Quarterback uncertainty just another challenge for Stockholm Mean Machines HC Fredrik Pilbäck to embrace before Swedish final

With Canadian quarterback Brett Hunchak injured for the Swedish semifinal, many had written off the Stockholm Mean Machines’ 2021 season. Few expected receiver Matthew Retzlaff to step under center and pull off an upset against the arch-rival Carlstad Crusaders, but those doubters don’t know the import as well as head coach Fredrik Pilbäck does.

“I’m impressed, but I’m not surprised,” he acknowledged ahead of Saturday’s Swedish Final.

“Matt is a hell of a player, a hell of a teammate, and one hell of a coach. He has really helped develop the young staff that we have and the young players. It’s not easy to step in and do it in a playoff game, but the thing with Matt is that he knows the game but more than that he knows how to communicate with the rest of the group to get everybody on board and understanding what the game plan is.”

Now the question is whether Retzlaff will be able to do it again.

Pilbäck still won’t commit to a starter for their championship matchup with the Örebro Black Knights, but all signs point towards the inevitable conclusion that Hunchak won’t be available once again. In the coach’s view, that’s exactly the type of challenge championship teams are built to overcome.

“It’s still a struggle, but that’s part of football. Either you embrace the challenges or you drown,” Pilbäck said.

“If not a quarterback, its going to be an o-lineman, or a flat tire on the bus, or someone getting sick, a coach or a mom or dad. You never know what it is going to be, the struggle is a matter of how do you handle the challenges? That’s the thing. How are you able to make the team and the coaches focused on the task rather than the problems?”

Stockholm Mean Machines WR/QB Matt Retzlaff Photo: Stefan Akander

That is a particularly poignant question heading into the Mean Machines fourth straight title appearance. Pilbäck guided his team to victory over the Crusaders in 2018 and 2019 to claim the crown, but they were upset last season, a loss he blames on a failure of coaching.

“In 2018, if we played the Crusaders 10 times, we probably beat them once and it just happened it was that title game. We beat them by one point, but they were so much better a team than we were. We just happened to pull it off, ” Pilbäck said, recalling the beginning of Stockholm’s resurgence.

“The game last year was the opposite. We had such a good football team, but coaching wise, we weren’t able to help them to win. The loss was on us, we were supposed to win.”

While a semi-final victory avenged that result, the Mean Machines still have unfinished business with the Black Knights, who handed them their lone defeat in a shortened three-game 2021 regular season by a decisive 33-20 margin.

“The first game, they really caught us off guard and ran up the score a lot in the first half. That was more on our mistakes,” Pilbäck admitted. “They are a really good football team, but we made them even better.”

The surprise can be attributed in part to a schematic change for Örebro. Traditionally a run-first team, the Black Knights have become a ferocious aerial attack thanks to quarterback Trevor Vasey. While Pilbäck downplays the question marks surrounding his own team’s quarterbacking, Örebro’s passer is nothing if not at the center of his mind.

“It’s not very often you find a good arm like that, but also his sense of urgency. He moves well within the pocket, has a quick release, doesn’t make that many mistakes, and if you don’t get him out of the rhythm, he’s going to be really lethal,” the coach explained.

While everyone else talks about Retzlaff or Hunchak, the old defensive lineman knows it will be the big men up front, like German Alexander Kress, who will ultimately determine the result by getting pressure on Vasey.

“Are we able to get a hold of him, disturb him and sack him, get some turnovers, fumbles and all that stuff?” Pilbäck says of the game’s defining question.

“We have the defensive backfield to be able to perform well, but if he is able to feel safe in the pockets, that’s going to be a challenge.”

Watch the Swedish Superserien Championship Game live on AFI.tv, Saturday, July 10 at 15:00 CET (3 pm, 09:00 am ET)

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.