March 30, 2013
By JONAH ROSENBLUM
There are 14 starting quarterbacks in the Arena Football League.
There are the scramblers who have brought foot speed to the game in Bernard Morris and Adrian McPherson. There are the legends of the game who keep coming back year after year after year in Aaron Garcia and John Dutton. There are the high-flying young guns of the Wild, Wild West, in Tommy Grady and Nick Davila, who have been setting passing records left and right.
More quietly, two of the best arms in the business in J.J. Raterink and Kurt Rocco will meet up on Saturday night in CBS Sports Network’s broadcast of “Net10 Wireless Arena Football Saturday.”
Neither quarterback has a spot secured for him in the Hall of Fame — not yet, anyway. Neither has redefined the game with his rushing ability. Neither has set any League records yet. But both have proven that they can handle the Arena game. And both have finally begun to settle down in their respective cities. Raterink and Rocco are in their second full year with their current teams, the Iowa Barnstormers and New Orleans VooDoo, respectively, bringing much-needed stability to the quarterback position.
"This is my third season under coach Mike Hohensee's offense so that always helps when you're familiar with the surroundings," Raterink said. "Any time that you get anything like that and you're familiar, it only can help you."
Their pasts couldn’t be more different. J.J. Raterink never really got a chance in college. He didn’t attempt a single pass during his sophomore and junior seasons for Wyoming. As a senior, he was brilliant in the only start he ever made — completing 22-of-36 passes for 227 yards and four touchdowns against a single interception. A final touchdown pass, a 25-yarder to Jovon Bouknight in the third overtime period, led the Cowboys to a 53-45 victory at UNLV.
Rocco, on the other hand, threw plenty of passes — in his senior year, anyway — for Mount Union. He passed for greater than 3,900 yards and 42 touchdowns in 2009 to help lead the Purple Raiders to the Stagg Bowl. But his small-school background wasn’t enough for the National Football League. It's an experience — and a rejection — that he still takes with him every day. Rocco said that he combs through opposing rosters to look for fellow Division III athletes like himself, but doesn't find many. Coach Pat O'Hara said Rocco's motivation is evident.
"There’s an aspect of a guy who went to a smaller school who has a hunger and a chip on his shoulder and you see that a lot in our League," O'Hara said. "There are a lot of guys from smaller universities, Division II and III, that have that hunger and that fire in them that you can’t teach."
In Cleveland, Rocco, just 23 at the time, was thrown directly into the fire, when then-Gladiators quarterback John Dutton was hurt in the season opener. At first, the Mount Union product was awed by the talent surrounding him on the football field. He didn't stay that way for long, completing 64.4 percent of his passes for 3,834 yards and 72 touchdowns against just 14 interceptions.
"You go from being at a Division III school to being in a League with all the professionals from the big colleges, and it’s like, 'Wow, I watched these guys throughout my college career,'" Rocco said. "It’s a weird transition. It’s almost like you’re below everybody and then once you start playing, it’s completely a different thing. You can’t think all these guys are better than you."
Raterink, on the other hand, had the chance to ease into the League, first working his way through the af2, then playing behind Russ Michna in the Windy City. Still, at some point, Raterink had turned into a bit of a journeyman quarterback. Mark Grieb set up shop in San Jose for more than a decade. Even Aaron Garcia rested his well-traveled legs in The Empire State for several years. But J.J. Raterink couldn't quite find a place to stay.
In 2011, he started 13 games for the Kansas City Command, passing for 3,723 yards, 65 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, before he was traded back to the Rush. Finally, in 2012, he was assigned to the Iowa Barnstormers, tossing 93 touchdowns against just nine interceptions in his inaugural year. In Des Moines, Raterink has finally had the chance to settle down and become a team's secure starting quarterback. And he responded beautifully in the first game of the 2013 season, completing 22-of-30 for 257 yards and seven touchdowns to whip Chicago, 63-41.
"Our main thing this week was trying to stay close to the receivers and not give them too much room to get open," Chicago defensive back Jorrick Calvin said. "It seemed like we were just doing that a little too much in the first half, stumbling over feet, just trying to stay on the hip pocket."
While Raterink put pressure on the Rush defense with a wide variety of throws, burning their defensive backs on a number of deep balls, including a 21-yarder and a 41-yarder in the first quarter, he found particular success working with wide receiver Darius Reynolds, who successfully rode the screen play to a four-touchdown performance.
"No comment," Calvin said.
Rocco seems to have found a similar landing spot in the Big Easy. It's a comfortable spot, as he has the chance to learn under O'Hara, a former Arena League quarterback. Both blessed with the height to see over the offensive line, O'Hara and Rocco have found that they can see eye-to-eye, figuratively as well as literally.
"Him being a successful quarterback and player in this League makes him a better coach because he completely understands that this game is a passing game and a lot rides on the quarterback," Rocco said. "Coach O’Hara is the most understanding guy I’ve ever been around. He completely understands. We’ll watch film together. He’ll factor in everything. If I mess up in some odd way or something, he’ll be like, 'Yeah, I’ve been there.' That’s kind of his go-to phrase."
The results are noticeable to Raterink.
"He definitely looks more comfortable in the pocket," Raterink said. "He's really developed with that strong arm. He has a nice touch pass."
And to his admiring coach.
"Kurt’s actually bigger than me and heavier than me and better looking than me," O'Hara said. "It will be nice getting to work with him, with him having an understanding of what I expect and of what he expects of himself, and being in year two of the same system, I know he’s excited about it and so are we."
Both quarterbacks are also hoping that increased comfort level will lead to fewer sacks. Raterink set a rather auspicious record last season with the Barnstormers as he was sacked a League-record 45 times. Rocco got to know the turf fairly well himself, going down 30 times.
For Raterink, he said that a lot of the onus falls on him to get the ball out quicker. At least in Week 1, it worked out well as he was sacked just once. That was after he was sacked multiple times in 10 out of 18 games last season.
"Coach Hohensee and I talk about getting the ball in and out of our hands and taking our chances and when we do, being smart with it," Raterink said. "Those sacks last year, a lot of them might have been on me, so you have to kind of own up to it and learn from that and I think we got some help up front and that helped a lot of things."
Rocco, playing behind an offensive line with plenty of new members, still suffered three sacks in Week 1 against Tampa Bay.
"Last year wasn’t all the offensive line," Rocco said. "It could’ve been issues with the receivers or me holding onto the ball sometimes. That’s one thing that coach Pat O'Hara wanted to focus on this year, making sure that I didn’t have to take a lot of hits.”
The last time Raterink and Rocco met on the field, they were wearing different uniforms. Raterink was playing for the Kansas City Command and Rocco was playing for the Cleveland Gladiators. They were both newly minted starting quarterbacks, trying to absorb the playbook as quickly as they could. Both homes proved short-lived.
It appears that this time both quarterbacks have found a more long-term solution. And it can be seen in their comfort level.
"I definitely feel a lot more comfortable," Raterink said. "It's my eighth season in the League and you think you've seen everything and then every once in a while, something comes up and you say, 'Okay, I still got more to learn."
Both players have plenty to learn — but they have a location they can count on and all of the upside in the world.
"Kurt has the capability, only 25 years old, going into his third year as a pro, he still has that youth," O'Hara said. " He still hasn’t reached that ceiling yet. That’s what you look for. Does this guy have the ability to improve? Kurt’s in that window where he still can grow and that’s exciting for us."