When starting quarterback Tommy Grady came up lame against the Monterrey Steel, Jacksonville Sharks fans held their collective breath. When backup Damien Fleming came into the game and kept the momentum, fans breathed a sigh of relief. When the announcement came that Grady’s injury was season-ending, fans gasped. Now, after Fleming’s first start, there’s a potential sense of worry. However…there shouldn’t be.
Yes, Grady was in the middle of an MVP season, among the league leaders in touchdown passes (23), passing yards (1,060), and passing efficiency (113.7), but Fleming showed he can hang in and face the same amount of pressure in the pocket. However, in his debut against the Columbus Lions, there were clear signs of shakiness: miscommunication with receivers, fumbled snaps, holding the ball too long, etc. But, the fact remains that it was his first league start, and against a team who came into the game at 3-2.
Evaluating the whole body of work, including leading half of the 60-point barrage against the then-undefeated Monterrey Steel, there are signs of some undeniable talent, and that’s the first reason why Fleming can keep Jacksonville out of the loss column. He can compete with almost any of the other quarterbacks in the league and be in consideration for the starting job, especially if he continues being a dual threat and exposes defenses to his running ability.
The second reason why there’s no need for panic: the schedule. The Sharks leave the Tank just once for the remainder of the regular season, and that’s to face the Corpus Christi Rage, currently winless at 0-5, and who comes into Jacksonville for Week 8. Following a bye, Jacksonville will see Monterrey twice, Corpus Christi, High Country, and the traveling Dayton Wolfpack, who suffered a 94-6 defeat at the hands of High Country earlier this season.
This is the best possible time for Fleming to earn reps under center, as the Wolfpack and Rage have the two worst scoring defenses in the league (allowing 64.0 and 73.6 PPG, respectively), which should theoretically lead to some simpler reading and better ability to break down schemes to find the open man or take off.
With an offensive line that’s only allowed five sacks (second fewest to the Lions’ three), receivers like Darryl Thompson, Maurice Williams, and Thyron Lewis to throw to, and Derrick Ross, the league’s leading rusher, in the backfield, Fleming will have time to continue to grow comfortable and learn the playbook.
The third and final reason why Jacksonville can still run the table: defense. In six games, the Sharks have only allowed more than 28 points twice. Despite their lowest scoring output of the season against Columbus (37), the Sharks still had control of the game in the second half, and were only threatened in the final minute.
With the return of David Hyland, who is already looking to anchor the secondary, and Jeremiah Price sitting fourth in the league with 4.0 sacks, Fleming will have plenty of opportunity to get the ball, and little to no pressure to score points when he does.
So if Fleming can cut back on the mistakes, deal with the learning curve he’s been given, and take advantage of the caliber of talent around him, Jacksonville has an excellent chance of going into the playoffs at what would be a franchise-record 14-0.