On Friday, the San Jose SaberCats will play their first game since July 27, 2008, when they took on the Philadelphia Soul in ArenaBowl XXII. That game was a loss for San Jose (to the tune of 59-56) but the point remains that big games are a regularity with the SaberCats. Their first game in the AFL back in 1995 was against the defending ArenaBowl Champion Arizona Rattlers, so it is fitting that their return to Arena Football in the 2011 season begins with a game against the 2010 ArenaBowl Champion Spokane Shock.
The Shock are coming off their first full AFL season, in which they posted a 16-3 record and, as noted, a win in ArenaBowl XXIII. Lead by quarterback Kyle Rowley, who connected on 371-of-566 passing attempts with 102 touchdowns against only 11 interceptions, Spokane shocked the league and took everyone by storm, including the Tampa Bay Storm, who they beat in the championship. Rowley hooked up with Raul Vijil 82 times for 1083 yards and 33 touchdowns last season, and he remains the Shock's number one target.
San Jose sports a pretty decent quarterback-receiver combination as well, if you're keeping score. Quarterback Mark Grieb returns for his 11th season as a SaberCat, as does his number one target, Rodney Wright. Wright caught 134 passes for 1453 yards and 42 touchdowns in 2008, San Jose's last year in the AFL. Grieb, in 2008, had 4611 yards off of 415 completions with 100 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.
Grieb has been the quarterback for all three of San Jose's ArenaBowl championships, and ranks fifth in AFL history with 38,846 passing yards. He's among the all-time leaders in completions with 2,956 and touchdowns with 715. He's the most efficient and accurate quarterback in league history with a 123.2 passer rating and an AFL-top 67% completion rate.
The Shock had a lot of things go right for them in 2010, but if San Jose is anything up to their previous form, they'll have their hands full. Gabe Nyenhuis, the reigning AFL defensive player of the year, is possibly the biggest new piece for the SaberCats. He figures to be a big difference tonight, and brings some needed stability to a team makin their return after two years of inactivity.
It's unclear how much rust there will be, how long it will take to break in the playing shoes for the SaberCats. They have key players returning, and Darren Arbet remains the team's head coach (and now part owner). It's not as cut-and-dry as "the SaberCats will win if they are not rusty," as the Shock are a very talented team coming off a championship, but it is a big factor and expectations are high in San Jose.
We know what kind of team the Spokane Shock field, but we don't know how players like Grieb and Wright will look in 2011. That's the x-factor, and betting one way or the other seems reasonable at this point.