It’s a biological fact, if a shark stops swimming, the air from the water no longer goes through its gills, and it dies. While the 5-7 Jacksonville Sharks are red and black instead of shades of blue and gray, live outside of the water, and can easily breathe air, they’re getting more of a feeling of slowly drowning than any aquatic counterpart heading into a desperately-needed bye week.
While the nation celebrates its independence this weekend, rumors swirl of a Sharkxit off the field at the end of the season. Depending on various sources, message boards, and even mentioned in the Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville is under speculation of payments of league dues in arrears (some estimates are as high as $200,000) and players not getting their paychecks (there are reports that this was resolved, however both the Sharks and the Los Angeles KISS have been put on notice, while neither the AFLPU nor the league office have released any official statement regarding the issue or any potential work stoppages).
Anywhere you go off the field, the focus turns to General Managing Partner Jeff Bouchy, who is in the line of fire from both fans and media regarding decisions dating back to last season (note: After the 2015 season, the Sharks and San Jose Sabercats were fined for improper payments to players. San Jose ceased operations, while Jacksonville paid the fine to remain in the league).
Reports are that the AFL is willing to keep Jacksonville under certain conditions and guidelines, however, if not met, this could be the beginning of the end for the red and black.
On the field, it’s a sense of “lather, rinse, repeat” from 2015. Poor chemistry thanks to a bevy of new faces doomed the Sharks to a slow start. However, at 0-4, they won six of the next seven games, finished the regular season at 10-8, then made a magical run to ArenaBowl XXVIII.
They held a lead in that game, but a third-quarter snowball led to a crushing defeat to what’s considered the greatest team in league history (the aforementioned Sabercats, to their credit, became the first professional football team to win 20 games in a single season).
This year, be it injury, call ups, or simply trying to ensure the franchise’s second championship, Jacksonville continued to add talent anywhere they could: wide receiver, offensive line, defensive line, you name it. Also, in a unique move by the AFL, instead of having to fight for a playoff spot, the Sharks instead went into the season fighting for a first-round home game, as a postseason berth was already guaranteed.
The issues of chemistry still presented themselves, however, as for every moment of brilliance, long touchdown pass, big sack, or little miracle out of nowhere, there have been as many fumbles, costly interceptions, bad calls, miscommunications with throwing, and new ways to lose.
Jacksonville has only won consecutive games once this season, but surprisingly have only lost consecutive games twice. In fact, of the three teams that sit at 10 wins (Philadelphia, Orlando, and Arizona, who have all locked up top four seeds with four weeks to go), the Sharks are actually a respectable 2-4, with both wins coming on the road, one loss at home in overtime, and only two by more than one score.
On the other side of the coin, the Sharks needed a late touchdown to beat the 1-11 Tampa Bay Storm in their first meeting, and surrendered two second-half, double-digit leads to the 7-6 Cleveland Gladiators (including the biggest collapse in franchise history, 19 points, in Cleveland) to lose both games by a single point.
That said, the home stretch could lead to an even more improbable run to a league title. With the rest of the schedule (at Arizona, at Portland, home against LA and Tampa Bay), Jacksonville could avoid what would only be their second losing season and finish at .500. With a little help from the Gladiators and KISS, that could mean a back door into the #4 seed and a home game against either team in the first round, then a possible trip to Orlando or Philadelphia in the semifinals (the Sharks beat both on the road in the postseason last year) setting up a potential ArenaBowl XXIV rematch against Arizona.
But to get there, the team has to get together again, and it has to happen this week. Quarterback Tommy Grady is still a first-tier quarterback despite shortcomings in pressure situations, and although Tiger Jones may have suited up for the last time against Orlando (he was neither in the game nor on the bench against Cleveland before the bye), having Joe Hills, London Crawford, and Reggie Gray to throw to doesn’t hurt. It also helps to have the best running back in league history in the backfield, as well.
On defense, the Sharks can’t just pressure the quarterback, they have to knock him down. When they do, they win, plain and simple. Don’t rely on a good secondary with the likes of Greg Reid and LaRoche Jackson to do the heavy lifting with turnovers. Once again, it’s up to head coach Les Moss to find the magic he had last year. Moss spent the second half of 2015 coaching for his job, already coming off a 7-11 campaign in ’14. While getting to the big game kept him around for this year, if there’s a team to coach next year, it may need to come in as defending champions. Granted, going to back-to-back ArenaBowls usually shines on a résumé, so Moss won’t be unemployed for long if the worst happens. But when a city keeps getting close to celebrating titles, its fans eventually want to win one. Dare I mention Cleveland?
Next week, the Sharks start the fourth quarter of the season. It’s winnable, fairly easy on paper, and could provide the spark that’s been missing all year to get this team to realize the talent and potential they have. If there are any words of advice to offer, it’s these: #DontBlowIt