How many fans showed up?
“Just enough,” said Huey Whittaker.
How many points did the Spokane Shock score?
“Just enough,” he repeated.
And what is it, in a quarterback’s game and a quarterback’s league, that the Shock get out of their guy, Kyle Rowley.
That’s right. Just enough.
Just as the Shock reached the old ArenaCup in their first season of existence in the departed af2, so will they play in the ArenaBowl in their first run through the rejiggered Arena Football League – a 60-57 victory over the Milwaukee Iron in Friday night’s National Conference championship game at the Spokane Arena being just enough to get them there. Or back here, rather. Spokane hosts Arena Bowl XXIII – yes, they like to gussy it up with Roman numerals, too – next Friday.
Lest anyone forget, it was Rowley who steered the Shock the distance to that first title back in 2006. There would seem to be little point in doubting him now.
“Just a bigger game,” he said. “A bigger stage. Exactly where we thought we’d be.”
You can say that again. The biggest fret for the Shock all week seemed to be how many of their loud-mouthed friends might be on hand for this one, a 5 o’clock start on a Thursday afternoon so that the NFL Network could show half-empty stands at kickoff. Eventually, 8,151 wandered in, some of whom managed not to interfere with play.
The Iron gave Spokane a few more sweats than might have been presumed after falling behind by as many as 19 points in the first half. But while a first-quarter safety was the game’s flipping point, the victory was assured by a fourth-quarter drive that was not a work of art as much as a work of persistence.
In that respect, it was pure Rowley.
It took nearly six minutes, an AFL eternity. Four of the seven passes in the drive went incomplete. On his first two tries from the Milwaukee 5-yard line, Rowley missed Markee White when he was wide open and then threw dangerously into traffic. But on third down, he found Whittaker for the final touchdown – impossibly getting the ball past Iron linebacker Marcus Everett, who is probably still wondering how.
“When I first ran the route, I knew I was open, but he didn’t see me immediately,” Whittaker said. “I had to get all the way across the box and I just threw my hand up. He saw me and just gave it a chance. Sometimes you just have to give it a chance and it’ll pay off.”
Yet just as impressive was the way Rowley bounced back from the Shock’s lone turnover – a fumbled late snap (“I’ll take the blame for it,” he said) that allowed the Iron back within two points. Rowley followed that with eight straight completions, including a pair of touchdowns to White, to restore Spokane’s momentum.
“Our coaches have taught us all season to have short memories,” Rowley said. “Bad things will happen, but you put them away and believe in yourself, and you’re going to prevail.”
Except that little bad has happened with Rowley at the controls -– particularly interceptions, of which he’s thrown a mere 11 this season. In two playoff games, he has 14 touchdowns and no picks. The Shock have now won 15 of 18 games, and yet Rowley is as underappreciated as they come. Maybe it’s because he’s an af2 survivor; he doesn’t have the AFL resume of an Aaron Garcia or a John Dutton or a Chris Griesen, who he outplayed Thursday night. It’s almost as if he’s regarded as a stunt double quarterback – his off-season gig – by AFL standards.
“I don’t know if he’ll even get second-team (All-AFL),” said Shock offensive coordinator Matt Sauk, “and that’s a travesty. He’s taken his game to another level in protecting the ball and he’s done an awesome job of putting the ball in places our receivers can go get it.”
If that doesn’t sound very sexy, well, then winning will have to be sexy enough.
“Turnovers are the one stat in arena football that really directly correlates to wins,” said Shock general manager Adam Nebeker. “You take care of the football, get some stops and you win. Yards and touchdowns are nice, but they don’t mean anything if you turn the ball over.”
Public acclaim, however, is not something Rowley sweats, nor is he especially inclined to any big-picture assessments of his season, beyond one.
“I’m not satisfied,” he said.
Maybe after one more victory. That would be just enough.