It may be true that all good things must come to an end, but no one expected the Columbus Lions’ sixth league championship game appearance to come to a crashing halt, as the Carolina Cobras trampled the Lions, 66-8, at the Greensboro Coliseum Monday night to win the 2018 National Arena League title.
The Lions, coming off a big first-round playoff win on the road over the Massachusetts Pirates, ended the season at 9-8 overall.
Carolina quarterback Charles McCullum threw seven touchdown passes, four to Jordan Jolly, as the Cobras raced out to a 31-0 lead and held the Lions, averaging more than 51 points a game, to just a Tyler Rausa “deuce” just before halftime and a single Jeremy Johnson touchdown pass to London Crawford in the third quarter. Carolina led 37-2 at the half, and stretched it to 51-8 after three quarters. The Lions were shut out in both the first and fourth quarters.
Tyrone Laughinghouse caught two touchdown passes and Phillip Barnett caught one for the Cobras, while McCullum took a long end-around 38 yards for the Cobras’ third touchdown.
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Late in the first half, an oddity produced three straight two-point scores, with a fourth very nearly converted. First, a Craig Peterson deuce (kickoff from his own goal line through the uprights) made it 29-0. Then, backed up deep in his own territory on 4th down, Lions kicker Tyler Rausa’s long field goal attempt was blocked to the back of his own end zone, where a disputed Lions recovery wound up called a safety. With the free kick from the goal line, Rausa then converted a deuce (kick through the uprights), making it 31-2.
Peterson kicked his first of two deuces following Jolly’s second touchdown reception literally pulled out of the Lions’ Kyle Griswould’s hands just before halftime. The Lions defensive backs mistimed several leaps attempting to knock down passes, while the Cobras’ defenders made numerous last-second deflections. It was certainly the Lions’ least effective passing game of this season, if not their entire 12-year history.
During the regular season, Columbus had won two of three games against Carolina, but in the regular season finale, Johnson’s first start, the Lions were without either powerful fullback, Quayvon Hicks or Kamryn Pettway, leaving the team with no running back. The need to pass on every down caught up with Johnson and Monday night, Carolina’s dominance, depth at receiver and both lines and better health was evident.
Johnson struggled with his throwing accuracy and was pressured repeatedly after Lions’ star offensive lineman Nate Isles went down with an injury, forcing the Lions to use defensive lineman Corey Crawford, a rushing specialist, as a blocker on offense. Johnson threw two interceptions while repeatedly backtracking to escape heavy pressure. Late in the game, Johnson was ejected protesting an intentional grounding call in which his passing arm was hit. London Crawford ran out the clock as an emergency quarterback.
The Lions had no other active quarterback, as NAL Offensive Player of the Year Mason Espinosa could not get clearance from team doctors to play just a few weeks after tearing his medial collateral ligament, though he made a mighty rehab effort and came close to being activated.
Further, the league’s top receiver, Jarmon Fortson, left the game early after having his knee drained of fluid late last week, further depleting a receiving corps already missing regular season All-Offense first-teamers Tristan Purifoy and Durron Neal. Fortson’s toughness has been a staple of the Lions’ recent history. Losing his availability and short-to-medium receiving reliability caused the athletic Johnson to scramble far more than desired, and he overthrew his receivers most of the evening, particularly on deep routes.
“Honestly, it’s a minor miracle we made it to the championship game, as banged up as we are,” said Lions head coach Jason Gibson. “We didn’t connect early and clearly, with so many injuries, the continuity wasn’t there. When you use this many replacements for starters, even as good as ours are, it’s a battle of attrition. This was our tenth road game, and the wear and tear showed. You see some of the craziest things in arena football. We didn’t perform from the get-go, and I’m sorry our fans had to witness such a horrific performance, but congratulations to the Carolina Cobras, by far the better team tonight.”
Said receiver Darryl Thompson, one of the late-season veteran replacements, “We certainly apologize to the Lions fans for not bringing it (the NAL championship) home. It wasn’t for lack of effort.”
Another late season acquisition, receiver London Crawford, added, “Thanks so much for the support of our fans, those who came to Greensboro tonight and those who watched at home. We had a great season, we’re already looking forward to next year, and those of us who have been in the organization awhile can guarantee that next year will be better.”
The Lions’ all-time winning percentage remains among the best in all of professional sports at .669 (111-55). All of that record has been compiled with Gibson at the help. The 2019 NAL season will essentially begin in September, with announcement expansion of to at least two cities expected, and a season again running from early April to early August.
About the team
Lions 2019 season tickets and flex-plans have been on sale since late July and there will be no increase in price from this season. Special gifts will come for fans and companies who pay in full for their tickets by Sept. 15, which details to be announced by the team shortly.
The Lions are committed to their 13th season of providing professional arena football to the Chattahoochee Valley, and are among the top three longest-running franchises in the sport across the United States. Also, the Lions remain Columbus’ only professional sports franchise and are entirely locally owned.