Preparing for a repeat

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- Heading into their third year as an arena football franchise, the Albany Panthers are no longer rookies to the game as they now prepare for their next campaign as one of the veterans of the Southern Indoor Football League.

But spending the offseason as defending league champions will be something entirely new.

The summer promises to be a busy one for the Panthers, who are only a few weeks removed from their first SIFL title, hoisting of the championship trophy and celebratory parade downtown.

And Panthers GM Will Carter and his staff are already making plans for No. 2.

"(Myself and the front office staff), as well as (head coach Lucious) Davis will be here all summer, working hard to get ready for next year," Carter said Tuesday. "Just because it's the offseason and we're coming off a championship, doesn't mean there isn't a lot to do. If anything, there's more than ever."

The Panthers, most immediately, plan to begin holding camps and tryouts throughout the Southeast as they look for new additions to their roster. Carter says the team also will have an increased presence throughout Southwest Georgia by attending festivals and fairs, high school football games and showing the championship trophy off around the area.

"The marketing of our team to everyone in the area gets turned up a notch now that we're champs. We're going to ride this (success) until the wheels fall off," Carter said with a laugh. "Then hopefully go out and win another one."

Before they can do that, however, the franchise must first attend the SIFL's annual league meetings in August in Louisiana, where it hopes to have its voice heard on a number of issues, namely the possibility of expansion (and maybe even contraction), not to mention the process of stringently vetting new owners who want to join the league and -- of course -- the clarifying of the controversial drop-kick rule that somewhat marred Albany's 69-48 title game win against the Louisiana Swashbucklers. The Panthers had points taken off the board at halftime when it was determined Albany's drop-kicks on PATs were worth only one point, rather than two, even though it had been awarded two points in previous games.

"I think the first topic that will be brought up at the meetings is, 'How do we solve the problem of having stronger ownership in the league?' " Carter said. "Some of the issues the league had this year with teams playing three or four games and then folding up shop -- forcing teams in the league to play replacement teams -- didn't really affect us, but going forward I think we need to determine a better background-check process to ensure that we don't let anyone in who's going to flake out."

When the SIFL incorporated several former American Indoor Football Association teams from the Northeast before the start of the season and accepted teams from as far West as Texas, the league sacrificed some stability. That showed when the Lafayette (La.) Wildcatters shut down shortly before the start of the season because the team could not afford worker's compensation insurance; or when the Mobile Bay Tarpons Force failed to pay players for several weeks, leading to the teams' demise midseason; and when many of the Fayetteville (N.C.) players quit early in the season after they also were not paid.

"The whole idea going forward (in what will be the league's fourth year of existence) is that we want to make the SIFL stronger," Carter said.

SIFL President Thom Hager agreed in an interview with The Herald earlier this month, saying he finally has a solid idea of "who we want to be in business with."

"I've been burned a time or two by some people who've ended up costing me tens of thousands of dollars and hurt this league, and right now I know exactly who we want to be in business with," Hager said. "I know which teams are coming back, I know which teams aren't and one thing's for sure -- I have a business model that lends itself to us becoming a very strong football league."

That might be music to Carter and the Panthers' ears. When the league expanded from five teams to 16 last offseason, the word "Southern" in the SIFL became a bit of a stretch. Teams were welcomed in as far North as Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey and as far west as Texas. Carter says, selfishly, he'd still like to keep those teams located further away in the fold, but only have to play them -- in the interest of all the franchise's somewhat limited travel budgets -- when the postseason rolls around.

He expects this to be another hot topic at the league meetings.

"I would like to maybe see us go to four divisions (opposed to five this year) and have us just play the teams in our immediate region during the regular season, and then have the two sides meet up closer to the playoffs, or even in the playoffs," he said. "I do like having the other teams in the league because -- from a fan standpoint -- I don't think our fans like to see us play Alabama or Columbus three or four times a year, even though the rivalry with those two teams has gotten pretty good."

Davis said he actually likes playing teams the Panthers aren't familiar with, although he also understands the other side of the coin when it comes to travel.

"As a coach, I like the challenge of being able to prepare for a team we've never seen before and have no common opponents with," he said. "Like with Erie (Penn.) -- they came in scoring 70 points a game, and our defense was giving up an average of just 50, so now the question becomes, 'How do we stop it?' That's the kind of thing, as a coach, you love to take head on."

Carter says he's heard talk about more teams in the Southeast being added to the league by next year, but that nothing is definite.

"There's been talks of a team in Macon, or Tallahassee, or Chattanooga or Jackson, Miss. -- and that, to me, would be great," he said. "And I'm sure the teams in Richmond (Va.) and New Jersey and farther north would like to see the same thing, only in their region. But right now, as far as next year is concerned, I think the growth should center around the teams who've been here (two or three years), like us, Columbus, Alabama and Louisiana -- teams that have been a strong nucleus -- and then build from there."

Hager has thrown out the same idea of adding more teams in the South and then growing from there but said some of the mistakes in trusting new franchise owners has hurt the SIFL's overall growth, perhaps setting the league back from becoming even bigger than it already is.

"My expectations were much greater (on where we'd be by this point) compared to where we are now. There's been some great franchises -- like Albany -- and there's been some major disappointments. It's cost us some money (when it comes to the ones) who've come in promising big things and failed, and it's been an expensive education," Hager said. "But I've learned from those mistakes and I know who my friends are and I know the ones who are only interested in trying to tear the SIFL down. And I've stuck a fork in those (latter ones) -- they're done. Going forward, I don't want to hear any excuses, I want results. Either you're in or you're out. That's the way we need to proceed because it's only fair to the franchises who've been good as gold."

Carter said when the dust settles on the expansion/contraction issue at the league meetings, he hopes to clear up the topic of the drop-kick rule, which is something Hager has already said would be addressed.

"We just need clarity on it so it doesn't happen again," Carter said. "We felt it was pretty clear before the championship game -- and the other coaches in the league seemed to accept that a drop-kick PAT was worth two points -- but apparently it wasn't. If it's not brought up by the league (at the annual meeting), we'll definitely be there to bring attention to it. But I think it will be addressed without us having to do that."

The Panthers likely could end up being on the short end of the stick if the rule is put to a vote by league owners considering Albany was the first -- and only -- franchise in the SIFL to boast a kicker in Geoff Boyer this season who could successfully complete the drop-kick, which awards an extra point on field goals, but not on PATs, according to the somewhat ambiguous wording in the SIFL rule book.

Carter said some of the murkiness on the rule was the result of the way the games were being officiated by the SIFL's refs this year, and he hopes that "everyone is on the same page" by next year, although he added that "overall we thought the officials did a great job this season."

Hager called the taking of points away from the Panthers at halftime a "simple misunderstanding" during an interview with The Herald two weeks ago, and said they discovered where the mistakes initially occurred and assured fans it wouldn't happen again. Hager attributed the initial error to an official working the Panthers-Hammers game when Albany successfully completed a drop-kick for the first time June 11, saying, "(Our head of officials) Dan (Blum) did some digging (to figure out where the first mistake was made) and we determined it was when one of our officials, an old-school guy who used to work in the AFL -- which allowed it in the old days of arena ball -- gave them the extra points. But he was mistaken."

As far as next year's Panthers team is concerned, there's no mistaking that they'll be geared up and ready to go for a repeat when March rolls around. With the return of Carter, his front-office staff and Davis all confirmed, the only question remaining right now is the team's on-the-field personnel. Carter said Tuesday that he expects "the core of the team to return."

"No one has given us an official notice they're retiring or not coming back, and we expect the core of the team to return," Carter said. "And anyone who might not be sure about coming back, my guess is that once the new season rolls around -- and they're still healthy -- those competitive juices will start flowing again and they'll give us a call and want to come back. After all, who doesn't want another ring?"

Quarterback Cecil Lester, the MVP for the Panthers this season, was one of those guys a year ago. He wasn't even planning to return to the team after his shoddy performance hurt Albany in the 2010 playoffs, but those "competitive juices" got flowing in March, and he texted Davis shortly before the season began and inquired about returning, only to be told he could return as the backup behind former ASU star A.J. McKenna, who lasted less than half a season with the team before being benched and eventually quitting. That paved the way for Lester to find redemption -- and a championship.

"These guys are competitors, and Cecil's a big-time competitor," Davis said shortly after the season ended, adding he thinks receiver Clenton Rafe and defensive star Tito Hannah may retire, but expects his other star receivers -- Antwone Savage, Antwon Cutts and John Harris -- to all return. "As long as (Cecil's) knees aren't giving him any problems (by next year), I don't see any reason why he wouldn't come back to get another ring."

Speaking of rings, the Panthers won't get theirs until the beginning of next season, but Carter says he doesn't plan to hand them out in a ceremony in front of another team, like rival Columbus -- the 2010 league champs -- did in front of Albany during the pregame of their last regular-season meeting of the year.

"We're working on a ring design now and we hope to have them by the start of next season," Carter said. "But, no, we won't do what Columbus did to us. We'll have more class than that. That's not the kind of operation we run."