Thursday, July 29, 2010

Pittsburgh Passion Has New Master Plan for 2010 Season

From True/Slant on April 20, 2010:

It was not a good start. First, she was swept up in a blind-side blitz. Then she got dumped on her head and watched the play upside down. Next time out, she took a helmet, or two, in the kidneys. That was the beginning of the Masters era as the Pittsburgh Passion opened the 2010 season at the Erie Illusion on April 3rd.

Two weeks later, at Pittsburgh’s home opener, she was untouched. Against the Philadelphia Firebirds, quarterback Janice Masters’ stat line read: five plays – three touchdown passes. (The other two plays, it should be noted, were runs.)

That was all in the first quarter. After that, her last play of the game was to hand off to her back ups with her team comfortably up 28-0. The defense added a couple of touchdowns on interception returns, and the offense, in Masters’ absence, added a few more as she watched from the sidelines. The 49-0 shellacking of Philadelphia was a good warm up for Pittsburgh, but presents other challenges.

Talent, ability and organizational stability and structure varies wildly within the world of women’s full-contact football, as the Pittsburgh versus Philadelphia game illustrates. Though the Philadelphia website lists a roster of over 30 players, only 15 arrived to play in Pittsburgh and, against a team like the Passion which has a full-complement of players (by IWFL rule, 45 players can dress, much like the NFL), they are unable to seriously compete, regardless of the ability of those players. But this sort of pairing happens a few times each season — in which teams of such divergent capacities meet on the field. Although it’s not really good for anybody.

The undermanned teams take a pounding. Not to mention that it can’t be any fun and I often marvel at the ability of those players to drag themselves up off the turf to keep going until the final gun. It’s not good for the dominant teams, either. For a team like the Passion, they risk turning off potential fans. Fans may like seeing the hometown team win, but they also like watching competitive football and sitting in the bleachers for such a lop-sided affair, in temperatures more suited to a mid-October night than a mid-April is not the best lure. It’s just another pitfall in a landscape full of unique challenges that the Passion and their owner, T. Conn, have to navigate.

Despite those challenges, the Passion has built a solid fanbase, a brand and a tradition of winning. At the very least, they always hold their own against the best competition and have advanced to the post-season the last three years. That’s always the goal – to make it to the playoffs – but even so, there were serious questions about the Passion heading into 2010.

There are always roster changes due to retirements, injuries and attrition. At least, on the defensive side of the ball, Pittsburgh came into 2010 with the same tough defense. There were plenty of new players, but the core, the heart of the defense was still there: Plex (Michele Brevard), (Beth) Amato and JoJo (Warner), OG (Olivia Griswold) and Tia (Montgomery).

But even with the defensive strength, and even given that teams face turnover every year, it’s not often that a team loses: (a) the entire offensive line, (b) the offensive coordinator, and (c) the starting quarterback. That’s one hell of a rebuilding job for a team to undertake and exactly Pittsburgh was up against heading into 2010.

The quarterback is always in the spotlight, always receives more credit when the team wins, and is generally the most recognizable face on the franchise. This was as true of Lisa Horton as it is of Tom Brady, relatively speaking. The sight of #14 scampering around on the field, dark brown ponytail obscuring the name on her jersey, throwing b.b.’s or scrambling for a first down, was a familiar one for Passion fans. After all, Horton had quarterbacked the team since the beginning in 2003.

Of course, Pittsburgh had the advantage of having somebody like Masters waiting in the wings. She is not new to this, is well known by her teammates and backed up Horton for the last two years. Plus, Masters has a quick mind and is one of the best pure throwers of the ball I’ve seen in the women’s game. But her style is very different from Horton’s and one the team will have to continue adjusting to. Masters’ game is more Peyton Manning than Brett Favre, which is to say that where Horton was more prone to scramble or improvise, Masters is more likely going to progress with her reads from the pocket. And she has the arm strength to hit out-routes and deep post-patterns with accuracy. When she has the time that is.

The offensive line protecting her in front of her is entirely new. Gone were the line standouts who played years in front of Horton. Carol Dennison and Eden Pleva are gone to retirement. Sarah Young and Rhonda Donahoo are out with injuries. Lauren Bracco moved to the defensive line. So the line in front Masters, while not necessarily new to football is new to line play and for such a thankless job, the offensive line is one of the most complicated jobs on the field. There is much to learn and just a moment’s hesitation on the part of a lineman can mean the difference between a completed pass or Masters ending up on her back.

Despite their early foibles against the Erie Illusion, things got better for the line as that game wore on, with Masters hitting on two touchdown passes and completing five passes for more than 20 yards. In her scant time in the Philly tilt, she averaged over 22 yards per completion — all touchdowns.

The learning curve has been good so far, but the team will face it’s first serious test for the new era against the 2-0 Militia on Saturday, April 24th, in Boston. Providing time for their quarterback and opening holes for the running game will be a steep challenge for the line and one that will show just how fast they have mastered those positions.

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