A Classic Combination
By: BJ Pickard
The great quarterbacks always seem to have a favorite target; that “go-to guy” who, when the team needs a big play, will find a way to make it.
Montana had Rice. Aikman had Irvin. Bradshaw had Swann.
The Arena Football League is no different.
Ben Bennett had Barry Wagner. Clint Dolezel had Marcus Nash. John Dutton had Damian Harrell.
But the thing about great passing combinations is that they tend to be fleeting. They come and go, but very few stay together for more than a few years, especially in the Arena Football League.
With one exception.
For the last 11 seasons, Mark Grieb has had James Roe.
“To start your career with one receiver and to finish it with the same receiver – it’s just been a special, special thing,” Grieb said.
During their time together with the San Jose SaberCats, the combination has been as routine as Tinker to Evers to Chance. Grieb has recorded nearly 900 touchdown passes, with roughly a third of them finding their way to Roe’s hands.
“As a quarterback, you can’t ask for anything more than to play with someone like James Roe,” Grieb said. “He just really makes my job so easy.”
Grieb has had some fine targets over the years, including Cleannord Saintil, Rodney Wright and Barry Wagner. And his current receiving corps isn’t too bad either, considering Ben Nelson, Huey Whittaker and Samora Goodson have all been viewed as “number one options” throughout their AFL careers.
Still, the one constant for Grieb has been Roe.
“There have been a lot of good receivers,” Roe said. “I’m just thankful that Mark and I were able to bond and the trust has grown and he’s so confident in me.”
It would be easy to have confidence in Roe simply based on football ability, as the Norfolk State alum was named the sixth greatest receiver in AFL history by the Silver Anniversary Committee earlier this season. In Week 12, he even moved into fourth place all-time in AFL history for career receiving touchdowns, passing former teammate Barry Wagner. However, Grieb insists the reason why he and his top target have flourished for so long is due to their relationship off the field.
“James and I have been really close friends for a long time,” Grieb said. “He’s the first guy to pick you up after a tough loss and say, ‘it’s okay.’ He’s also the first guy to celebrate with you whenever you win.”
When Grieb was mulling retirement following the 2011 AFL season, Roe was also the first guy to convince him to go on one more run.
“I really didn’t know if I was going to come back this year, but James and I talked and he really wanted to go again and he convinced me to come back and play another year,” Grieb said.
Interestingly enough, just a year earlier, the roles were somewhat reversed.
When the SaberCats returned to the League for the first time since 2008 last season, Grieb was once again under center. Roe, however, didn’t make his AFL comeback until midway through the year. When he did, the impact was undeniable.
“It was just like putting that old glove on again,” Grieb said. “It just felt right.”
But while Grieb and Roe have made it look easy for years, neither is ashamed to admit that developing their chemistry took time. In fact, both agree it was several seasons into their careers together before things really started to click for the tandem.
“There was certainly a time in the beginning when I didn’t quite know exactly where James was going to go or how he was going to run his routes,” Grieb said. “There were a lot of times early on where I’d be looking at him and come off to another receiver, assuming he’d be covered; but when I went back to watch film, I’d see he was wide open. There’d be a moment where it looked like he’d be covered and then he’d get that separation in the last second. It took me a while to really understand that and to put the ball in the right spot.”
It’s safe to say that Grieb has discovered where to put the ball. During their time together, his number one target has become the team’s all-time leader in receptions (881), receiving yards (10,761) and receiving touchdowns (271), and has recorded at least 20 touchdowns receptions in eight seasons, a figure that ties him for the most in AFL history.
On the flip side, Grieb has passed for at least 70 touchdowns in nine consecutive seasons. He has 893 career touchdown passes, seven shy of becoming just the third quarterback in AFL history to reach the 900-touchdown mark and, in Week 14, he extended his AFL record for most consecutive seasons with at least 4,000 passing yards to seven straight years.
At age 38, he’s playing some of the best football of his career. Against the Milwaukee Mustangs in Week 13, he tied his own single-game franchise record with 10 passing touchdowns and with 435 passing yards in the game, he recorded his third 400-yard performance of the year and his second in as many weeks. Shane Stafford is the only other quarterback in AFL history to throw back-to-back 400-yard games. This season, Grieb became the only man to have done it three times in one year. The achievement also leaves Grieb unmatched in career 400-yard passing games, as he has now moved ahead of Clint Dolezel and into first place in AFL history with seven 400-yard performances in his career.
Roe may have summed it up best: “He’s just an awesome quarterback.”
But admiration for Grieb’s abilities does not end with his receiver. His longevity and consistency on the field have made him an example for other AFL quarterbacks to follow.
“You always like watching the guys who’ve been doing it for a while,” Iowa Barnstormers quarterback JJ Raterink said.
Compared to Grieb, “America’s Quarterback” hasn’t been at it all that long, but he and his top target, Jesse Schmidt are quickly developing into one of the League’s best young passing tandems.
“If people would like to put us in that category, we’d be very honored with it,” Raterink said. “People have said some nice things. To know that we’ve worked together that long and it’s paid off in productivity on the field and helping get us some wins has really been a nice residual.”
Raterink and Schmidt began their Arena Football careers together in the af2 with the Quad City Steamwheelers.
“We got to the Quad Cities at the same time in 2007, but unfortunately Jesse got hurt that year, so he only played three games,” Raterink said. “In ’08 and ’09, we had a couple good seasons together.”
When the pair made the jump up to the AFL in 2010, the tandem broke up, as Schmidt was assigned to the Iowa Barnstormers, while Raterink headed to the Chicago Rush. The two were reunited in Des Moines earlier this year when Raterink joined the Barnstormers prior to the start of the season.
“It really didn’t take very long to get our rhythm back,” Raterink said. “Jesse and I always had a great rapport through the years.”
That rapport was on display in Week 13, when Raterink completed 31-of-37 passes for 371 yards and nine touchdowns, finishing with a completion percentage of 83.8 and a Quarterback Rating of 148.03. Eighteen of his 31 completions ended up in Schmidt’s hands.
“It was always fun to see him over the last couple years when we’ve played each other, but it’s certainly a lot nicer to have him back on my side,” Raterink said of his favorite target. “By the fourth or fifth day of camp, we were able to adjust to each other on the fly during a play, just like we always had.”
“That’s the intriguing thing about the receiver-quarterback relationship,” Grieb said. “During the course of a play, there are really no words exchanged between you and the receiver. It’s that rapport and relationship that comes to light in the game, which you developed through hard work and practice.”
Though Raterink and Schmidt are enjoying their fourth season of playing catch with one another, the two have a ways to go before they reach the heights that Grieb and Roe have achieved.
“Those were guys that I watched before I even got involved with the AFL,” Raterink said.
Roe says there have been other connections he’s enjoyed watching as well.
“I remember Tony Graziani and Chris Jackson,” Roe said. “I thought that was a nice combination. And Sherdrick Bonner to Randy Gatewood and Hunkie Cooper – they were fun to watch.”
And while Grieb has certainly seen plenty of great passing combinations over the years, he says he likes seeing today’s dynamic duos develop.
“It’s always fun to watch players that play at an extremely high level,” Grieb said. “Schmidt and Raterink, [Tommy] Grady and [Aaron] Lesue, [Nick] Davila and [Maurice] Purify are all fun to watch because they’re competitive, they’re really good at what they do and they work well together.”
Davila and Purify have combined for 39 touchdowns in Arizona this season, while Utah’s Aaron Lesue has hauled in 44 touchdowns from Tommy Grady, the same number of scores thrown by Raterink to Schmidt.
“In Chicago, I think Russ Michna and Reggie Gray have got a nice rapport, too,” Raterink added. “Reggie’s done a nice job of opening it up for some of the younger receivers there.”
But the standard for all quarterback-receiver combinations remains Mark Grieb to James Roe.
“It’s been a blessing for both of us,” Roe said. “I come from Virginia and he’s in California and for us to meet like this and build this friendship – it’s just been a blessing. I’m truly thankful that I came here.”
Considering how often players trade teams in sports and how long – or short, as the case may be – most careers usually last, what Grieb and Roe have accomplished is truly something to marvel at.
“At one point I went back and looked to see how many quarterbacks and one receiver have played together as long as James and I have,” Grieb said. “It’s a special thing.”
Think of it this way – over the course of 199 career games, San Antonio Talons quarterback Aaron Garcia has suited up in seven different uniforms. This year, not a single one of his receivers has been in the lineup for every game.
Meanwhile, Grieb has started every game for the SaberCats since 2003 and, with very few exceptions, he’s always been able to look to his side to see #9. And while anything can happen in the world of Arena Football, the smart money says that Hall of Fame combination may not be around much longer.
Grieb and Roe will make decisions regarding their futures after the season, but their focus for now is to end on a high note with one more championship run. Both agree that leaving the game as ArenaBowl champions isn’t a bad way to go out.
But regardless of what happens between now and August 10, one thing’s for certain: what Grieb and Roe have been able to accomplish together over the last 11 seasons is rare, to say the least.
They’ve been fun to watch. So let’s enjoy watching for as long as we can.
-05/18/2013 SaberCats Take a Bite Out of the Sharks, Win 57-36
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