Tasked with play-calling, Salt Lake Screaming Eagles fans can't resist the pass

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Tuesday May 2nd, 2017

If you've ever played Madden, you've probably encountered a play-calling dilemma: Why run the ball when you can pass?

Followers of the Salt Lake Screaming Eagles, an Indoor Football League team that lets its fans call the plays by means of an app, are treating their responsibilities exactly as you might expect. 

On April 14, the Screaming Eagles passed for 156 yards and ran for 108 in a 73-60 loss to the Arizona Rattlers. And while those totals might have suggested a balanced attack, quarterback Verlon Reed ran for more than 100 of those yards. The Screaming Eagles handed the ball off just four times for one yard. Asked to assess the fans’ play-calling in the contest, coach Matthew Sauk was blunt.

“[It] was bad. There was three or four run calls during the game even at times when we were close or even,” Sauk said. “It’s too hard to win when you’re not running the football. It’s just something that you have to do in this game because of how the defenses are built to run against an offense.”

Through nine games this season, the Screaming Eagles have attempted more than twice as many passes as rushes. Against the Spokane Empire on March 24, Salt Lake passed the ball 34 times and ran the ball six times for six yards. And in the Screaming Eagles' latest two games, a 19-point defeat to the Nebraska Danger on April 22 and a two-point loss to the Empire this weekend, that trend continued: They finished with 24 rushes for 47 yards between the two games, with Reed accounting for 15 of the carries. 

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In fairness, the IFL is a pass-first league, and Reed ranks third in passing yards per game and is tied for second in touchdown passes. But, excluding Reed, the team has rushed the ball for 122 total yards in nine games. In comparison, the Sioux Falls Storm average 120 rushing yards each game. Only the Cedar Rapids Titans have attempted fewer rushes than Salt Lake.

If giving fans free rein to call plays has some drawbacks, the inclination to lean entirely on the passing game represents a major one—at least in the eyes of Sauk, a former Utah State quarterback who served as the offensive coordinator of the Arena Football League’s Orlando Predators before taking over the Screaming Eagles on March 6. He admitted he’s had to sacrifice his love of play-calling in the job, and said that before he initially took the job he felt unsure if he would be able to accept the team’s fan-run model. While he has embraced the alternative approach to keep the team profitable, he said letting fans call plays can be frustrating.

“You’re basically outmanned a lot of the time throwing the football in this league,” Sauk said. “And we have the guys to be able to run it.”

The Screaming Eagles may have the guys to run it, but the team’s fans seem to want to let Reed do everything for the team. Reed has put up some flashy numbers, and Sauk said he thinks the quarterback could have a future at a higher level. But Reed said the pass-always approach fans have invoked puts a lot of pressure on him.

“I love throwing the ball,” Reed said before adding: “We would definitely like to run the ball a little more. We don’t have the biggest line in the IFL, so our guys don’t want to be retreating as much as they are. They want to get out there in gaps and change it up a little bit.”

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Salt Lake defensive lineman Seante Williams, 35, has played in four professional football leagues, including the NFL and CFL. He too recognizes the drawbacks of fans calling plays.

“For them to actually call plays is... awesome,” the veteran said. “For the team, it can be bad sometimes.”

The team’s fans don’t get to call plays on Williams’s side of the ball, but one can imagine Salt Lake sending a fair number of all-out blitzes if they did. Still, Reed said he believes the fans want to win first and foremost. 

With seven games left in the Screaming Eagles' season, the team’s voting fans have plenty of time to adjust to a more balanced offensive approach, starting May 8 against the Colorado Crush. But as long as the fans are in charge, opponents will prepare to face the pass. 

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