TAMPA — The Storm has failed to make the playoffs in four of the past five seasons, but that's one thing it won't have to worry about this season.
The Arena Football League is trying something it never has done in its 29-year history — usher all eight teams into the playoffs.
"I've always been an optimistic guy," Tampa Bay vice president Jeff Gooch said. "I look at it as an opportunity to make history. The AFL has always been a league unafraid to embrace things from a different way."
The league has trimmed back from 12 teams in 2015 to eight, the fewest clubs since the AFL's sixth season (1992). And with all eight making the playoffs, the regular season is essentially about jockeying for postseason seeding.
"Nobody wants to play on the road, especially in the playoffs, when they could be playing at home," Storm coach Lawrence Samuels said. "Each (regular season) game will go a long way toward deciding that."
While Samuels agreed the new league setup is unorthodox, he was optimistic the product on the field will be better. Losing four teams, with 24-man rosters each, means 96 rostered players from 2015 are vying for spots elsewhere. "The talent pool is much deeper this year," Samuels said. "You're going to see a better brand of football on the field. We had to make some cuts that we wouldn't have made in years past."
"The talent pool is deeper, and I think that will be reflected in the play," he said. "It's addition by subtraction."
And fans will get their first glimpse at 7 tonight at Amalie Arena when Tampa Bay and Orlando open the season in the AFL's 3,000th game. "It's always a war," defensive back James Harrell (Plant High) said.
Harrell is one of the key returners from 2015 and anchors the Storm's stongest unit. Despite missing four games last season with a broken hand, Harrell finished with seven interceptions and five fumble recoveries on his way to second-team All-Arena honors. He is joined in the secondary by free agent pickup Cameron McGlenn, who has 37 interceptions in five seasons and was also second-team All-Arena in 2014.
The Storm is also deep at wideout, with breakout star Julius Gregory (98 catches, 1,036 yards, 27 TDs in 2015), Phillip Barnett and T.T. Toliver all returning. Toliver, a 13-year veteran, enters 2016 just 75 receptions behind Damian Harrell's all-time mark of 1,164.
"I like our depth at wide receiver," Samuels said. "Julius really took off last year, and T.T. just seems to keep rolling along. He's like another coach out there on the field."
The Storm also returns two offensive linemen — including Countryside's Tyler Moore — up front and added free agent Isaiah Tuiasosopo and Andrew Miller (trade with Arizona). In fact, Tampa Bay returns 12 players from last season and has just three rookies on the roster.
"We have a nice returning core of players, which is something we couldn't really say the past few years," Samuels said. "And with the new faces we added, I think this is a special group."
One new face that likely holds the key to the season is quarterback Adam Kennedy, who was signed in the offseason to replace Jason Boltus, last year's league leader with 5,025 yards. Kennedy threw for 2,863 yards, 43 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 13 starts last year for New Orleans.
"We have always liked Adam, and he's had a very good camp," Samuels said. "Between him and Jonathan (Bane), we feel we're in good shape at the quarterback position heading into the season."