short once again.
#2 – Signs of the Future
Long before NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner led the “Greatest Show on Turf” and won the Super Bowl, he was famously bagging groceries and playing for the Iowa Barnstormers. When ArenaBowl X came around, Warner was in the hunt for his first title, while the Storm and Jay Gruden were looking to complete what would be the second dynasty in league history.
Warner and Gruden were nearly identical in the first quarter, each throwing a 30-yard TD pass after starting the game with one, and the game was relatively mistake free until Warner threw a pick-six to Stevie Thomas late in the 2nd.
With the game tied at 28 at the half, both defenses clamped down the rest of the game, only allowing 24 total combined second half points. Gruden found Thomas one more time to take a 42-38 lead, but Warner had just enough time to lead a potential game-winning drive. He led the Barnstomers down to the Tampa Bay one-yard line, only for the Storm to respond with a goal line stand to seal their fourth title in six seasons.
#1 – The G.O.A.T. Gets His Ring
When ArenaBowl XXIV arrived, Aaron Garcia was at the end of a season of milestones: the first ever professional quarterback to throw 1,000 touchdown passes, and the first in league history to throw for 50,000 yards. Despite all that, one thing was missing from his legacy: a title.
Standing in the way was the man who would eventually take over the torch, Nick Davila. With both pivots entering their first title game appearance, and Davila playing without star receiver Rod Windsor (who caught 156 passes for 1,830 yards during the season), both the Rattlers and the Jacksonville Sharks got to work.
The teams traded scores in the first quarter, but thanks to two missed extra points by Marco Capozzoli, Arizona held a slim 14-12 lead. The Sharks opened up the second quarter with the first stop of the game, and Jomo Wilson‘s fumble recovery gave Jacksonville their first lead of the night. After the Sharks scored again to take a 32-21 lead, Davila led three straight scoring drives to give the Rattlers apparent control at 42-32 late in the third quarter.
Thanks to some tenacious defense, Jacksonville broke serve with just 5:22 left, as FB Kirby Griffin found the end zone from four yards out, and the two-point conversion gave Jacksonville a 53-49 lead, setting up the thrilling finish. The two teams again traded each other score for score, but when Kerry Reed caught a 12-yard pass with 21 seconds left, the third touchdown scored in the final minute of the game, the title looked to be heading back to Arizona.
Twenty-one seconds is an eternity in arena football, and Garcia proved it again that night. Needing only two passes to get within scoring range, Jacksonville had the ball on the Arizona 10-yard line with just two seconds to go.
Garcia dropped back, waited, and found Jeron Harvey in the corner of the end zone for the third time of the night. With no time left, Jacksonville celebrated what would be their only league title, and Aaron Garcia was finally a champion.
With ArenaBowl XXX just about six months away, rest assured that there will be more history to come, and it could possibly crack this list.