Arrow-right Camera

Spokane Empire

Shock owner Nelson gets an earful about struggling team

Fri., May 13, 2011

Spokane Shock owner Brady Nelson stopped by the newspaper office on Thursday for some online fencing with any fan that might want a piece of him, and came away surprised on at least one front.

“I expected more cowbell questions,” he said.

Note that he didn’t say that he needed more cowbell.

As rough as the seas have been for the Shock in an Arena Football League season creeping up on the halfway point this weekend and as many fans who are seasick with the 3-5 record and off-the-turf opera, there remains – two years after the fact – a tiny, obstinate knot which believes its experience is cheapened not by poor play but by management’s violation of the customer’s right to the percussion of his choice.

But enough about clinical insanity.

Nelson did get an expected dose of pointed questions about why the Shock are last in their division, and whether the coach who took them to the first championship of this rejiggered AFL as a rookie last year is somehow over his head as a sophomore.

If he didn’t get enough online, we followed up with a few in person, such as: Were the firings and benchings that have kept the Shock in headlines between pratfalls and triumphs born out of panic?

“I hope they’re not,” Nelson said.

Hmm. Perhaps not as reassuring as you might like.

“It’s tough to say,” he continued. “Looking back at 3-5 is maybe different than when we were, for the first time ever, 0-2. I think the feeling is we have the talent to beat anybody and we’ve showed that, by beating Orlando and Arizona. But we have to be consistent every week like we were last year.

“For the most part, the hallmarks of that team were consistency, not turning the ball over and efficiency. We haven’t shown that this year.”

Ah, but they have shown a flair for palace intrigue.

It was just two weeks into the season when coach Rob Keefe decided to cut loose Fred Biletnikoff Jr., the offensive coordinator who’d been imported over the winter to the herald of many trumpets. Biletnikoff didn’t much like the scapegoat costume he’d been fitted for and suggested that schemes and playcalling weren’t the reason for the Shock’s troubles.

Keefe and Nelson called it a chemistry issue that could only be solved with a new, uh, chemist.

In any case, six weeks later after the Shock’s latest toe-stub, Keefe ceremoniously benched quarterback Kyle Rowley – which, fairly or not, led to a conclusion that maybe dropped-dead Fred didn’t have it wrong.

Backup Bill Stull will start Saturday against Dallas, with exactly one AFL pass – a garbage-time interception – to his credit.

As with the firing, Nelson confirmed this was Keefe’s call, noting that “I never say, ‘This guy has to play.’ But I’m in favor of seeing what Bill can do. He has a lot of physical tools.

“You only have 21 players and only a couple of backups – and one happens to be quarterback. There are very few things you can do to shake up a roster and shake up a team.”

Which, in one sense is problematic. Keefe virtually couched the change as a wake-up call for Rowley, which suggested a temporary measure.

“I didn’t make the decision,” Nelson said, “but I think we need to be willing, if Bill plays well, to stick with Bill. Or why are we doing it? But I don’t think Kyle is washed up and done, either. I think there could be some value in Kyle sitting on the sidelines and perhaps refocusing. It’s not like he hasn’t been benched before – everyone has.

“But the quarterback position is important. Until that gets right, I don’t think we’ll ever be hitting on all cylinders.”

It had seemed as if the Shock had finally tuned that engine with the back-to-back wins over Orlando and Arizona. But Nelson saw something missing even in the latter when, when Spokane blew a two-touchdown lead in the final minute and twice needed game-saving plays.

“I just don’t think we have an identity,” he said. “We’ve lost two games I think there’s no way we would have lost a year ago. I just don’t think you can say, ‘They’re a great offensive team’ or ‘They’re a great defensive team.’

“If you had to say what the best part of our team is right now, I don’t know if you can answer that.”

Well, what they’ve been best at is high drama. And that’s really no answer at all.

There are three comments on this story »