Shaggy's Hotbird Huck: The Phoenix Head to DC

May 1, 2023

The Hotbird Huck by Shaggy Shragis

For all the hope I may have inspired a week ago, the reality of what we watched Saturday night was a wet, sloppy mess for the Hotbirds. New York snoozed to a nine point victory over Philadelphia, with most of the work coming in the first quarter, when the Empire took a commanding 8-1 lead and never looked back. Philadelphia’s lone bright spot was a three break run to start the second half—managing to trim the lead to four—but the Birds gave three right back, and jogged out the rest of the game, losing 17-8.

The biggest issue for Philadelphia was unforced turnovers. New York was credited with 14 blocks, but the Phoenix had 27 turns, meaning nearly half of all turns were not generated by an Empire D, but rather a drop or a throwaway from Philadelphia. The Hotbirds dropped two discs on wide open cuts in the end zone, and the Phoenix offensive line handler trio of Jordan Rhyne, Alex Thorne, and rookie Calvin Trisolini combined for nine throwaways. Although New York certainly deserves credit for maintaining defensive intensity throughout the game, Philadelphia hemorrhaged out on self inflicted wounds.

In some way, this brutal performance from the O-line has a silver lining: the Birds can only go up from here. Unforced turnovers are easier to fix than another team running roughshod on defense, and while I would not want to be a player at Phoenix practice this week, they now have some good film to study and some key areas to improve in. It also should be the worst conditions they will play in all season, and while weather is symmetrical—the Empire fared far better in the rain than Philadelphia did—clearer skies and warmer weather should help the Hotbirds find some rhythm on offense and get their high flying stars back up in the friendly skies.

There were positives in this game as well. Philly newcomer CJ Colicchio had a good performance, leading all players in receiving yards with 244. The defense, when they were out there, played quite well, and managed to score breaks at a reasonable clip when given the opportunity. Matt Hanna and Eric Witmer had definite highlight blocks, and seven Hotbirds recorded at least one d. The D-line, when sent out to play offense, also performed well, and the three break run to start the second half is a good indicator of the team’s mental toughness, especially considering how bad the first half went.

Unfortunately the schedule doesn’t get any easier, as the Phoenix travel to DC next weekend to face a team that looks as good if not better than the Empire. DC is coming off a convincing 21-16 win over another championship hopeful in the Carolina Flyers, and Philadelphia has lost eight straight to DC, including last season in the playoffs. The Breeze likely had the best off season of any team in the league, and added elite AUDL talent in Andrew Roy, Charlie McCutcheon, Thomas Edmonds, Cole Jurek and Joe Merrill to an already loaded team.

But Philadelphia has matched up tighter with DC in the past than they have with New York, despite the lopsided win-loss record: both regular losses in 2022 came by a combined two points. The key for the Phoenix will be to activate their cutters and get the deep game going. Limited both by the weather and by New York’s big bodied defenders, Philadelphia was just 4 for 7 on hucks. More distressingly, the dynamic downfield trio of Greg Martin, James Pollard, and Sean Mott, who lit the league on fire in 2022, were held to just 23 total touches between them. James and Greg averaged nearly 20 a game last season by themselves, and Mott was closer to 40. If DC is able to limit these three as effectively as the Empire did, then the Hotbirds are in for a very long season.

That should be doable for Philadelphia. Despite the victory last weekend, the Breeze let up quite a few long range bombs: Carolina was 9 for 9 on hucks against DC on Saturday. Philadelphia will be looking to open it up after a frustrating week one, and we should be in for double digit hucks from the Hot Birds in the nation's capital. Something else we might see is more playing time for Philadelphia’s more seasoned veterans. Brandon Pastor was the only member of the O-line with a 100% completion rate, impressive for a game that featured so many drops and throwaways. If Philadelphia’s offense continues to struggle in the backfield, look for coach Roger to start shifting playing time towards some of the less flashy, but more reliable pieces of the Phoenix offense like Pastor or Dimitry Suvorov, and perhaps even mixing the lines to bring in players like Paul Owens or Eric Nardelli: stout defenders who have shown the ability to distribute the disc efficiently.

Philadelphia doesn’t need to win this game to make the playoffs, their first must-win game will come the week after in Boston, but they would certainly like to win this game, or at least make it competitive. The Breeze are a tough cookie to crumble—they are my pick to win the title this season—but the Hotbirds are a tough and talented team, and they have the pieces to beat the Breeze, as they demonstrated last season.

Something else to look for would be a big game from some of Philadelphia’s newer pieces on defense. Rookie Leo Warren struggled in game one, but he, Justin Keller, and Kainoa Chun Moy—the Phoenix’s D-line handling core—could feast on a DC offense that won the disc back less than half the time against Carolina. Justin Keller in particular, who played with the Breeze in 2021, can utilize his insider knowledge for some big plays. The Breeze offense has a lot of new pieces on it this season, but for Philadelphia to have success they will need to figure out a way to limit Christian Boxely. Boxely was +18 against Philadelphia through three games in 2022, and had 11 goals and zero turnovers. If the Hotbirds can figure out a way to slow down Christian Boxely, they’ll have a shot at toppling DC. It won’t be easy though: last weekend against Carolina, Christian had two assists, three goals, two blocks, and zero turnovers

My prediction: 25 - 21 Breeze. This game will be much closer, and much more exciting than game one. Every fiber of my being wants to pick the Hotbirds to come roaring out of last week with the upset, but DC looked too good against the Flyers for me to totally get there. Look for Philadelphia to air it out early and often against a fast but short DC defense, but for the Breeze to ultimately prevail with brutal efficiency and some timely Ds by their elite handler defenders. And to reiterate, the Hotbirds do not need this win to make the playoffs, but boy do they want it.