The Baltimore Brigade last played an Arena Football League game nine months ago, but the 69-55 loss to the Washington Valor in ArenaBowl XXXI continues to haunt coach Omarr Smith.
“It hasn’t gone away,” he said Monday. “That’s something that will be with me until I’m six feet under. But it is what it is. I learned a great deal from that game, and I’m a firm believer that sometimes you have to take steps back before you can go forward, that sometimes you have to fail before you succeed.
“Going through adversity in football, like in life, it builds character. That’s something that we teach our players. We played our worst game in that final game, and we have to learn from it. If we get in that situation again, we have to be better.”
Smith is not the only member of the Brigade to rue the one that got away July 28.
“It’s always been in the back of my mind,” safety Joe Powell said. “We fell short to that team, and it’s tough still thinking about it. Just thinking about that game, it’s been a lot of hunger and a lot of grind that I’ve put into this offseason to make sure that whenever I came back for this season, I was going to be on-point and on my A-game to help our team win.”
The Brigade are scheduled to open their third season in the league Friday against the Valor at 7 p.m. at Royal Farms Arena. Both franchises are owned by Ted Leonsis’ Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which also owns the NBA’s Washington Wizards, the NHL’s Washington Capitals and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.
The Brigade’s prospects improved since signing wide receiver Joe Hills on April 15. The league’s Wide Receiver of the Year in 2017 and a five-time All-Arena first-team selection led the AFL last season in touchdown catches (33), points per game (18.2) and receptions per game (eight).
Hills has scored a touchdown in each of his past 92 games — a league record — but insisted he is just one cog in the offense.
“Football is a team sport,” he said. “One guy doesn’t make or break the season. Is there pressure on me? I would say yes, but they expect a lot out of me being that my resume is what it is with the streak and everything that goes with being a receiver of my caliber. But I’m just going to show up and do what I always do, and that’s catching footballs and scoring touchdowns.”
The presence of Hills, Brandon Thompkins, an All-Arena second-team choice who paced last year’s team in catches (85), yards (809) and touchdown receptions (15), and Brandon Collins, who ranked second in catches (59) and yards (620), gives the Brigade a tandem that might rival the Philadelphia Soul’s trio of Darius Prince, Aaron Wascha and Darius Reynolds.
“We feel like the 1-2-3 of this league,” Thompkins said. “This is one of the best combos that this league has probably seen in a long time.”
Utilizing those wideouts will be the task for quarterback Shane Boyd, who was promoted from backup after Randy Hippeard, an All-Arena second-team pick, left to join the expansion Atlantic City Blackjacks.
Boyd, 36, has played for six AFL clubs, but said he does not feel any pressure to duplicate Hippeard’s success, which included ranking second in the league in passing yards (2,901) and touchdown passes (61) while throwing only five interceptions.
“This will be my eighth season in the AFL, and I don’t have anything to prove,” he said. “I’ve been blessed to be able to play this long and healthy enough to play this long and be wanted to play this long. … I strap it up and play to the best of my ability. I enjoy the game, and I enjoy playing with my guys.”
A defense that led the league in points allowed lost a pair of starters in All-Arena first-team defensive back Virgil Gray (still a free agent) and second-team defensive end Rodney Fritz (Albany Empire). Gray led the unit in tackles (73) and ranked second in interceptions (three), while Fritz had 10½ tackles, two forced fumbles and one sack.
But Baltimore added a pair of second-team selections in linebacker Joe Goosby and defensive end Darryl Cato-Bishop. Cato-Bishop was tied for second in sacks (three) last season for Albany, while Goosby ranked third in tackles (33½) for Philadelphia.
“We need our defense to play well,” Smith said. “We didn’t play the type of defense that we needed to play in that last game. … So our defense needs to play a lot better than we did last year.”
Outside of the personnel moves, the Brigade are no longer assured of a spot in the four-team playoffs. The league added two more organizations in the Blackjacks and the Columbus Destroyers, and each team’s 12-game schedule will include one bye week.
Hills noted that the league expansion will heighten the importance of every game.
“Now every win counts,” he said. “Last year, wins didn’t count because everybody went to the playoffs. Now everything counts, and I think it will be a little more competitive now.”
The race to the postseason begins Friday against the Valor. Smith and a few players did their best to downplay any idea of a payback factor, but Powell acknowledged he has been eagerly looking forward to the season opener.
“I have a lot of energy coming into this game,” he said. “I still have a chip on my shoulder from these guys. I still have bad dreams about these guys. I just wish I could bring that game back. But God is good. He’s given us this opportunity to play these guys first at home. It’s going to be a game to watch.”
April 26 vs. Washington Valor, 7
May 3 vs. Philadelphia Soul, 7
May 10 vs. Columbus Destroyers, 7
May 18 at Atlantic City Blackjacks, 7
May 26 vs. Philadelphia Soul, 3
June 1 at Atlantic City Blackjacks, 3:30
June 8 at Albany Empire, 7:30
June 15 at Columbus Destroyers, 3:30
June 20 at Washington Valor, 7
June 28 vs. Columbus Destroyers, 7
July 6 BYE WEEK
July 13 vs. Washington Valor, 7
July 21 at Atlantic City Blackjacks, 4