The signings are done, training camp is over, and now the Tampa Bay Storm look to prove that 2016 was more of a fluke than a sign of things to come. With a nearly new team and a much smaller league, new head coach Ron James and his staff look to show that given the right talent, he can take a team to greatness.
For starters, the Storm made a multitude of tremendous signings over the past few months, hopefully solidifying key positional issues that plagued a 2-14 season. The good news, early considerations are that the Storm are paper champions. However, they do play the games on the field, and Tampa Bay will have to overcome hurdles that have plagued other Florida teams in the past.
Bringing back Joe Hills and Randy Hippeard immediately create one of the best quarterback/wide receiver tandems in the league, and adding to returning talent creates what could be a very dangerous offense. The signings of Dexter Jackson and Alvin Ray Jackson add immediate credibility and strength to a terribly porous defense. This could create one of the most well-rounded teams in the AFL in 2017.
There’s only four returning players. While most fans would call that a blessing, it takes time for a team to gel and trust those around them. It took a few months to assemble the roster, but there’s only been training camp for the players to actually be together. With a short season, bye weeks are going to be extra crucial.
The schedule. This is ideally the best routine for any team in a five-team league. Every game is on a Saturday with a 7 p.m. ET kickoff, and there’s balance with no overly long road trips and a good home stand mixed in. Whatever chemistry issues that arise in Week 1 could be resolved at least in part by Week 4 thanks to two early home games heading into a bye.
In another quirk, the Storm will only face a team in consecutive weeks just once (Washington Valor, Weeks 6 and 7) all season (though they have two stretches that see them face the Cleveland Gladiators twice in three weeks). If they lock up a playoff berth early, they have a bye to prepare for the defending champion Philadelphia Soul in Week 18 before beginning their run.
Best Case Scenario: 10-4
Going from worst to first is always a Herculean task, but the stars could align for Tampa Bay to do just that. If Hippeard stays healthy throughout the season and can click with Hills and the other receivers, then watch out. Of course, familiarity breeds contempt, so teams will catch on to any tendencies as the season progresses, and points will be harder to come by. If the defense can measure up, the Storm can grind out some key late-season wins.
Worst Case Scenario: 5-9
Ron James does have memories of the Portland Steel and what he went through to even survive that season, will all of the off-season politics haunt him? What happens if Hippeard, whose 2015 and 2016 seasons were shortened by injury, gets hurt for a fourth straight year? What if he misses time for a third straight year? What if the chemistry never fully develops? If at least one of these issues rear their heads through the season, things will go downhill and fast. Given the league structure, the postseason could still be in reach, but an ArenaBowl title is much easier to win from the #1 seed than from the #4 seed regardless of the year.
While other teams in this position have been exalted, and claims made about who will lift the Foster Trophy at season’s end, the Storm do have a legitimate chance, and it’s entirely possible to see the blue and gold celebrating another championship when all is said and done. Until then, however, it’s time to see what they do once the ball’s been kicked.