To play or not to play.
It was a question asked by many football teams over the course of the last year. Some jumped through every hoop to get back on the field at all costs, believing a year off would permanently damage development and their organizations. Others took a knee, taking the year off and finding creative ways to stay engaged.
The effects of each decisions on 2021 performance remains to be seen, but Ssanyong Danube Dragons head coach Stefan Pokorny believes his team’s decision to commit themselves to offseason training and organizational development has been a net positive.
“We decided we were going to focus on being stronger, being faster for a real season in March and I think that’s worked out pretty well for us,” he said of the decision not to participate in a shortened Austrian season in the fall.
“We lost maybe three players, maybe five or six new players joined and some really talented youth players came up, so I think we got stronger through the pandemic. It was a difficult year, but we became a better team.”
In the end, only two Austrian teams suited up in 2020, the Dacia Vienna Vikings and Projekt Spielberg Graz Giants. Vying for a championship against two other teams simply wasn’t enough to outweigh the risk of injury for the Dragons.
After a year and a half without competition, plenty of questions dogged the team ahead of their 2021 season opener against the battle-hardened Giants.
“We had a lot of pressure on the one hand because we didn’t know what it would look like to play after such a long time. We had maybe two scrimmages amongst ourselves with live tackling but we didn’t know if we could play. How fast can we execute what we practiced? Because game time is always different than practice. You try to simulate it, but it’s never going to be similar to what you’re going to see at a game,” Pokorny explained.
“We were surprised that it was such a dominant win for us.”
It was a statement win for the Dragons, handing the Giants a resounding 35-16 loss. Though he is thankful the Vikings and Giants showed Austria pandemic football could be played safely, Pokorny believes the victory may be a testament to the benefits of passing on a fall campaign.
“They played in three games and after that they probably had time off where they had to rehab and then get back to their off-season a little bit later. We started working out in the gym in September and they played in September and October,” he noted. “I think that could have been an advantage for us.”
It may be just about the only advantage that the Dragons have, though you wouldn’t know it from watching them.
A team on the rise over the last few years, Danube has been nipping at the heels of Austrian powers like the Vikings and Swarco Raiders despite having considerably less money in the bank. Pokorny leads a coaching staff made entirely of native Austrians working part-time, putting in extra hours to compete with some of Europe’s most dominant teams.
“We try to really maximize the resources that we have because our budget is lower than the other top four teams,” Pokorny admitted.
“I think that’s kind of what is overlooked sometimes. Even if you compare us with the Giants, for example, they have two or three full-time coaches and three import players. For us, every coach has a job or is studying and it’s only one player that gets paid actually.”
That player is quarterback Chad Jeffries, but he’s far from the only talent on the Dragons roster. Organically developed homegrown players like receiver Philip Haun, running back Dominik Mattes and defensive lineman Bernhard Mosor are as capable of changing a game as any American and Pokorny sees huge potential for his team, particularly on offence.
“I think our offence is really explosive. We didn’t show our explosiveness during the first game yet. We really drove down the ball with long drives and wore them out, but I think we have really good playmakers on offence who can always score those long touchdowns,” he said.
Ultimately, the goal for the Dragons remains what it’s been for the last few years: to punch above their weight class and knock off one of Austria’s two prevailing dynasties.
“Our goal is to break into that top tier. We played the Vikings close last year . Both games could have been won, should have been won, but we weren’t smart enough, we were not cool enough yet,” Pokorny explained.
“We tried to outscore the Raiders in the semi-final. I think that game was 49-42, something like that. We could score, but we couldn’t stop Sandro Platzgummer, who’s now playing for the New York Giants.”
The strides his team made during the pandemic may have closed that gap permanently, with the first test coming next week when the Dragons face off with the Vikings. It will be a true litmus test for Pokorny’s big dreams and one thing is abundantly clear.
The Danube Dragons didn’t want a two-team pandemic championship, they want the real deal.