Tysson Poots thought he hadn’t heard right when his Utah Blaze teammates first told him he was a candidate for the Arena Football League’s Rookie of the Year.
But Poots — as well as the rest of the team — is slowly growing a bit more used to the attention that comes with winning.
“I was really surprised, because I only played 10 games,” the wide receiver says. “I guess they’re starting to pay attention to us over here in Utah.”
For much of the season, many Blaze players have recited the same company lines: No one believes in them. No one knows how good they are. They’re not getting respect around the league. People think their wins are flukes.
But in hitting their stride with a six-game winning streak in the second half of the season, the Blaze (12-5) have helped themselves to the respect they feel they deserved from the start.
They’re ranked the No. 3 team in the coaches’ poll. Poots is a strong Rookie of the Year candidate, and quarterback Tommy Grady could be the favorite to win league MVP. Even coach Ron James is up for Coach of the Year.
But the attention and accolades have put Utah in the unfamiliar position of being one of the front-runners.
“We definitely started out the season as hunters,” Poots says. “Now we’ve got to watch our backs.”
There’s been a slight uptick in media attention for the franchise, and within the league, as the Blaze are being considered more seriously as title contenders.
James will be the first to insist that although Utah’s profile is rising, it hasn’t affected the way the team goes about its business.
“It changes the dynamic a bit, but we’re not concerned with perception,” James says. “We’re still not the No. 1 team, and our goals are ahead of us. Rankings don’t mean anything without a championship.”
It was appropriate, then, that the Blaze get to play one of the two teams with a superior ranking and record Sunday: the Philadelphia Soul (14-3). The team has been one of the most visible franchise in the AFL — known well for former owner Jon Bon Jovi, but also laying claim to five NFL Network games last year.
Although the Blaze insist the game isn’t a “statement” game, there’s some undeniable motivation to win. A victory earns them home-field advantage in their first playoff game.
“There’s a lot on the line,” cornerback David Hyland says. “We’re looking to keep momentum going, and hopefully show the rest of the league what we can do.”
The Soul are hot themselves — they are only higher-scoring offense in the league than the Blaze, and on a seven-game winning streak.
Blaze linebacker Mike Lewis said the team is trying to cut back on “bulletin board” material, but couldn’t help dropping in a few jabs before facing one of the toughest opponents of the season.
“I mean, I respect those guys, but at 6 o’clock [Eastern] on Sunday, that respect is gone,” Lewis said. “They’re going to be cocky and confident. … But it’s all about Sack Lake City — that ain’t gonna change.”
Utah Blaze at Philadelphia Soul
P Kickoff • Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
TV • None
Radio • 97.5 FM
Records • Blaze 12-5; Soul 14-3
Noteworthy • Utah looks to seal a home playoff game by beating the No. 2-ranked Soul in the regular-season finale.