CANONSBURG, P.A. (93-7 THE FAN) -- The Arena Football League postponed the beginning of its free agency period due to Hurricane Sandy, but in the meantime, the Pittsburgh Power took advantage of the league's "exclusive period" to ink several returnees to new deals.
Among them is cornerstone wide receiver Mike "The Joystick" Washington, their all-time leader in multiple offensive categories, whose new three-year contract with the Power was announced by the team recently.
Furthermore, the Power looked to possibly add pieces over the weekend, as Washington and a couple of those veterans helped new head coach Derek Stingley supervise their third annual open tryouts at Southpointe Fieldhouse in Canonsburg Saturday.
Washington received his first contract after impressing original Power head coach Chris Siegfried at the inaugural tryouts, and he rapidly became one of the team's most effective--and popular--players. The Aliquippa native, an erstwhile state champion and All-PIAA selection, is the franchise leader in catches, receiving yardage, and touchdowns.
This year's tryouts had a new twist. Whomever impressed Stingley and his staff was invited to a scouting combine Sunday for which representatives of the division rival Philadelphia Soul and Cleveland Gladiators, as well as the San Antonio Talons and San Jose SaberCats, were also on hand.
"The numbers were great. The athletes that came out understood the coaching we were trying to do, and were receptive to it," said Stingley. "We saw some great guys at the skill positions...we really had our eye on quarterbacks, and there were a few guys we thought were pretty decent, and maybe we could do a little more homework on to see if they'd be willing to come into camp."
Last season they started four, including former Panther Bill Stull, and not including ArenaBowl XXIII MVP Kyle Rowley, who was cut by the team during a league-wide labor dispute before making a single appearance. The Power finished a mere 14th overall in scoring.
"We had guys from California, from Washington...from Dallas...from Miami...all over. The word of the day was the fact that you're not only being seen by one team, you're being seen by many," said Stingley. "The guys understood first impressions is what they were all about, and that they had to come out and compete. We saw a very competitive spirit out there."
On Thursday Texas Tech product Steven Sheffield, who played briefly for the Talons last season, signed with the Power. His claim to (outdoor) football fame, aside from being an understudy with current Texas Tech QB Seth Doege, was leading the Red Raiders to an upset of Nebraska in Lincoln in 2009.
Joining Washington in the receiving corps, once again, will be Perry Baker, brother of former Steeler castoff Dallas Baker. Perry renewed his own deal the same day, and free agent James Robinson, a Butler native and arena football veteran who once tried out with the NFL's Redskins, Dolphins, and Browns, is coming aboard.
Management has already made an effort to "Power" up on the other side of the ball, where in 2012, masked by the team's woeful finish, they actually led the league in pass defense and total defense. Neil Purvis, who assisted in some of the drills this weekend, will play a third consecutive season in Pittsburgh, while fellow lineman and former William & Mary standout Marcus Hyde has accepted an assignment as a "mac" (pass-rushing) linebacker.
Going forward, look for the Power to explore options at kicker, too. They used five of those last season, including PSU alumnus Collin Wagner, and they suffered two three-point losses, one four-point loss, and one one-point loss in which special teams made a difference. Had the Power won those four games, they would have snuck into the playoffs.
Perhaps the events of this weekend could address those needs, as Stingley said Saturday's tryouts and Sunday's combine ultimately could create twice as many jobs as last year's open tryouts.
"We're looking for guys who want to be here. There's a lot of guys in free agency where we're trying to knock on doors, but when you get a guy who, without a doubt, wants to play, and we think they're good enough to go to camp and compete for a job, we've already beaten that hurdle," said Stingley.
"We saw some guys we were already on the fence with, whom we invited to the combine, and they impressed," he added. "It's a little difficult for me to pull the trigger on a guy I haven't seen in person...because sometimes, film is what it is. It's just highlights. You don't see them being taught, going through certain drills, and you don't see the mistakes, and how they react. This is perfect. Now there's a chance that guys who, before, were on the bubble, are on the good side of the bubble."
The bubble burst early for the Power last season. This time, with both union unrest and the interim tag gone, Stingley hopes he's gotten an early start on getting this franchise to its lofty goals.
"Overall, these two days, in my opinion, were very productive."
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)
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