ALBANY EMPIRE 2018 SEASON RECAP
ALBANY - Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was the Albany Empire. The triumphant return of Arena Football to the Capital District not only lived up to the hype but exceeded expectations thanks to a successful inaugural season. Led by Head Coach Rob Keefe, the Empire capped off the franchise’s first year with an 8-4 regular season record, earned the top seed in the playoffs, led the league in average home attendance and took home many of the league’s individual awards.
“Saying that our first season was a success is an understatement,” said Rob Keefe, Head Coach of the Albany Empire. “The city of Albany embraced us from day one and showed their support whether we won or lost. We filled the football void in the Capital Region and we could not have succeeded without the backing from our passionate fans.”
“We are so appreciative to our season ticket holders, sponsors, fans and the entire capital region for making our inaugural season such a great success,” said George Manias, Vice President of the Albany Empire. “The support we received was tremendous and the atmosphere during our games truly gave us a home field advantage. We have unfinished business and look to come back stronger than ever next season.”
At the helm of the offense was league MVP and Offensive Player of the Year, Tommy Grady. The tall, 6’7 quarterback impressed Albany fans all season long as he led the league in passing touchdowns, yards and passer rating. Grady was at the forefront of the most potent offense all season as he consistently utilized his top two targets who dominated the league at the receiver position. Both Joe Hills and Malachi Jones found themselves in the top three in touchdowns and yards wowing fans as the trio lit up the scoreboard. Aside from being named Rookie of the Year and Wide Receiver of the Year, Jones’ play earned him a spot on the Chicago Bears’ roster of the National Football League.
The Empire defense was just as terrifying to opposing teams as the offense was. Led by Defensive Player of the Year Terence Moore, the Albany unit topped the league in nearly every statistical category. Moore’s six interceptions were the most for any defensive player, while defensive end Joe Sykes led the AFL in sacks with 7.5. Seven defensive players were selected to the All-Arena teams from the defensive unit.
Not knowing exactly what to expect, Capital Region fans packed the Times Union Center on April 14th for the Empire’s inaugural game. Despite falling to the two-time defending champion Philadelphia Soul in front of a sellout crowd, Albany’s season kicked off with a bang. The night began with a limo driving to midfield and dropping off the game’s honorary captains: Albany Firebirds legend “Touchdown” Eddie Brown and Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown. The Brown’s were later brought back onto the field at halftime as the previous AFL team in Albany, the Firebirds, were honored by raising the team’s 1999 championship banner, in addition to retiring of Eddie’s #19 jersey number. Empire fans erupted midway through the first quarter as Grady through the team’s first ever touchdown pass to receiver Greg Carr. Through the ups and downs in the game, an unknown star emerged for the Empire. In the second half, Jones caught his first ever pass in his rookie season and blew past the defense on his way to a 48-yard touchdown. Albany was unable to keep pace with the Soul, eventually losing 56-35.
Following a bye-week, the Empire took to the road for their first away game. Showing progression, Albany hung around with the Baltimore Brigade all game long, eventually falling 52-49. Despite starting with an 0-2 record, there was a silver lining for Albany: the dominance of Hills. The Empire acquired Hills after their opening game loss as Grady not only gained an explosive offensive weapon, but his long time best friend and former teammate. Self-proclaimed “Superman,” Hills’ debut with the Empire was nothing short of impressive as he reeled in 11 catches for 108 yards and four touchdowns. Combined with another great performance by Jones, things began to look up for Albany.
Dropping their first two games of the season did not discourage the Empire. The Empire organization declared their first “Code Orange” when they returned home to face the Washington Valor, also 0-2, and not only picked up the franchise’s first victory, but sparked what turned into a five-game win streak. The duo of Hills and Jones was on full display as Albany routed the Valor behind the pairs five total touchdowns. The defense swarmed Washington all night long forcing two fumbles, two interceptions, recording three sacks, and cashing in a touchdown of their own. The Empire dominated every facet of the game allowing a mere 23 points.
On a short week, Albany was back on the road as they traveled to face the Valor, this time in the Nation’s Capital. The Empire once again shined on offense as Grady was named game MVP with seven passing touchdowns and 257 yards leading Albany to the team’s first road victory. Jones had his biggest game to date, totaling four touchdowns through the air and on the ground. Defense prevailed once again behind two sacks by Sykes as he inched closer to becoming the league’s all-time sack leader.
Coming in at 2-2, Albany had another shot at the Soul, this time at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Despite being held scoreless in the game’s opening quarter, Albany had strong second and third quarter performances to come away victorious in the rematch. The win for the Empire snapped the Soul’s 20-game home winning streak. For the second consecutive week, Grady and Jones were named the game’s MVP and Offensive Player of the Game respectively as the two linked up seven times for two scores on the night.
Albany rode their three-game win streak home as the team prepared for a four-game home stretch at the Times Union Center. The first of the four matchups was a game against a still winless Valor team who was totally dominated in their last visit to Upstate New York. The rematch was no different as Albany allowed a meager 21-points, the fewest points scored against the Empire all season. The stifling defense was led by Defensive Player of the Game Terence Moore who had a huge night. Moore was everywhere on the field, recording a team-high 8.5 tackles, chipping on a half sack and taking an interception to pay dirt. Once again, the Empire defense had their way with the Valor, dominating in a 27-point victory.
Next up on the homestretch was the first-place Baltimore Brigade who last defeated the Empire by a narrow three-points. The Empire would get their revenge on the Brigade behind an eight-touchdown performance from Grady, six of which were split between Hills and Jones. The game was back-and-forth all night, highlighted by an exciting combined 50-point second quarter. Moore was once again named Defensive Player of the Game forcing two crucial turnovers including an impressive interception that ricocheted off the back net.
Albany’s win streak would come to a halt in a rematch against the Brigade just a week later, falling by just three points. The script was flipped from the week prior as Baltimore was led to victory by their quarterback, Randy Hippeard, who had an impressive eight-touchdown game. Grady had seven touchdown passes of his own, but Baltimore capped the game off on the final possession kicking a field goal to take a three-point lead with just seconds remaining on the clock. Unable to return the ensuing kickoff as time expired, Albany was handed their first loss in over a month.
For the second time during the season, the Philadelphia Soul came to town in what might have been the league’s game of the year. In a back-and-forth game that saw 22 combined touchdowns, the high scoring affair once again came down to the final play of the game. Both Grady and Soul quarterback Shane Austin could not be stopped as they each tossed 10 touchdown passes. Soul Receiver Aaron Wascha had his way with the Empire backfield, catching seven of those touchdowns from Austin while adding 208 receiving yards. Despite a six-touchdown performance from Jones and an additional five from Hills, the Empire fell as the game clock expired as Austin rolled out of the pocket and connected with receiver Darius Prince in the end zone. Philadelphia would win the game 75-74 in the highest scoring game of the season.
Once again, the back-to-back losses did not slow the Empire down as they were able to close out the season on a three-game win streak. Traveling back to Baltimore with first place on the line, Albany came in and took care of business behind Grady’s seven touchdowns. Newly acquired fullback Mykel Benson debuted for Albany and added a new dynamic to the already potent Empire offense. First Team All-Arena defensive back Marrio Norman was all over the place, racking up a game-high 10 total tackles as Albany was able to hold the Brigade to under 50 points in a 56-49 victory. The win for the Empire secured the tiebreaker over Baltimore should the two teams have tied in the standings at the end of the season.
Albany would go back on the road a week later hoping to close out the season sweep of the Washington Valor. This would be the first time during the season that the Empire would face the Valor’s new addition at quarterback, Arvell Nelson. The defense rose to the occasion, making Nelson’s life miserable. Only allowing 41 points on the game, the Empire forced two fumbles, an interception, and sacked Nelson a total of four times. A half sack by Sykes in the second quarter made him the all-time career leader with 61 sacks surpassing Hall-of-Famer Sam Hernandez. The Empire would finish the sweep over the Valor with a 55-41 victory in the final road trip of the regular season.
With Baltimore falling to Washington earlier in the day, the Soul came back into the Capital Region with the number one playoff seed on the line. The winner of the game would lock up the top seed in the AFL playoffs while the losing team could drop to as low as the three seed. Albany eclipsed 70 points once again, this time coming out on top behind an Albany offense that scored on every possession of the game. Hills led the way with 10 catches for 106 yards finding himself on the receiving end of four out of eight touchdown passes from Grady. Benson added another two scores on the ground as the Empire offense looked unstoppable heading into the playoffs. Drawing a crowd of over 10,000 people, Albany secured the highest average home attendance in the league and was in line to host ArenaBowl XXXI should the Empire have reached the championship game.
Locking up the number one seed in the playoffs, the Empire drew the Washington Valor in a home-and-home playoff format, playing the first game of the series in D.C. Each team was able to keep pace with each other with neither pulling away. Washington outscored Albany in the fourth quarter including scoring the final touchdown of regulation to send the game to overtime. The Valor received the ball first in overtime and capitalized with a score putting the pressure on Albany. The Empire marched down the field and capped their drive with a seven-yard touchdown pass to Hills. After a two-point conversion to Carr, Albany walked out of the Nation’s Capital with a one-point victory, 57-56.
The narrow point margin gave Albany a one-point advantage over the Valor heading into the second and final game of the home-and-home playoff series. With a shot at the ArenaBowl on the line, Albany was unable to put away Washington as the Valor upset the top seed and earned a spot in the championship game. It was Albany’s lowest scoring game since the season-opener, only putting 40 points on the board in the defeat. Despite the loss, Grady still tossed six touchdowns, three of which were to Jones. The Valor were able to use clock on their possessions playing keep away from Albany as Washington’s time of possession was 13 minutes longer than the Empire’s. With 27 seconds remaining in the game and down by two scores, Grady was able to connect with Jones to bring the game within one possession. Albany then recovered the ensuing onside kick and with three timeouts, just needed to tie the game to advance to ArenaBowl XXXI. Unfortunately for the Empire, penalties cost them precious yardage on the final possession and was unable to score before time expired as the season came to an abrupt halt losing the game 47-40.
Though it wasn’t the ending that the organization and fans had hoped for, the inaugural season for the Empire was incredibly successful both on and off the field. On the field, Albany was the top seed in the playoffs, had the league’s highest home attendance average, and took home the majority of the individual player awards. Off the field, the Empire were prevalent in the community as the players and coaches were constantly out in the Capital Region meeting fans and spending time with children. The entire organization has high hopes and expectations for the 2019 season as the new franchise proved that Albany is a football city.
About Albany Empire
The Albany Empire will enter its 2nd season in the Arena Football League in 2019. Season memberships for the 2019 season are on sale now. For tickets, contact the Albany Empire sales department at (518) 533-2200 or by going to TheAlbanyEmpire.com. Follow the team on Facebook at facebook.com/TheAlbanyEmpire and Twitter at twitter.com/Albany_Empire.
About Arena Football League
The Arena Football League will enter its 31st Season in 2018. Since its inception in 1987, the Arena Football League has showcased a fast-paced and exciting game to millions of fans in a myriad of markets across the country. Teams slated for 2018 include: Albany, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. CBS Sports Network nationally broadcasts AFL games each week, culminating with the ArenaBowl. The AFL launched AFLNow, the League’s streaming “Over-the-Top” network to give fans even more access to the League on arenafootball.com. For all the latest news and discussion on the Arena Football League follow the AFL on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (@aflarenaball)
About Times Union Center
Albany’s Times Union Center, formerly Pepsi Arena, continues to have great success. Renamed in January 2007, the Times Union Center is “Upstate New York’s Premier Sports and Entertainment Facility. Owned by Albany County and operated by SMG, the world’s largest private management firm for public assembly facilities, the Times Union Center has an adaptable seating capacity between 6,000 and 17,500. Since Frank Sinatra christened the building on January 30, 1990, more than seven million patrons have walked through the turnstiles. As a multi-purpose facility, the Times Union Center has hosted a variety of events, including concerts, family shows and sporting events, averaging 165 events each year.
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