SAN ANTONIO -- In the aftermath of a pivotal 23-6 win at West Conference foe San Antonio, Arizona Hotshots coach Rick Neuheisel recalled when he was at the University of Washington in 2002. "That, unfortunately, was my last season there," he said. It was that year that the Huskies began the season at No. 9 in the preseason Associated Press poll only to lose four of five games in the middle stretch, finishing 7-6 with a Sun Bowl loss to Purdue.
"You stay in this business long enough, you're going to get all the steps on the ladder," Neuheisel told CBS Sports. "That year we were staring at the first losing season in 26 years at Washington."
Times were indeed getting desperate. The Huskies had just lost three straight games to USC, UCLA and Arizona State to fall to 4-5. And yet in that moment, Neuheisel found new inspiration for his team to end the regular season.
"We just found something to play for. We had games against Oregon State, Oregon and Washington State, so we created a 'Northwest Championship.' We found a rallying cry. We had little shirts with check marks on them," he said. "And we knocked them all off. This was when Washington State was No. 3 in the country. Oregon State obviously had [Salt Lake Stallions coach] Dennis Erickson and Oregon had coach Mike Bellotti. We got it done."
There are plenty of parallels from that season with Neuheisel's Huskies to this inaugural one in the AAF with the Hotshots, who have now won three straight to arrive at 5-3. Go back to the start of the season in February. Arizona had theto win the league's championship. We even had them as the No. 1 team in our . Those may have been blind guesses, but there was enough intel to at least project success.
But after a 2-0 start, things began to unravel. Three straight losses to Salt Lake, Atlanta and San Antonio dropped the Hotshots to under .500. Quarterback John Wolford wasn't fully healthy, the offense wasn't firing on all cylinders and the defense was giving up big plays. The Atlanta Legends, who have the worst offense in the AAF, put up more than 400 yards on Arizona in a stunning 14-11 upset, which remains the biggest of this season.
And yet after an ensuing 29-25 loss to the Commanders in Week 5, the Hotshots had a come-to-Jesus moment. "There are stages you go through when dealing with adversity" Neuheisel said. "The first stage is you're in shock so you go on autopilot. As a coach you say all the right things in a press conference after a loss. The second thing is you start rationalizing. You start rationalizing that someone else didn't do it right. Then you go into a cocoon where you don't want the pain, because if you really put yourself out there and lay it all on the line, it's excruciating when you're unsuccessful. When you go into that cocoon you think 'well, I won't let it matter as much.' But as a competitive person none of that works. That's all an excuse and all you can do is dig out. And that's what we've done."
At Washington, Neuheisel found the best way to motivate his players was the perfect storm of playing their top three rivals in successive weeks. In the AAF, there's no real blueprint (yet) for how to keep the spark going. However, practically everyone playing in the Alliance still wants one thing: another shot at the NFL. As arguably the most optimistic coach in the AAF, Neuheisel got his team out of the cocoon, understanding that if they played hard and executed, that dream was still alive.
"In this league, everyone wants more film so they can go where they want to go [the NFL]," he said. "But while that's going on, let's enjoy being on a team and pulling for one another. Guys can see who you are, but they are also going to be asking questions about who you are. Not just what you do, but who you are."
Wolford responded in his own way by trying to be the same player and leader every day, through good times and bad. It's a lesson most of the Hotshots roster has pulled from in some capacity during their varying stays in the NFL.
"We have a mature locker room, a lot of guys played in the NFL, so you can look to them to see how to prepare. But throughout a football season there's going to be adversity and there are going to be accomplishments," he said. "When I was with the Chargers briefly, Gus Bradley said the teams that can navigate both the same way and stay right down the middle are the ones that are going to be successful. We've had some adversity and we didn't let it get us too far down. We've had some accomplishments and we can't think that we're going to beat everyone now."
The method worked. Arizona followed its three-game slide by beating Orlando on the road 22-17, the Apollos' only loss this season. The Hotshots followed that up by avenging their Week 3 loss to Salt Lake with a 32-15 victory. Then, in front of an Alamodome crowd of more than 23,000, Arizona stifled one of the Alliance's better offenses to a pair of field goals despite being on the field for a majority of the second half. Meanwhile, the connection between Wolford and receiver Rashad Ross remains one of the strongest in the AAF. Ross, who has been battling injuries, still caught four passes for 78 yards, including a 58-yard score in the first quarter in which he ran past the entire San Antonio defense. Wolford is second in the AAF with 1,616 yards passing ... and first with 14 touchdowns.
"I think he needs to get more pub," said Commanders linebacker Jayrone Elliott. "They're trying to run away with it with [Apollos quarterback] Garrett Gilbert, but Wolford needs to be right there with him in the MVP race."
Noted -- and there's also an argument that, records aside, Arizona is the best team in the AAF at the moment. They have the head-to-head win over Orlando, but no team has played as cohesively since the midway point in the season. Even though the Hotshots have yet to formally secure their playoff spot, they are playing like a playoff-caliber team. The next two games -- at home against Birmingham and then at San Diego -- will be critical. It's a good thing Arizona is playing its best and most confident football right now.
"There's nothing that's more fun as the guy who's leading the charge than to see people feel the momentum gain and then making sure there's focus to go along with the momentum in order to maintain that," Neuheisel said. "And hopefully we can do that."