Chalk it up to growing pains. When you do not have a culture of winning, you must gradually build that culture, establishing a winning attitude, a belief that you will win, that you will finish what you have started.
Such is the case with the 2012 New Orleans VooDoo.
First-year coach Pat O' Hara has assembled an intriguing team, much improved over the disastrous 2011 edition. He and his staff have done a fine job coaching up a group of young players, many of whom are playing the specialized Arena Football for the first time, doing so against established, knowledgeable, grizzled veterans from other teams.
The result is an 8-9 record with one game remaining.
A victory Saturday night (7 p.m. at New Orleans Arena) over Georgia will clinch a playoff spot for the VooDoo in the weaker American Conference. A New Orleans win and a loss by Jacksonville at Pittsburgh will give the VooDoo a division title, the second seed in the conference and a home playoff game the following weekend. A New Orleans win and a Jacksonville win would send the VooDoo to Jacksonville in the opening round of the playoffs.
Should the VooDoo lose, it would be their third consecutive defeat following a three-game winning streak. That is indicative of a young team still in the maturation stage.
If the VooDoo lose to the Force Saturday night, New Orleans would need a Tampa Bay loss at Spokane in order to make the playoffs. Should that occur, the VooDoo would enter the playoffs 8-10 and the fourth seed, having to travel to powerful Philadelphia as the fourth seed. The Soul are tied with San Antonio for the league's best record at 14-3.
This could have been avoided.
The VooDoo simply blew one at Tampa Bay this past Saturday night.
Tampa Bay pulled out a dramatic 78-77 overtime win over New Orleans in an absolute thriller. It should not have been.
The Storm fought back from a 63-46 fourth quarter deficit to pull out an improbable victory. Tampa Bay deserves an enormous amount of credit for focusing, playing 60 minutes and then some, displaying fortitude and experience in the process.
New Orleans has young players. Some could be heard audibly during the fourth quarter, virtually celebrating while up by 17 points. That was an ominous sound emanating from some of the players. The older players knew better. They had been there before.
Back on May 4, the VooDoo were in total control of an important division game at Jacksonville, leading the Sharks 37-14 in the third quarter. They were celebrating a bit. It was premature.
The defending Arena Bowl champion Sharks forged back, partly due to recovering an onside kick to steal a possession from New Orleans and taking advantage by scoring a touchdown.
History repeated itself at Tampa Bay.
After Tampa Bay's Stephen Wasil connected with Joe Hills on a 29-yard scoring pass with 7:44 to play in the game to cut the New Orleans lead to 63-52, the VooDoo still had control. They were getting the ball and their offense was virtually unstoppable on this night.
Problem is that the offense did not get the ball.
The Storm recovered an onside kick when L.J. Castile was hesitant to jump on the ball even though he had dibs on it. The Storm scored again to cut the VooDoo lead to 63-60 with 4:35 left in the game.
New Orleans still had control. Get the ball, take time off the clock, score to build a two-possession lead and walk away with the big road win. Once again, a kicking game which has killed the VooDoo all season long bit them again.
Tampa Bay executed yet another successful onside kick. Experience matters.
In Arena Football, when an onside kick sails near the wall and is elevated, as this one was, players are coached to knock the ball over the boards, into the stands to maintain possession. That did not happen. Instead, two New Orleans players (Castile and Alvin Ray Jackson) were able to get a hand on the kick but could not gain control and the Storm recovered again.
Against a tiring New Orleans defense, Wasil drove his team to the go-ahead score as he snuck it in from one-yard out to give the Storm a 67-63 lead with 49 seconds left in the contest.
The VooDoo fought back as Kurt Rocco hit Castile on an eight-yard touchdown pass to give New Orleans a 70-67 lead with 22 seconds left, enough time for Tampa Bay.
As time expired, Juan Bongarra, who earlier missed a pair of extra points, drilled a 38-yard field goal dead center to force overtime.
In overtime, New Orleans had a shaky possession. A new receiver was confused where he was supposed to be on one play. Another receiver broke off a route, nearly resulting in an interception. There was a delay of game penalty. The VooDoo were down to their final chance. On fourth down and 15, Rocco connected with Josh Bush on a 44-yard touchdown pass and Gary Cismesia's extra point made it 77-70.
By rule, Tampa Bay would its shot with the ball. I surmised at the time that the Storm would not send it to sudden death if they scored, that they would go for two after a touchdown.
It was too easy. Michael Lindsey returned the kickoff 53 yards to the New Orleans five-yard line against a coverage team that was nowhere to be found. Again, the kicking game deserted New Orleans.
It took just one play for Tampa Bay to put it in the end zone as Terence Crosby, who earlier recovered an onside kick, ran it in from five yards out against a defense that offered little resistance.
Making a prophet out of me, the Storm did not hesitate, opting to go for two. Their coaching staff was confident that a certain play would work. They were right. Wasil hit an open Lindsey in the right flat for the game-winning two-point conversion.
It was a crushing loss. There were heroes.
Cismesia made all 10 of his extra point attempts and his kickoffs were good ones. He has clearly solved the season-long place-kicking woes which had plagued the VooDoo prior to his arrival. Rocco finished 20-of-33 for 366 yards and nine touchdowns with no interceptions. He rushed for a tenth score. Rocco added to his record-breaking season, surpassing Andy Kelly's single-season record of 96 touchdown passes set in 2005. Rocco now has 101 touchdown passes on the season.
Bush was simply amazing. A true leader and superb professional example for many younger players, Bush caught nine passes for 256 yards and five touchdowns. The five scores tied a VooDoo single game record, equaling the mark of Wendall Williams set in 2007. Jackson had his 14th interception of the year, tying him for the league lead with one game remaining. Playing in his first AFL game, Chris Duvalt had four catches for 41 yards and a score and made a great play, stripping Lindsey on a kick return and recovering the fumble to set up a New Orleans touchdown.
On the flip side, Wasil was outstanding, hitting on 24-of-39 passes for 358 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception. He added a pair of rushing touchdowns. Prechae Rodriguez caught 12 passes for 170 yards and two touchdowns while Hills had six catches for 139 yards and four scores.
New Orleans has been here before.
The VooDoo lost an overtime game at Spokane (68-62) on May 11. They lost on opening night (March 18) to Philadelphia (63-62) when kicker Joshua Shene missed a pair of extra points and had a field goal blocked. In addition, Rocco missed a wide open Quorey Payne in the final minute for a score that would have given New Orleans the lead. There was the debacle at Jacksonville.
Conversely, the only close game that New Orleans stole in the final minute this year was a 51-48 win over Pittsburgh on April 20 when Rocco hit Carlese Franklin on a 30-yard touchdown pass with 34 seconds left and the defense got a stop.
Young teams must learn how to win. The only close win New Orleans has was against a losing team. The close losses were against better teams, squads accustomed to winning in those situations.
Young teams make mistakes. New Orleans incurred 11 penalties for 129 yards in the loss at Tampa Bay, an alarming number. On the season, the VooDoo are 14th most penalized team (out of 17) with 156 penalties. They are fifth in penalty yardage with 1,004 yards.
Most importantly, New Orleans is dead last in allowing successful onside kicks. Opponents have been successful on 8-of-14 onside kicks, an alarming 57.1 percent. Why kick it deep to the VooDoo? Make them prove they can recover a kick and steal another possession, right?
To win the division, New Orleans must beat Georgia, a team they defeated 57-35 in rather easy fashion on June 2 in suburban Atlanta. Pittsburgh must win at home against Jacksonville.
Ironically, the Power are coached by former VooDoo head coach Derek Stingley. Can he help his former team? He did last week, beating Georgia. He could not the week before, losing a close game to Tampa Bay.
Experience is the only way to learn. The 2012 season has been a learning experience for the VooDoo, a painful one at times. Still, the finish line is in sight. A playoff berth is on the line. They are at home. If you posed this scenario to O' Hara before the season started, he would have welcomed it with open arms.
The young VooDoo must borrow a phrase from their NFL brethren. It seems to have worked well for the New Orleans Saints, who have embraced the slogan and put it into action. FINISH STRONG! This VooDoo squad is capable. They must simply FINISH what they start. It is not a cliche'. You must play all 60 minutes to win against formidable opposition. Anything less will not do. That is a lesson the 2012 VooDoo have learned in painful fashion during a season of necessary growing pains.
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