AFL’s Beltway Bowl Is A Matchup That Should Not Be

I’ve spent the better part of this past week asking myself, what right do the Washington Valor have to challenge the Baltimore Brigade for the Arena Football League’s crown this Saturday night?

Valor fans and those blind disciples of indoor football’s original league will say they have every right. The all-in playoff format was preordained before the year began. Every team went in eyes wide open, knowing the Arena Bowl would be free game regardless of the regular season. Most importantly, nobody lobbied for this as a handicap to help level the field. So, why shouldn’t the Valor get their shot?

Well, they went 2-10 on the regular season, so there’s that. Name another team that won 17% of its games and was allowed to compete for a championship. It’s the equivalent of a Major League Baseball team going 27-135 and playing in the World Series. The regular season has to mean something, but instead it’s been dissed by the AFL twice now – in 2016 all eight teams got in. That doesn’t happen anywhere beyond my town’s tee-ball little league, where every batter gets to score a run while anxious parents scream with delight when the game is inevitably tied in the bottom of every inning. Is this the level to which the AFL aspires?

Then, in true David form, they go out and slay the formidable Albany Empire in their first round series, if you regard splitting two games as some giant-killing feat. The on-any-given-Sunday theory also applies to Saturdays if you let it, and the AFL’s Competition Committee did just that. The Valor may well be a different team with Arvell Nelson at quarterback – as looked to be the case on Saturday – but that discovery should have been tabled until next year. After all, the San Francisco 49ers didn’t get asked to the postseason because Jimmy Garoppolo made them a different team. But where Garoppolo has found other ways to bide his time until his big shot, Nelson is giving the Valor the mulligan of a lifetime this Saturday.

Folks will say how much they loved the new two-game combined-score format, that it added an extra dimension of intrigue to the first round that nobody saw coming.  I’ll admit it kept me thinking. Like, why would you potentially reward a team for running up the score? What happens if a team lost the first game by one point and was tied at the end of regulation in the second? And mostly, why would a top seed be denied home field advantage?

The aggregate-score system was too gimmicky for my taste. It’s what ESPN described as the ‘bonkers’ tournament ideal – strip away all advantages the better team has earned over its opponent and let things play out in Wild West fashion. As they aptly pointed out, whenever you tinker with postseasons you increase this bonkers element at the expense of determining the true best team. It’s a great wow factor for casual fans and gives aid and comfort to the underdog, but it does nothing for the purist in me who wants the best team crowned champion, or to at least make it to the championship game.

Instead, we have the Washington freakin’ Valor.

To exacerbate things, the Valor were even given the right to host, not by virtue of being a higher seed than the Brigade, nor because the Capital One Center was this year’s predetermined neutral site, but because they drew more in attendance. Hey, what league doesn’t want their fans to have a say in determining its champion? Well, okay, there was the aforementioned MLB with their nonsense of awarding World Series home field advantage to the winner of a game whose starters were voted on by fans, but even they came to their senses and abolished that. Thankfully, Ted Leonsis’ construction schedule forced the Beltway Bowl further up Route 95 where it belongs, right in downtown Baltimore.

The fix to this embarrassment would have been simple: remove all the veneer that has made this iteration of the AFL comical.

First, take a page from the Elite Indoor Football League, a four-team A4 league that eliminated one team in the regular season, went with a playoff field of three, and gave the top seed a first-round bye. Rocket science, right? Look, if I get invited to a party I want to know somebody else in the building did not, even if it’s only the guy down the hall with the chronic BO who spits in your face when he talks. It doesn’t matter; I am among a select few, no matter how generous the selection criteria is.

Next, leave the aggregate-scoring system to Major League Soccer, that world of bonus time and flopping where buffoonery like this thrives.

And finally, if the Arena Bowl venue is going to be selected in arbitrary fashion, I’d rather see it based on the shortest beer lines in the concourse area, or best resolution on the Jumbotron. Really, anything that can fill my visceral needs in the here and now.

So, what’s done is done. I’ll be watching on Saturday and trusting that the Brigade don’t pull an Empire-like choke to make matters worse. Let’s end this act in the Theatre of the Absurd that has been 2018, get back to six teams next year, and do things right.

As for now, in Valor there is indeed hope. A bit too much if you ask me. And for that, we have the AFL’s Competition Committee to thank.

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