Before the Baltimore Brigade ever played a game in the Arena Football League, they were already playing catch-up. Quite a distance separated the team from its neighbor to the south.
The league announced that a franchise was coming to Baltimore in November, eight months after it did the same for Washington. Brigade coach Omarr Smith was introduced in December; Valor coach Dean Cokinos in May. Ted Leonsis, the founder of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the ownership group for both expansion teams, has said he envisions the local teams existing as sibling rivals.
On Friday night at Verizon Center, in the inaugural game for the five-team league's two newest squads, it was not hard to tell which was more fully formed. For their first 30 minutes, the Brigade looked helpless on defense, punchless on offense and generally less than ready for its entrée into professional indoor football. A resurgent second half gave the game life and the team hope, but it was for naught in a 51-38 loss before an announced 15,749.
“The first half was disappointing, embarrassing,” Smith said. “We weren’t good enough tonight.”
Outside the home arena of the Washington Capitals, Wizards and Mystics, retrofitted for the arena game's smaller dimensions, lines of fans stretched from one sidewalk to the other across the street. Some wore Wizards T-shirts or Capitals sweaters. Others wore new Valor gear. Few represented the Brigade.
Not that there was much for Baltimore transplants to cheer. The Valor scored on a 34-yard touchdown pass less than three minutes in, the drive's ease becoming all the more stark after the Brigade took over.
The team's first-ever possession began with a false-start penalty. Its first completed play was a bobbled snap that quarterback Chase Cartwright recovered at the 1-yard line. On second down, a fumble under center. On third down, a delay-of-game penalty, then an incomplete pass. On fourth-and-long — because, as the public-address announcer boomed, "There is no punting in arena football!" — a field-goal attempt fell 25 yards short and so wide left, it became a second-row souvenir.
That was one of several increasingly low points in the first half. After another Valor touchdown, Brigade returner Varmah Sonie retreated to the edge of his end zone to return a kickoff, leaning against the waist-high partition. When the ball fell from the field-goal net to his arms, his back to the field, his momentum took him over the divide. The crowd roared in laughter.
By the time a first-half video on the Jumbotron showing Valor fans how to celebrate a touchdown — arms spread into a "V" shape, naturally — played overhead, the Brigade had allowed three and scored none. Wide receiver Reggie Gray scored the team's first points, a 27-yard fourth-down haul from backup Shane Carden midway through the second quarter, but the extra-point attempt was no good.
The Brigade entered halftime down 34-6. Even Smith, whose team is the youngest in the AFL and who on Thursday acknowledged not knowing how ready it would be, must have found it disorienting. As coach of the now-defunct Los Angeles Kiss last year, his team scored at least 37 points in eight of its last nine games, and never fewer than 28.
“We obviously dug ourselves a pretty big hole there in the beginning,” Carden said.
Added Gray: “We can’t start off like that.”
The tide turned in the second half with Carden still under center, but it was too late. Former Ravens wide receiver LaQuan Williams’ 11-yard touchdown catch sparked a 20-0 run that drew the Brigade to within 11 in the fourth quarter and enlivened onlooking teammates, who stood next to the arena’s end-zone “Bud Light Party Zone."
But the Brigade's resulting onside-kick attempt failed, and the Valor scored again.
"I think it's going to take time," Gray said. "This is not a sprint, it's a marathon. It's going to take some time."