As expected, the New Orleans VooDoo 2012 season came to an end in the Arena Football League quarterfinals Saturday night at Philadelphia with a 66-53 loss.
The VooDoo did not go down without a fight, falling grudgingly to the heavily favored Soul.
New Orleans led late in the third quarter. Ultimately, a big play by a former VooDoo player turned the tide in favor of the Soul.
LaRico Stevenson, who was castoff by the VooDoo early in 2011 in favor of far lesser players, forced a fumble by New Orleans receiver Chris Duvalt at the Soul five-yard line and Stevenson recovered the fumble. Philadelphia took advantage, expanding its lead to two touchdowns, a lead New Orleans could not overcome.
Still, the VooDoo had a chance in the final minute, trailing by six points and with the Soul facing a fourth-and-ten from the New Orleans 12-yard line. Dan Raudabaugh's pass was well over the head of his intended receiver but Philadelphia got a very beneficial call on a questionable pass interference infraction against Jeremy Kellem. With a stop, New Orleans could have pulled the upset. It was a shaky call to make in that game situation.
The difference in the game was simple. New Orleans made mistakes and Philadelphia did not.
The Soul forced three New Orleans turnovers, including a pair of interceptions, and committed no turnovers. The VooDoo were victimized by a season long plague, allowing Philadelphia to recover an onside kick. The first two turnovers led to scores, as did the onside kick. New Orleans allowed an astonishing 10-of-18 (56%) successful onside kicks on the season.
That Philadelphia forced turnovers was no surprise. The Soul lead the league by a wide margin at plus -26 in turnover margin. New Orleans, which also thrived on forcing turnovers (second in the league), suddenly lost the formula in its final two games of the season, committing eight turnovers while forcing none.
Though New Orleans finished 8-11 and lost its last four games, there is hope for the future.
The coaching staff was a marked improvement, led by Pat O' Hara. The talent level improved dramatically.
A sub par kicking game cost New Orleans dearly throughout the season--the inability to return kicks effectively, the inability to cover kicks sufficiently, the inability to make extra points and the inexplicable inability to cover onside kicks had a direct impact on four VooDoo losses. The addition of kicker Gary Cismesia late in the season helped cure the kicking problem. The others must be addressed prior to the 2013 season.
Moving forward, it is imperative for VooDoo ownership to lock up O' Hara on a long term basis. He is knowledgeable and respected by players and by those around the league.
From a player perspective, there are obvious targets to keep.
Start with Kurt Rocco, the youngest starting quarterback in the AFL at 24. Rocco was good enough to earn a tryout with the Miami Dolphins this week. He is a cerebral type, who does his leading with his actions, rather than his words. He will only get better, providing he does not overcome odds and make it at a higher level.
At wide receiver, if O' Hara can talk Josh Bush into playing another season, he would do well. Bush was tremendous this season, the consummate professional, a great example to his younger teammates. Veteran Quorey Payne was very good as well and would be an asset. If he can learn to harness his emotions, L.J. Castile is a big, talented player.
Up front, the offensive line played competitively though there is room for improvement. They were clearly an upgrade over the 2011 version with Lorenzo Breland, Patrick Afif and Brad Paul. New Orleans must do a better job of protecting Rocco overall, including at fullback.
Defensively, the emergence of former West Jefferson and LSU star Marlon Favorite was a pleasure to watch. He is a positive, talented player who plays with great passion. His development as a good AFL player was obvious to all. Xavier Brown is a good pass rusher with a big future in the AFL. Former Ponchatoula star Robert Henderson missed most of the season injured but has talent.
At linebacker, Alvin Ray Jackson was the undisputed leader, the heart and soul of the defense. He tied for the league lead with 14 interceptions and was third on the team in tackle and the vocal champion of the unit. Keeping him on board is a must. Derandus Frye of West Jefferson has athletic ability and showed promise.
In the secondary, Kellem emerged as a star. The enthusiastic youngster had nine interceptions and was among the league leaders in passes defended and led the VooDoo in tackles. He played hurt against Philadelphia. Demarcus Robinson was excellent and is a player New Orleans definitely wants back.
Bringing Cismesia back as the kicker is a no-brainer.
All players are essentially free agents. Keeping your best players is a real challenge, particularly when it comes to established franchises with better facilities and winning traditions come calling.
O' Hara must tap further into the deep pool of talent in Louisiana, particularly South Louisiana, for more players. Familiarity breeds commitment. Hometown heroes are more likely to stick around on a long-term basis.
New Orleans needs a permanent training facility. Practicing outdoors much of the time is a detriment.
Another aspect needing improvement is attendance. The decrease in fans was noticeable from 2011, despite having a much better and more entertaining team.
The VooDoo must make a stronger effort to market their product. Fans like the AFL. On many occasions, they simply did not know the team was playing at home. The sports marketplace was unusually cluttered with the year-long Saints bounty story, Tom Benson purchasing the Hornets and the NBA team landing the top overall draft pick. Awareness is essential.
The playoff appearance was just the second in franchise history as the 2012 VooDoo joined the very first VooDoo edition in 2004 as the only squads to reach the playoffs. There is hope for the future.
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