Barcelona Dragons unlikely turnaround a testament to new coordinators

There is an old saying in sports journalism: don’t root for teams or players, root for storylines.

Right now in the European League of Football, there is no better story line than the Barcelona Dragons. The only problem is they are making it awfully hard not to cheer for them.

Such is the allure of the ultimate football underdog, a team that seemingly against all odds finds itself in the playoff hunt with three weeks left in the regular season.

Sitting at 3-5, Barcelona will need some help to get into the postseason — they need to win out the rest of the way and have their conference rival Cologne lose at least twice to even have a shot — but mere weeks ago that slim chance would have seemed a practical impossibility.

Facing questions about the competitiveness of a team forced to lean on Spanish talent from their very inception, the Dragons opened the ELF’s inaugural season with four straight losses and looked increasingly out of place against the league’s German power structure. It seemed as though the season was a write-off.

Then came the almost miraculous resurgence. After being trampled by the top-seeded Frankfurt Galaxy 42-22 in Week 5, the Dragons turned around and toasted Berlin 48-16 for their first win of the season. They hung with the 7-1 Hamburg Sea Devils for a close 22-17 loss the next week, then shocked the Cologne Centurions in a 60-51 home thriller two weeks ago, before handling the Stuttgart Surge in Week 9.

Two straight victories and three in their last four games have made Barcelona the most exciting team in European football right now and head coach Adam Rita is finally seeing the fruits of his labor.

“We are starting to get healthy and now the guys have been playing together for a while,” Rita said this week heading into a pivotal matchup against the Thunder. Our guys play every play as hard as they can. They stick together. We play what we call Dragon Ball, playing through adversity, never ever giving up.”

Photo: Eric Ribé

However, more impressive than the victories is the situation in which the team has been able to cultivate their magical run.

Consistency is generally the backbone of any successful team, but the Dragons have had none of it in 2021. The club began with what was considered the most impressive coaching staff in the ELF, chaired by Rita whose resume includes six Grey Cups as a coach and executive in the Canadian Football League. He brought with him two other former CFL head coaches in quarterbacks coach/playcaller Joe Paopa and offensive line coach Ron Smeltzer, then padded the staff with some promising Americans without prior European experience.

A little over four months later, almost none of those coaches remain.

“We understand that if a coach gets an opportunity to work back home with a more interesting position than what we can offer, they take it,” Dragons general manager Bart Iaccarino said. “As GM, I’m not thrilled with that because of the commitment they had to our organization, but as coach and man I’m happy if they can pursue their dream and grind at higher level.”

Smeltzer was the first to part ways with the club, leaving after the team’s third loss and replaced by Giuliano Cattaneo. DB coach Ricky Lang returned home to take a job at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps soon after and defensive coordinator Doug Semones exited after a dispute with management. Paopao also had to leave the Iberian peninsula for personal reasons and linebackers coach Marcell Frazier jumped to Mississippi Valley State a week ago. In total, five coaches have departed over the course of the ELF’s nine weeks of action, and yet Barcelona has kept winning.

“We had some coaches leave for whatever reason, but we have been able to sustain with the coaches that we had left,” Rita said. “We brought in Mike Woods to handle our defence and our Spanish coaches have really stepped up.”

Photo: Eric Ribé

The new coaches have proved the difference and Woods has been chief among them. The long-time head coach of the Milano Seamen was fresh off a loss to the Parma Panthers in the Italian championship game when he got the call to cross the Mediterranean and join the Dragons.

“Bart called me on that Monday. I had just gone and got my COVID test to get on my airplane Tuesday morning, I was flying home, bags packed, everything like that,” Woods laughed. “He asked me if I was interested in coming here and finishing out the season as the DB coach and thinking ‘six weeks in Barcelona, I could probably do worse than that.’ It took me about five minutes to say ‘book me a flight.’”

Woods arrived in Barcelona the Thursday before their first win against Berlin, providing some insider knowledge on Thunder playcaller Marcus Herford, his former offensive coordinator in Milan. Originally the job was to take over for Lang as DB coach, but when Semones left suddenly the Sunday after the victory, Woods became the emergency defensive coordinator.

The first order of business for Woods was to change the Dragons defensive scheme. Semones was running a 33 Stack, a defense that was neither familiar to the new DC or a good match for their next opponents. He asked his players to adapt on the fly, loading up the line of scrimmage to counter hard-running teams like Hamburg and Cologne.

“I think the guys on defense have bought into playing what we are now,” Woods said. “We’re basically a 4-3 NFL pro-style defense and they’ve had to do their homework. We sat and watched a lot of film and every single snap of practice, I grade the film out and then the next day we go over it in our meeting.”

Photo: Eric Ribé

The results have been impressive. While Barcelona lacks the brutish size of some of their opponents, their play in the box has dramatically improved with import Myke Tavarres in the middle, but most importantly an increase in man coverage opportunities has opened things up for playmakers in the defensive secondary. The Dragons have become turnover creators over the course of the win streak, with players like Andy Vera, Niko Lester, Lucas Masero and Brandon Brooks producing huge interceptions. That’s not just a by-product of the system, it’s the emphasis.

“Don’t be afraid to try to make a play. Jump a route. If you see him coming out of his break, freaking go,” Woods said of his instructions to the secondary.

“I know a lot of DBs are afraid to get beat, especially if they’re a man coverage. Well, don’t be afraid if you get beat deep, look at the bench. I don’t have a whole lot of guys behind you, so you’re probably not getting pulled out of the game.”

While Woods has helped spark the turnaround, he’s found more than an equal counterpart on the offensive side of the ball. Patrick Wennin, a young Florida high school coach, began the year as the Dragons‘ running backs coach but found himself thrust into the offensive coordinator role after the departure of Paopao. His first appearance as a playcaller resulted in a 60-point output from the offense and Wennin being hoisted on his players’ shoulders.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity and have to give a huge thanks to Coach Paopao for setting the foundation. Our players are extremely locked in and we’re really starting to gel as a team,” Wennin said of his early success.

“I think early in the season we were still trying to figure each other out and grow as a team. We’re a young and practically new franchise with a lot of moving pieces, so it was only natural it would take some time.”

Wennin doesn’t give himself half enough credit. An already talented Dragons offense has rounded into form under his tutelage and exploded. Quarterback Zach Edwards is now the league’s top passer while American Jean Constant and Frenchman Remi Bertellin sit first and third in receiving yards respectively. They seem almost impossible to stop.

“For me, it’s important to pay attention to the details and attack each day and each play as it’s own. I always tell the boys to play with effort, attitude, and toughness. I’ll be responsible to think about all the other stuff, while they can just play ball,” Wennin explained, once again deflecting praise.

“My staff does an incredible job preparing the offense and scouting the other team. Nothing could be done without them. Zach, Jean, and Remi have been incredible the whole season but it’s also the improvement of the offensive line as a unit and other guys stepping up like Mario Flores, Jordi Torrededia, Adrian Jimenez, Toni Monton, and many more.”

Photo: Eric Ribé

The result is an unlikely Dragons team in the playoff hunt and looking like a real threat to every team in the league.

“I think between the two of us, we’ve got guys believing that we can play,” Woods grinned.

That’s something that will matter long past this season. Rita as the steady hand and the infusion of enthusiasm provided by Woods and Wennin has created a culture that can last, but for now they remain focused on their next opponent, the same Berlin Thunder who sparked their turnaround.

“As much fun as these last couple weeks have been, we know we have to work even harder and prepare for our next opponent,” Wennin said. “We’re excited for the opportunity coming up and look to make the most of it.”

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.