There are those in the Lehigh Valley region who trace their woes back to last November’s departure of former head coach Chris Thompson, who now directs football operations for the Albany Empire. Throw in the loss of starting quarterback Warren Smith to the Washington Valor and top receiver Darius Prince to the Philadelphia Soul, and you have enough ingredients to whip up a semi-plausible excuse to serve a legion of fans predisposed to a tolerance for underachievement. As validation, the Steelhawks have gone through three coaches and six different signal callers this season, even taking a page out of the American Arena League by putting in a coach at quarterback.
But those of us living beyond the Valley who tuned into the Sunday showcase of Steelhawks football saw an on-field performance far more infected by the AAL than a mere choice of emergency backups.
Symptoms of a metastasis are certainly there, chief among them being their inability to maintain a parity of talent with the rest of the league. Lehigh Valley has lost their six games by an average margin of 38 points, roughly the same for any given AAL contest. By contrast, the 13 NAL games not involving the Steelhawks have been decided by 12 points on average. Nothing drives away non-partisan fans faster than a blowout.
Disparity of line play is another trait of the AAL, where D-lines are far more athletic and headier than the O-lines put out there to slow them down. The Steelhawks’ offensive line has proven no match for any defensive front they’ve seen, and new head coach Danton Barto will have his hands full trying to fix that during the upcoming bye. The good news is that the issues are limited to two: getting the ball into the QB’s hands and getting the ball out of the QB’s hands.
Lehigh Valley is the only place in America where attempts and completions are more relevant to the quarterback exchange under center than the ensuing pass. In back-to-back games against the Sharks and Lions, ten botched exchanges led to five turnovers and two defensive touchdowns. It was so bad on Sunday that Lions quarterback Mason Espinosa left the game after three quarters with fewer incompletions than Steelhawks nose-tackle-turned-center Shakor Philip.
Not that post-snap is any better. Each Steelhawks QB has struggled behind Six Feet Under, which is all you see of Philip and tackles Peter Borum and Michael Williams after the snap. To a man, they are frequently blown off the scrimmage line in one-on-one matchups and miss assignments when mack linebackers blitz, largely explaining the nearly six sacks they give up each game on average. And that’s after original center Reginald White was replaced at halftime against the Sharks earlier this month.
There is, however, a silver lining, and that is Barto. The entire NAL may currently hover above his team, but fans and onlookers nevertheless have to like where the Steelhawks sit under his watch. Winning is in this organization’s blood, and Barto will have two weeks and the backing of owners Glenn and Mike Clark to undergo all the transfusions he deems necessary. He has an expansive network to draw from as a former NFL scout, and will identify and acquire the pieces he needs. That is a trait diametric to the AAL, where lower teams tuck their heads between their knees and pray for July. Then there’s Caleb Walton’s four-TD pass relief effort on Sunday, which sets a respectable bar at quarterback, and a too-quickly maligned defense whose real performance can only be measured after distilling the adverse effects of points and field position surrendered by offensive turnovers.
In the end every league has its Cleveland Browns, but be patient, Lehigh Valley. Yours is not an organization that will accept being down for very long. Philadelphia Eagles days lie ahead.