The 2016 season opener was painful to watch for Tampa Bay Storm head coach Lawrence Samuels.
Beginning the year against the cross-state rival Orlando Predators in front of close to 10,000 people at Amalie Arena, the Storm never led in the game, turned the ball over four times and couldn’t stop Orlando on any of the Predators’ nine possessions.
The Storm fell behind by 21 points at halftime. They came out of the break and promptly turned the ball over on their first two plays of the half, each turnover leading to an Orlando touchdown. In the 59th installment of the War on I-4, the Storm lost 76-25, the most lopsided result in the series’ history.
Viewing the drubbing during the next day’s video session wasn’t going to be any easier for Samuels to stomach.
As it turned out, the experience was more settling than sickening.
Samuels saw plenty of positives in defeat.
The offense moved the ball with ease at times but was rattled after failing early to punch the ball into the end zone from second and goal at the 1-yard line. The defense nearly came up with a critical, momentum-shifting turnover or two but couldn’t finish the play.
Tampa Bay’s wounds were mostly self-inflicted the video revealed.
“The score didn’t really dictate how well some of our guys played,” Samuels said. “We’ve just got to get everybody playing at a high level. I think that’s the key, but, overall, the effort was still there. We just had too many mistakes. We can’t turn the ball over that much. If we don’t turn the ball over and they don’t score on those two possessions right after halftime, we had a chance to get back in it.”
Mistakes made during the opener, Samuels anticipates, should be corrected by the time the Storm return to the field Saturday at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena to play the Gladiators (7 p.m. kickoff) in Week 2 of the 18-Week AFL season.
“I think they saw a lot of things they did (on video) that we could have corrected,” Samuels said. “If we would have corrected it (at the time), it would have kept us in the game. I think we’re going to be a whole lot better this week moving forward because the guys actually saw their mistakes and now they’re ready to go out and execute at a high level.”
The Storm have experience rebounding from tough Opening Nights.
Last season, they fell 60-44 to Cleveland in the opener at home and responded by flying across the country to Portland and knocking off the Thunder, a team that would go on to make the playoffs, in a hard-fought win.
Having gone through, in effect, a dress rehearsal last Friday – Tampa Bay didn’t play a preseason game and wasn’t able to practice indoor prior to the season opener – the Storm expect a similar leap from Week 1 to 2 this go-round too.
“The improvement comes from when you get to see yourself in an actual game and not practice,” Storm defensive lineman Dominie Pittman said. “You get to see where you made your mistakes at game speed, not practice speed. We’re going to be better because we had a chance to see ourselves through the mistakes and see the things that we can fix.”
Going on the road for the first time should improve cohesiveness as well. The Storm leave for Cleveland Friday morning and will spend the next 24-48 hours together as a group, the bonding translating into familiarity on the field.
“The guys keep the latches open on their doors so you pretty much go room to room and mingle with everybody and have team time,” Pittman said. “The guys play cards, hang out, go out to eat. I think it’s a good thing versus a home game when everybody’s with their families and doing their own thing, so this could be a good game to pick us up and get us on the road that we need to be on.”
And then, the Storm can finally hit delete on the season opener.