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Blaze burn bright with optimism

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Sure, the Arena Football League plays a 16-game regular season to eliminate just one-third of its teams from the playoffs.

And it's true that the Utah Blaze were the lowest seed of the 12 teams to make it to the AFL's postseason.

And once there, the Blaze completely fell apart in the fourth quarter to get blown out in the first round by the Arizona Rattlers, 57-34, in Phoenix a week ago.

Still, it was a successful season for the expansion franchise. Just getting to the playoffs — by winning four of its final five regular season games — was a major accomplishment.

And the future looks bright.

"We're going to bring the playoffs to our place next year," predicted Blaze coach/general manager Danny White.

"Looking back on it, you can see that we accomplished a lot of great things," said Blaze lineman Hans Olsen. "To build a team from the ground up and do what we did, it's an accomplishment. I'm excited to be back next year. I'll go right into my training now to get ready for next year."

Certainly Salt Lake City seemed ready for the Blaze. Aided by a curiosity factor, no doubt, Utah led the 18-team AFL in attendance, averaging 15,498 fans per game in the Delta Center. But the fact that a sellout crowd of 16,855 showed up to the regular-season finale — after some of the novelty had worn off — seems to indicate that there is a market for the AFL in Utah.

"I'm proud of everything that happened this year with the Utah Blaze — with the fans, the support that we had there," said White. "We've built a great foundation to build on and we're going to be better next year."

"They are going to be a very good team, no doubt about it," said Arizona Rattlers coach Gene Nudo, whose team handed the Blaze three of their 10 losses.

The Blaze's strength was on offense, which made sense because that is where White spent the team's money in the offseason — most notably landing free agent Siaha Burley, one of the top receivers in the AFL. Burley certainly didn't disappoint, catching 134 passes for 1,934 yards and 44 touchdowns. His yardage total set an all-time AFL record and he was one of five finalists for the league's offensive player of the year.

"I'm definitely proud of the organization, the players and everybody in the locker room," said Burley, who is signed with the Blaze through next season. "Our guys played their hearts out. It's tough because it's a team game and we'd just come together."

When Utah had problems offensively, it was usually due to lack of protection for the quarterback. On the other side of the ball, the Blaze had trouble putting pressure on the opponent's quarterback. Getting better play out of the lines will be a priority for White this offseason.

Olsen, the former BYU star, was one bright spot on the lines as the team's starting center and noseguard. He was rewarded by being named to the AFL's "All-Ironman" team for the top two-way players — as well as by receiving a two-year contract extension.

White signed several others to multi-year deals as well, including quarterback Joe Germaine, WR/DB Orshawante Bryant, WR/LB Tom Pace, WR/LB Justin Skaggs and kicker Steve Videtich.

That means Germaine — the team's leader in total offense despite missing seven games due to injury — will have his top four receivers back next season (Burley, Bryant, Pace and Skaggs). In addition, Videtich, the AFL's all-time scoring leader among kickers, will also return.

"Guys who play together, get to know each other and there is non-verbal communication on the field amongst players," said Burley. "It's a team game and that's what (Blaze management is) trying to do — keep players together so that we can build some continuity out there."

Conspicuously missing from the list of players re-signed late in the year was quarterback Andy Kelly, who started the final six games, including the playoff game. Kelly, the AFL's all-time leader in touchdown passes and yardage, joined the team midseason and helped turn things around. With Germaine the QB of the future for the Blaze, it's doubtful Utah will bring him back.

"I plan on playing," said Kelly, who turns 38 in June. "I'm going to wait and see what opportunities are out there. . . . I want to get back on the field and play."

Utah's defense was often suspect in its first season — most notably in the third game when the Blaze scored 81 points and lost because they gave up 84 points to the New York Dragons. It tied the league record for the most points ever scored in a loss.

Adding pass-rushing linemen would help, but the team also needs better play from defensive specialists. Kelvin Hunter, one of the team's highest paid players, led the team in tackles and interceptions, but he was also burned far too often by opposing receivers. Look for White to try to land a top defensive specialist in free agency this year.

Overall, White counts his first season with the Blaze as one of the most successful he's had in his AFL Hall of Fame coaching career.

"There was no quit in this team," White said. "I'm proud of the way they played."

Bryant put it this way: "No one thought we'd be close to making the playoffs. We worked hard. We battled and stuck together and became a family and a team."

It was a solid first season. But next year, just getting to the playoffs won't be enough for the Blaze.

2006 Utah Blaze

Regular season record: 7-9

Playoff record: 0-1

Jan. 28 — Blaze 48, San Jose SaberCats 35

Feb. 4 — Dallas Desperadoes 56, Blaze 53

Feb. 11 — New York Dragons 84, Blaze 81

Feb. 18 — Arizona Rattlers 45, Blaze 38

Feb. 25 — Blaze 68, Los Angeles Avengers 66

March 4 — San Jose SaberCats 65, Blaze 50

March 10 — Blaze 63, Nashville Kats 34

March 16 — Grand Rapids Rampage 59, Blaze 49

March 24 — Las Vegas Gladiators 49, Blaze 47

April 1 — Tampa Bay Storm 56, Blaze 41

April 7 — Arizona Rattlers 64, Blaze 52

April 15 — Blaze 63, Los Angeles Avengers 61

April 21 — Blaze 52, Colorado Crush 40

April 29 — Blaze 63, Las Vegas Gladiators 52

May 6 — Chicago Rush 84, Blaze 48

May 12 — Blaze 55, Kansas City Brigade 54

Playoff game

May 20 — Arizona Rattlers 57, Blaze 34

home games in bold

E-mail: lojo@desnews.com