Tuesday, May 27, 2003 | 10:11 a.m.
PHOENIX -- Pen your own nightmare ending to the Las Vegas Gladiators' 2003 season and you probably could not top the one the Arizona Rattlers wrote at America West Arena Sunday.
Yet considering the cross-country whirlwind of the past six months, most in the Gladiators' organization lifted their heads high enough to optimistically look to the future after a 69-26 blowout loss to the Rattlers ended Las Vegas' season in the opening round of the AFL playoffs.
"It's a playoff-caliber team, two years in a row," Gladiators senior consultant Rich Rose said. "A couple of bounces the other way and this team is 12-4 and not 8-8. Coming in here, there's no one who would have predicted what happened on this field (Sunday)."
What happened was Las Vegas (8-9) never once threatening against the Rattlers, who quickly took a 15-0 lead that expanded to 28-7 at halftime and ballooned to 41-7 midway into the third quarter.
The Gladiators never scored on consecutive possessions. They made two quarterback changes, allowed four defensive scores and committed 10 penalties. Passes glanced off receivers' legs, balls slipped out of the quarterback's hand and Murphy's Law immediately took effect. The Gladiators managed to jam all their season-long problems into one playoff game, with predictable results.
The quarterback shuffle between Jay McDonagh and Todd Hammel continued. Hammel started and was ineffective, and coach Frank Haege went to McDonagh in the second quarter. With an injured throwing hand, McDonagh was unable to even grip the ball and never threw a pass, and Hammel re-entered with the Gladiators already in a huge hole.
"So many things went wrong early," Haege said. "We couldn't make a play and then we gave them a bunch of plays."
Things took a bad turn early in the week when Haege fired defensive coordinator Brian Schwartze. The team said that move did not affect the game, but for whatever reason, the Gladiators did not appear playoff-ready.
"Especially being on the road in a place like this with the crowd and the whole deal, things just started to snowball and they just kind of went to hell," Haege said.
Formerly the New Jersey Gladiators, the team moved to Las Vegas in late December, about six weeks before its first game. The move was shrouded by allegations of the team ducking outstanding rent and other debts in New Jersey, but the Gladiators drew more than 12,000 fans to their home opener and appeared to grab a piece of a difficult sports market.
Attendance tapered off through the season. The team, however, was pleased with a season ticket base that approached 2,000, and Rose said the Gladiators should be given another year to prove their viability.
"I think you have to let it play out and then build between now and next February, and then see the good things and the magnitude of what you can do in this town," Rose said. "It's proven that football works in Las Vegas. You look at what you did not just now, but maybe even a year from now at the end of the 2004 season."
Waning success also plagued the Gladiators on the field, where they traversed peaks and valleys.
"Coming into this year, I thought we were going to be a lot better," Gladiators defensive back Damon Mason said.
With the mediocre Eastern Division still seemingly in hand at 7-6 with three weeks to play, the team began selling tickets for a home playoff game. The Gladiators then imploded down the stretch.
Momentum disappeared and so, too, did the season Sunday, the franchise's second consecutive opening-round playoff loss.
"Losing forces you to address all your problems all the way from coaching staff, to facility, to practice time, to players," Haege said. "We just have to sit down and just go over every particular thing and just see where we're at."
There could be many new Gladiators next year, as Haege estimates that about half of all AFL players will be free agents after the season. For Las Vegas, that list includes most of its skill position standouts, including team captain wideout Mike Horacek and Mason, as well as McDonagh and Hammel. None of that group sounds committed to returning to the Gladiators.
"If the situation is right, I wouldn't mind being here," Mason said, echoing the wait-and-see attitude of many Gladiators.
The quarterback situation might be a top priority. Though McDonagh had a poor season, Haege still seems to prefer him over Hammel, who appears ready to look for his sixth team in as many years.
"I'd love to play again," Hammel said. "If it's here, yes, but there's other opportunities out there, so I'm going to look at those in the offseason and see what happens."
Horacek, the team's only game-breaker, would be the most difficult to replace. The 2000 AFL offensive player of the year, Horacek is open to staying in Las Vegas, but he could be in for a nice payday on the open market.
"I'd love to stay here, but money's always an issue, especially with me because I'm a little bit older," Horacek said. "At this point in my career, I've really got to do what's best for me and my family."
Mark 2004 as the defining edition of the Gladiators.
"The season's over now, so there's really no sense in dwelling on what happened in the past or what can we do to fix it," Horacek said. "Next year's a whole new year. It's going to be a brand new team. Some players are going to be here, some players aren't. You have to just refocus and restart for next year. We can't even talk about what happened this year because it's over with."