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Shock discover they’ll need more than more cowbell

So this new thing … is it better?

This really is all that matters about the new season of loud-and-plowed indoor football that lifted off Friday night at the Spokane Arena. Even if there’s a championship, even if the cold and clumsy sacking of the old coach is forgotten because the franchise icon ordained in his place eventually pushes all the right buttons, even if the obsessive fan base latches on to yet another silly cause – cowbells du jour – these will all be subtexts.

The question is, is this still arenafootball2, Arena Football 1 or AFL 1.5?

The answer from Game 1? Only one of the teams was playing at a new level.

Much lawyerly shaking and baking went into cooking up this new incarnation of the Arena Football League, and thereby elevating the Spokane Shock into what now amounts to the majors of hockey rink 8-on-8. And there had been the usual blustery clamor for it here, thanks to the relative ease with which the Shock won two titles in the old stepping-stone af2 in their first four years of existence and won all but six of 42 home games.

Well, welcome to the sort-of-big-leagues, Spokane.

The 74-62 beating the Milwaukee Iron put on the Shock in the 2010 opener suggested that not only will the on-field plan and personnel be tested this season, but that so will the resolve of at least the casual customers – the spectator bailing began at halftime Friday – and the marketing acumen of management.

Also, don’t be surprised if the player shuttle is taken to Warp 3.

Some of the advance hype – starting with the coaching change last fall – promised a whole different game, and whatever this AFL is, it is not that, exactly.

At least, it’s hard to see it as such when two-thirds of the players are af2 holdovers. But that can be misleading.

For example, no player had a bigger impact in the Shock’s af2 era than receiver Raul Vijil, both in production and community relations. He’ll be the first to have his jersey retired here, if the Shock ever get around to that sort of thing.

But on Friday night, Vijil was out of the rotation by intermission, and his main impact on the proceedings was a wild lateral that led to Milwaukee’s game-flipping touchdown on the last play of the first half. Now, Vijil didn’t have a great night every time out in the old league, either; the point is, the great nights will come harder in this one.

“There’s no hands-down best on the team anymore,” Shock coach Rob Keefe said. “Raul saw it in training camp even the first day. He isn’t the only short, shifty, fast guy. The battle increases every day and he’ll get better because of that.”

Offensive lineman Ed Ta’amu saw it when he made the jump from the Shock to the AFL’s Kansas City Brigade in 2007.

“I can compare it to the jump from college to the pros,” said Ta’amu, who’s on injured reserve with a bad back. “On every college team there are two or three guys who are good enough to be pros. In the pros, everybody’s good. In Spokane that first year, I’d play against (Shock teammates) Jerry Turner or Ben McCombs in Bakersfield, but then we’d play Rio Grande or somebody who didn’t have a good defensive end.

“Well, in the AFL, I was up against somebody good every week – on both ends.”

Still, there were a fair number of participants Friday who never cracked the AFL, and a few of the ones who did showed their superiority. Foremost among those was Iron quarterback Chris Greisen, a four-year AFL veteran who threw for nine touchdowns, and 10-year man Damian Harrell, who drew enough attention that Greisen was able to spread the wealth to all his receivers. By comparison, Shock quarterback Kyle Rowley’s night would have been survivable – in the other league.

“The quarterbacks are better – less interceptions and more touchdowns,” said Shock defensive back Alex Teems, another IR lister with AFL experience. “It’s that simple. It was that much harder for me to make a play on the ball in that league. They’re more accurate with their throws, make a smarter play or had a stronger arm – one of the three. People will see that.”

They saw it on opening night.

“It’s going to be very rare that we see (scores) again here in the 40s and 50s,” Keefe said. “The quarterbacks are that much better.”

Making it a better league.

The Shock have some work to do lest they find that they’re out of theirs.


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