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2008 San Jose SaberCats Season Preview

San Jose Preview


By Andy Lopusnak,

February 25, 2008


The defending ArenaBowl champion San Jose SaberCats begin their 14th season on Monday, March 3rd on ESPN2 against the Chicago Rush, marking the first time in league history that the past two champions have faced off in a season opener. San Jose is looking to become just the third team ever to win back-to-back titles and the first since the 1995 and 1996 Tampa Bay Storm (the 1988, 1989 and 1990 Detroit Drive is the other).


On their way to their third ArenaBowl championship last season, the SaberCats scored the second most points in league history (1,012 points or 63.2 per game) and allowed the second fewest points (761 or 47.9 per game). San Jose has won their last 13 games including the playoffs and put four players on the All-Arena team (first team: DB Clevan Thomas; second team: WR James Roe, DL Ron Jones and kicker A.J. Haglund). All four return to San Jose this season, along with more players from the final 2007 game than any other team in the AFL.



Of the 20 SaberCats to play in last year’s ArenaBowl, San Jose returns 17 (receiver Ben Nelson signed with Colorado, offensive lineman Troy Reddick was traded to Kansas City in January and backup quarterback Craig Whelihan retired). The SaberCats lost only two players overall to free agency – Nelson and fullback/long snapper Matt Kinsinger, who missed eight games and the playoffs with an ankle injury, signed with Chicago.


“We’ve started right where we finished last year with so many guys back (from last year),” said San Jose head coach and general manager Darren Arbet. “The chemistry has been great since the first day of camp.”


With most of the ArenaBowl XXI championship team still in place, San Jose only signed one major free agent, picking up former All-Arena performer FB/LB Frank Carter, who played with the Utah Blaze last season, to replace Kinsinger. With the Blaze, Carter posted four rushing TDs, a two-point conversion, 16.0 tackles, 1.5 sacks and two pass breakups.


“Having so many experienced returning players helps a lot,” said SaberCats quarterback Mark Grieb, ”because you have more time to focus and devote to learning how you are going to adapt to the new rule changes instead of teaching all the fundamentals from ground zero.”



One of the most explosive offensive units in the AFL, San Jose is led by the most accurate QB in league history with at least 10,000 passing yards in Grieb (66.7 career completion percentage). The team’s only major offensive loss in free agency was Nelson, who finished second on the team with 100 catches for 1,240 yards and 25 touchdowns.


Even without Nelson’s services, Grieb has plenty of returning offensive weapons at his disposal: Roe (127 grabs for 1,560 yards and 40 TDs last season), Rodney Wright (98 receptions for 1,076 yards and 10 scores in 11 games), Jason Geathers (54 catches for 509 yards and 11 TDs) and Cleannord Saintil (16 grabs for 181 yards and 7 TDs in five games). Expect Wright, Geathers and Saintil to be used even more to fill Nelson’s void.


Also look the af2’s top receiver last season, Josh Richey from the Everett Hawks, to get lots of action when he comes off of injured reserve sometime after Week Four. Richey earned First Team All-af2 honors after catching 148 balls for 1,968 yards and 44 TDs. In Everett, he was coached by former SaberCats offensive specialist Steve Papin - one of the best players in the AFL during his time in the league (1997-2003).


Richey would be the latest in a long line of home-grown, extremely-talented young receivers that Arbet and offensive coordinator Terry Malley have found. Since 2000, the pair has turned out home-grown stars in the receiver department, on almost a yearly basis, without going out and signing a top-dollar free agent - James Roe in 2000; James Hundon in 2001; Rashied Davis in 2003; Wright in 2005, Nelson and Geathers in 2006 and Saintil in 2007.


The SaberCats didn’t run the ball a lot last season (fifth least rushing attempts), but managed to rush for the eighth most touchdowns (24). Brian Johnson led the team with 100 yards and nine scores. Last season, the offensive line gave up just six sacks in the final eight regular season games. To replace the traded Reddick, the team signed former NFLer Chris Pino and 2007 All-af2 First Teamer Gene Frederick to an already strong offensive front.


Former All-af2 quarterback Scott Rislov, who was with the team last season before an ankle injury sidelined him for the entire season, will be Grieb’s backup with Whelihan’s retirement. In 2006 with the af2’s Central Valley Coyotes, Rislov set a then indoor professional football record with 106 touchdown passes and over 4,400 yards passing.



Last season’s defensive coordinator Kevin Guy is now the Arizona Rattlers’ head coach, leaving Jeff Jarnigan (the team's special teams/defensive line coach in 2007) to call the defense. Jarnigan turned around the SaberCats special teams unit, one of the league’s worst in 2006, into one of the best (refer to the next category). The team returns its top twelve tacklers and all five players to record an interception last season. All eight defensive starters from ArenaBowl XXI are back.


Last season, the SaberCats’ defensive unit finished in the Top Five in the AFL in nearly every single category:

  • 1st in fumble recoveries (20),
  • 1st in lowest completion percentage (57.2),
  • 1st in 3rd down conversions (38.9%),
  • 2nd in takeaways (43),
  • 2nd in fewest points allowed (47.6 points per game),
  • 2nd in first downs allowed (311),
  • 3rd in interceptions (22),
  • 3rd in passer rating (99.1),
  • 4th in total defense (281.3 yards per game),
  • 4th in sacks (19) and
  • 5th in pass defense (266.2).


“We had a great defense,” Jarnigan said. “Hopefully we can improve on the things we didn’t do well last year.”


Leading the defense back field are two-time AFL Defensive Player of the Year and three-time First Team All-Arena defensive back Clevan Thomas, who led the SaberCats with nine interceptions and 21 pass breakups last season, and ArenaBowl XXI Defensive Player of the Game Omarr Smith, who led San Jose in tackles last season (87.5) and added five interceptions.


On the defensive line, 2007 All-Arena Second Teamer Ron Jones posted seven sacks last year in just 13 games. In ten games, Alan Harper added 3.0 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. Linebackers Steve Watson and Phil Glover are joined by former All-Arena First Teamer Frank Carter to make one of the most fierce linebacker units in the AFL.



This unit is another strong one for the SaberCats. Kicker A.J. Haglund was the only rookie on the All-Arena team last season after posting AFL records for extra points made (128) and attempted (138). His 158 kicking points were the most ever by a rookie and rank third overall in league history behind Remy Hamilton’s 185 in 2005 and 173 in 2006 with Los Angeles. Haglund also scored a touchdown off a fumble and was 10-of-18 on field goals. All but one of his field goal attempts were less than 40 yards – a true testament to how good the SaberCats’ offense was last year. He did, however, have three of his field goals blocked. On kickoffs, he had 25 touchbacks.


Last season, the SaberCats’ kickoff return unit tied for the most kickoff returns for scores (seven) and their 19.7 average ranked fourth in the league. San Jose returns every single player to return a kickoff last season. Trestin George had 37 returns with 23.6 average and two scores, while Rodney Wright had 31 returns with a 22.9 average and three touchdowns. San Jose also had the second best kickoff coverage in the AFL, allowing just 16.6 yards per return while kicking off more times than any team in the league.



Arbet, a two-time AFL Coach of the Year, has posted more overall, regular season, playoff and ArenaBowl wins since 2000 than any other coach in the AFL. In those eight years, he has had seven double-digit win seasons and three championships. In fact, Arbet has won 25 more games than the closest head coach. His 105 overall wins in eight seasons are the most by any head coach in league history in any eight-year period. Since 2000, he has won 74.5% of his overall games. That’s 11.4% higher than any coach that’s coached at least 50 games during that span.







Darren Arbet, San Jose




Mike Hohensee, New England & Chicago




Mike Dailey, Albany & Colorado




Danny White, Arizona & Utah




Tim Marcum, Tampa Bay






San Jose and Columbus played in ArenaBowl XXI last July; however, this season the teams have a combined two games on national television, while Chicago will be seen seven times and Philadelphia five times. The seven games for the Rush are the same as the combined number for over half of the league’s teams – Utah (1), Orlando (1), New York (1), New Orleans (1), Columbus (1), Kansas City (1), San Jose (1), Cleveland (0) and Grand Rapids (0).


Don’t think there’s some kind of conspiracy against San Jose though. If it weren’t for the time difference between the east and west coasts, the SaberCats would likely have many more games on ESPN2. Also, traffic is a nightmare during rush hour in the Bay Area. To have a Monday night game at five or even six o’clock at night to accommodate the East Coast audience would likely lead to a late arriving crowd that might not show up until after halftime due to the gridlock. However, there is a silver lining – San Jose is the only team in the league that will play every single home game on the same night at the same time (Saturdays at 7:30 P.M. PT).


In fact, there will be only three Western Division home games nationally televised this season: Arizona hosts Los Angeles in Week Two and Colorado in Week 16; while Utah will host Los Angeles in Week 15.



The SaberCats become just the seventh defending champion to open a title defense with at least two straight road games. Most recently, San Jose began the 2003 season with three straight road games and finished the year 12-4 before losing in the semifinals to Arizona 66-49. Of these six other teams, only the 1989 and 1990 Detroit Drive eventually went on to win that season’s ArenaBowl.


“It’s like [offensive coordinator] Terry Malley says ‘you don’t lose a game because it’s on the road or because of superstitions – you lose games because you play bad,’” noted Arbet. 





San Jose (AB XXI)



San Jose (AB XVIII)


12-4 – lost in Conference Championship

Orlando (AB XII)


7-7 – lost in ArenaBowl XIII

Arizona (AB XI)


10-4 – lost in semi-finals

Detroit Drive (AB VI)


11-2 – lost in ArenaBowl VII

Detroit Drive (AB III)


Won ArenaBowl IV

Detroit Drive (AB II)


Won ArenaBowl III



Four out of the last five seasons, the SaberCats have struggled to start the season with a losing record in the team’s first three games, then had to rely on a strong rest of the season for a winning record and a playoff berth. This season, San Jose opens on the road against Chicago and Grand Rapids, in back-to-back Monday night contests, before coming home to HP Pavilion to host Arizona and Dallas in the first four weeks. Last season, the SaberCats opened 1-2 then 3-3 before winning their next 13 games including ArenaBowl XXI. 






1-2 then 3-3

13-3 – ArenaBowl champs


0-2 then 2-5







11-5 – ArenaBowl champs






The SaberCats have won 13 straight games, including ArenaBowl XXI. They join two of the greatest teams in AFL history to post at least 13 straight overall wins – the Tampa Bay Storm and Detroit Drive. In this process, the SaberCats also became just the third team to win at least three ArenaBowl titles – again only the Storm and Drive have more. San Jose has also won the third most ArenaBowl championships and is attempting to become just the third team to repeat as champions – again joining the Storm and Drive.


“We can’t be concerned about what the team did last year or the year before that,” said Arbet about his team repeating as champions. “This is 2008 SaberCats and last year was the 2007 SaberCats. We’re just going to come out everyday and try to get better and work hard – that’s all they can do.”



Tampa Bay, 1995-96


last six of 1995, three playoff wins, first eight of 1996

Detroit Drive, 1992-93


last six of 1992, thee playoff wins, first seven of 1993

San Jose, 2007-present


last ten of 2007, three playoff wins



Tampa Bay Storm


Detroit Drive


San Jose SaberCats


Arizona Rattlers


Orlando Predators


Five other teams with




Detroit Drive (3)


Tampa Bay Storm (2)




As mentioned earlier, all eight San Jose home games will be played at 7:30 Pacific Time on Saturday nights this year. SaberCats fans will have a great chance to see some of the best players in the league visit HP Pavilion this year.





March 15

WR Siaha Burley, Arizona

2-time AFL Offensive Player of the Year

March 22

QB Clint Dolezel, Dallas

AFL all-time leader in passing TDs

April 12

WR Chris Jackson, Philadelphia

Most TDs scored in AFL since 2000

April 26

WR Timon Marshall, Los Angeles

2-time defending AFL all-purpose yardage leader

May 17

QB Joe Germaine, Utah

AFL record 5,005 pass yards last season

May 24

QB John Dutton, Colorado

Former SaberCats QB, ArenaBowl XVI MVP


WR Ben Nelson, Colorado

Former SaberCats WR, 2006 AFL Rookie of the Year

June 14

QB Brett Dietz, Tampa Bay

2007 AFL Co-Rookie of the Year

June 21

QB Chris Greisen, Georgia

AFL record 117 pass TDs last season



At all eight SaberCats home games, the team will have different giveaways for each contest. Here’s a list of all of this year’s giveaways.





March 15


Mini replica ArenaBowl trophy

March 22


Travel mug

April 12



April 26

Los Angeles


May 17



May 24



June 14

Tampa Bay

Trading cards

June 21


Team poster



San Jose has won 13 straight games and has a chance to break the AFL record of overall wins - 17 by the 1995-96 Storm (also the last team to repeat as ArenaBowl champions). This would occur in Week Four at home against the Dallas Desperados. However, before that can happen, San Jose must win road games in Chicago and Grand Rapids, and the home opener vs. Arizona.


Four of the team’s first six games are on the road and at home they will face six playoff teams as well as resurgent division-rivals Arizona and Los Angeles. However, for the best home-record team in the AFL since 2000, having four of its final five games at home will be a huge advantage down the stretch. Having a bye in Week 15 could go either way (possibly put a snag in a hot streak or be a welcome relief to rest players).


With nearly the entire 2007 championship team back for 2008, the SaberCats should easily be the odds on favorite to repeat as ArenaBowl champions this season. Barring any significant injuries, the SaberCats could become the first repeat champions since 1996, but the journey will not be easy.


*** ***

San Jose SaberCats offensive huddle
San Jose SaberCats offensive huddle
San Jose SaberCats team huddle
San Jose SaberCats team huddle
San Jose SaberCats defensive coordinator Jeff Jarnigan
San Jose SaberCats defensive coordinator Jeff Jarnigan
San Jose SaberCats head coach Darren Arbet
San Jose SaberCats head coach Darren Arbet
San Jose SaberCats huddle
San Jose SaberCats huddle
San Jose SaberCats head coach Darren Arbet and his SaberCats
San Jose SaberCats head coach Darren Arbet and his SaberCats
San Jose SaberCats kicker A.J. Haglund
San Jose SaberCats kicker A.J. Haglund
San Jose SaberCats super fan
San Jose SaberCats super fan
San Jose SaberCats QB Mark Grieb
San Jose SaberCats QB Mark Grieb
San Jose SaberCats WR Jason Geathers
San Jose SaberCats WR Jason Geathers
San Jose SaberCats kicker A.J. Haglund
San Jose SaberCats kicker A.J. Haglund
San Jose SaberCats
San Jose SaberCats
San Jose SaberCats QB Mark Grieb
San Jose SaberCats QB Mark Grieb
San Jose SaberCats offensive unit
San Jose SaberCats offensive unit
San Jose SaberCats offensive coordinator Terry Malley
San Jose SaberCats offensive coordinator Terry Malley
San Jose SaberCats DB Clevand Thomas
San Jose SaberCats DB Clevand Thomas
San Jose SaberCats kickoff returner Trestin George
San Jose SaberCats kickoff returner Trestin George
San Jose SaberCats QB Scott Rislov
San Jose SaberCats QB Scott Rislov