Greensboro, NC and Worcester, MA hosted their first ever NAL games the solidifying the expansion markets for the new 2018 season on April 7.
This came off the heels of a long offseason with the league’s expansion efforts finally coming to fruition in three new markets including the Portland-based Maine Mammoths (although originally intended to be four new markets, including the Jersey Flight) after losing five of their teams from their inaugural season.
One issue that plagued the league last year and lead to these teams either folding or venturing to other leagues was the lack of competition within the league like the winless Corpus Christi Rage or the 3-7 High Country Grizzlies, so of course one of the goals with the expansion teams would be to increase the competitiveness and do away with the blowout 6-94 games.
Now, we know that that’s been accomplished by bringing in the new franchises but I’m beginning to wonder if they did too good of a job. In the division-less NAL it’s hard to look at anything other than a grand picture of the six teams, but an easy-to-draw line is between the three remaining inaugural teams (Jacksonville, Columbus, Lehigh Valley) and the three previously mentioned newcomers.
The Lions hold steady with a 2-0 record through the first month of the schedule thanks to dazzling performances against the Steelhawks and Sharks, coupled with two early bye weeks. The only knock against Columbus in this Old vs. New comparison is that the Lions haven’t faced any “new blood” and will have to wait until next week to do so against the Massachusetts Pirates.
Jacksonville have had an uphill struggle so far this year. The boost in confidence of winning on the road during week one in the highly contested match up against the Cobras, just days after losing veteran quarterback Tommy Grady was short lived. The following week Patrick McCain would leave the game in the fourth quarter and the reigning champions wouldn’t be able to secure a victory despite Ryan Walker’s best efforts.
Week 3 was also unkind to the Sharks as they suffered another loss this time on the road to the Lions, in which things got heated afterwards and lead to an infamous arrest of a Sharks player. After that the Sharks looked to shore up their offense and stop the bleeding by added a veteran Adrian McPherson to their roster at quarterback, followed by wide receiver Tom Gilson, and even aquiried Massachusetts Danny Southwick after his release.
Jacksonville wasn’t done bolstering the team, as they added Skyler Skersick at the linebacker position to further revamp the team. Even this new look wasn’t enough to end the Sharks skid, as they were picked apart by this same team that they had beaten by just three points in Week 1.
After losing a huge portion of talent in the offseason, the Steelhawks have more than stumbled out of the gate this season. A bye saved face for them in week one but with no such luck in week two, the ‘hawks fell flat against the Lions with final score of 50-18.
Caleb Walton and company found it no easier to win at home in Week 3 against the Maine Mammoths, as they continued to struggle and earned another consecutive loss. Week 4 saw the boys in black and gold continue to struggle as Higgins went down just minutes into the game, and was replaced by the previously benched starter Caleb Walton.
Before the game would come to an end, Walton would also be taken out of the game after a hard hit into the wall, leaving even more questions for the Steelhawks to answer.
Massachusetts started their season off with a bang, knocking off the Mammoths at home in front of an impressive crowd with a final of 51-24. A week 2 road trip to Jacksonville against a wounded Sharks team lead to a shootout between quarterbacks Sean Brackett and Ryan Walker to put 24 total points on the board within the final minute.
The Pirates may have came into Carolina in week three undefeated, but a last minute announcement sent Sean Brackett off to a CFL workout and left the Pirates vulnerable at the quarterback spot. They moved quickly to sign both Danny Southwick and Robert Kent to fill the void before gametime, but the damage was done as the Pirates put their first strike in the loss column for the year. Bruised egos aside, the Pirates bounced right back after Brackett’s return and laid waste to the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks in a 72-24 blowout.
Carolina faced the gauntlet right out of the gate, coming up just three points short in an attempt to dethrone the Championship Sharks. McCullum’s offensive crew dusted themselves off for a week two showing against the Mammoths of Maine, with the quarterback finding the endzone himself for three rushing touchdowns in a historic win.
Back at home in Greensboro, the Cobras took advantage of the Pirates hiccup at quarterback and finished off the Pirates for their second straight win. Week 4 gave the Cobras the opportunity to exact some revenge for the fading black eye the Sharks gave them in week one and the Cobras did just that. Carolina took advantage of fumble recoveries, underthrown passes, and kick returns to make a final of 55-21.
What does all this actually mean? Well, if stiffer competition was a goal for the league in expanding to Carolina, Massachusetts, and Maine they definitely found it. If the Lions undefeated two games in four weeks is the only exception, the expansion teams are top of the league and have a combined record of 7-4 versus the inaugural teams 3-6.
Not only are the expansion winning twice as much. Every new team currently has had a win over an older team and the Cobras three point shortcoming is the only victory of an inaugural team vs. an expansion in the first month of the season.
This isn’t a bad thing by any measure the more competitive games the NAL can have on the field the better for the league as a whole, and with future markets available for further expansion, the National Arena League could be gathering and showcasing some of the best talent in all of arena football.