Sharks Ride Rollercoaster into the Playoffs
by Erik Watkins
The Jacksonville Sharks (10-8) have had a season to be remembered for all sorts of reasons: 0-4 start, viral touchdown celebration, high expectations, milestones, upsets, you name it, the Sharks have done it. Nevertheless, there’s been one typically constant end to the season: playoffs. For the fifth time in six franchise seasons, Jacksonville will play a game on Week 21.
The madness started with the game against Tampa Bay. Jacksonville went into that game at 8-7, knowing that a win would not only secure a playoff berth, but a chance to restore the order in the South division the following week in Orlando. The Storm still had something to fight for, as the once proud franchise could finally shake off their AFL 2.0 woes and make only their second playoff appearance since losing ArenaBowl XXIII.
Coming fresh off of the 74-67 win against Philadelphia, the Sharks kept that momentum rolling, converting a 4th-and-7 to set up the first TD pass of the night, Tommy Grady to Joe Hills. Jacksonville was up 7-0, and Hills extended his streak to 50 regular season games (51 overall) with a touchdown pass. That would open the floodgates.
Storm QB Jason Boltus, who’s had a rough season to say the very least, managed a good drive on his first possession, but a crucial offside penalty led to 1st-and-20, and Jacksonville’s pressure took it from there, netting a turnover on downs.
The Sharks needed only three plays to score: two passes from Tommy Grady to London Crawford, and a Derrick Ross run to finish the drive. Following a big Storm return and a 31-yard TD pass from Boltus to Kendrick Ings to cut the lead to 14-7, Jacksonville went on a 21-0 run that ended when Tampa Bay kicker Greg Peterson made a 47-yard field goal to end the first half.
Tampa Bay had no real chance of recovering, as on the first drive of the second half, Nicolas Jean-Baptiste became the third different Shark (Scooter Berry, Joe Sykes) to sack Jason Boltus on the night, forcing 3rd-and-22 and another turnover on downs. Derrick Ross scored four plays later, and Jacksonville found themselves with a 42-10 lead. The Storm managed what would be their last scoring drive of the night on the next possession, going seven plays and ending with a Jason Boltus pass to Emery Sammons. When Jacksonville recovered the onside kick, they took the game and ran away with it once and for all.
The real highlight came early in the fourth quarter. With the ball on their own 10-yard line thanks to a Greg Reid interception (catching the ball is easier when it’s one receiver vs. two defenders), the Sharks were looking to be 8-for-8 on touchdown drives. On fourth and goal, they made it happen, with Tiger Jones scoring his second touchdown of the night. However, what happened next was the moment that defined the game.
All season, the Sharks have been known for touchdown celebrations. Be it Joe Hills keeping the “Yes!” chant on Sea Best Field, Derrick Ross starting the lawnmower, to Tiger Jones becoming a human windup toy, there’s always a little extra flare before the extra point. This time, though, the team decided to pay homage to The Rock himself, as Jones administered The People’s Elbow to Moqut Ruffins (when The Rock sends not one, but two tweets giving you a shoutout and rooting for you, you know you did it right).
From there, Lee Chapple came in to throw one more touchdown pass, and Action Jackson scooped up one last interception to seal a 63-16 win and a return to the playoffs for the Sharks following a long, miserable 7-11 2014 season.
The next week, it was a completely different atmosphere, as the rubber match vs. Orlando had the most meaning since the two teams last met in the playoffs. For the Sharks, win, and you put destiny in your own hands to take the South division title back to Jacksonville. For the Predators, win, and you defend, securing home-field in the first round.
Jacksonville added a little luck to their momentum in the first quarter, as a pass intended for Joe Hills bounced off his hands and right to London Crawford. After Orlando head coach Rob Keefe unsuccessfully challenged a potential fumble, the Sharks took advantage thanks to a Joe Hills catch in between two defenders to open the scoring. The defense then stepped right up, as Terrance Smith intercepted Randy Hippeard against the boards.
The second drive saw some chinks in the armor, as it opened with a Tommy Grady fumbled and recovered the snap. Two plays later, London Crawford took a hit against the boards while trying to make a catch, but doubts were set aside after a 30-yard pass from Grady to Joe Hills doubled the advantage. Greg Reid would nab an interception for the third straight game, but Orlando’s defense stood up at the goalline and forced a 17-yard Julian Rauch field goal attempt, which he made to give Jacksonville a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter.
From there, the wheels started to fall off. First, Brandon Thompkins gave the crowd of 12,184 something to cheer for in the Jungle thanks to a 44-yard kickoff return. After a Larry Brackins touchdown, Nick Taylor took the very next Tommy Grady pass and returned it 24 yards into the end zone. Within five minutes, the shutout became a 17-14 barnburner, and Orlando started to slowly seize control.
The Sharks needed a drive to quiet the crowd, and did just that thanks to a six-play drive that ended in a London Crawford touchdown catch. But, Brandon Thompkins decided to rev them up all over again with a 56-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and the Predators were right back to within three at 23-20. The two teams traded touchdowns for the rest of the half, and at 30-27, Jacksonville showed signs of some panic.
Brandon Thompkins nearly repeated his heroics with another touchdown, but a holding penalty spared the Sharks…just long enough for Randy Hippeard to complete three of four passes to set up a Larry Brackins TD run. Bad went to worse when Predators DL Austin Brown sacked Tommy Grady, and the ensuing fumble went into the end zone for a safety. To add to the misery, Hippeard led another touchdown drive to put Orlando up 43-30 with four minutes left in the third quarter.
Jacksonville continued to hold their ground, trading touchdowns with the Predators, only for DB Terence Moore to intercept Grady at the goalline and return it 50 yards for a score and a 57-37 lead. The Sharks added one last cosmetic score, but Orlando claimed the division title with a 64-50 win, meaning that the two teams would meet back in the Jungle in two weeks to begin their ArenaBowl runs.
Jacksonville went into their regular season finale with nothing to play for against a franchise who wanted to close their history on a high note. Normally that means a potential blowout or a few quirks, but nothing could replicate the comedy of errors that ensued.
If I were to tell you that the worst thing to happen was the cheer routines being thrown off and a little less coordinated than usual, only to make up for it by a special on-field ceremony honoring their leaving director, I’d be lying. If I told you that Jacksonville fought hard to capture a 10-win season in front of a home crowd of more than 11,000, I’d be telling a half-truth. If I told you that the better team won in the end, I’d be exactly right.
It didn’t start out that way, though, as the two teams combined for two turnovers and a missed field goal in the first three possessions of the game. When there wasn’t a battle for who could score first, there were individual battles between the players, creating early hostilities.
There were some highlights, though, as Joe Sykes garnered 1.5 sacks in the opening frame, leaving him a half sack shy of matching his jersey number (#19) on the season, and Alvin Ray Jackson intercepted VooDoo QB Adam Kennedy to maintain the defensive tone. The first quarter did end with a score, Joe Hills extended his touchdown streak to 52 regular season games (53 overall), the second-longest ever behind Damien Harrell’s 78 game stretch.
Up 6-0 after a Julian Rauch miss, New Orleans did strike back. WR Charles McClain was left wide open on a flare route to the left, and scampered into the end zone for a 7-6 lead. Not to be outdone, Tiger Jones was left by his lonesome and turned on the jets for a 48-yard catch and run to reclaim the lead. Continuing the theme of oneupmanship, Moqut Ruffins got his revenge and tapped Tiger out on the touchdown celebration (Ruffins was the “victim” of The People’s Elbow two weeks prior). Tiger did, however, get the last laugh as the score put him over the 2,000 yard mark for receiving for the fourth time in his career.
The rest of the second quarter was filled with VooDoo trickery and Terrance Smith penalties. Neither side gained too much of an advantage, however, as although the flags helped New Orleans march into the end zone, Nicolas Jean-Baptiste blocked the ensuing extra point, and Action Jackson got the ball and ran it into the end zone to make up for the two missed extra points.
The first half closed out in the following four ways: the VooDoo couldn’t keep the onside kick in bounds, Derrick Ross couldn’t get in the end zone despite four cracks from the one-yard line, the referees couldn’t get the ball in the last fifteen seconds to give Jacksonville a chance at another snap, and New Orleans couldn’t figure out they weren’t welcome on the field when halftime was about to start.
The second half was no different at the start, as former Shark Tracy Belton started to make appearances that helped his former team instead of his current one. He broke up a pass on the first drive, but Tiger Jones decided to run it in from three yards out to extend Jacksonville’s lead to 21-13. This gave the VooDoo a little fight, as Roger Jackson made a miracle catch along the ground and broke three tackles in a 37-yard catch and run. FB Roosevelt Falls finished the drive on the ground and New Orleans was right back within a point.
It became Lee Chapple’s turn to run the offense, and he came into the game to see his most meaningful action of his Sharks career, let alone this season. He completed his first pass, but on the next play Derrick Ross fumbled for the second time of the night, and New Orleans came out and scored. Roger Jackson started the drive with a 16-yard catch, and QB Adam Kennedy ended it with a four-yard scramble. Going into the final quarter of the regular season, the Sharks found themselves trailing 26-21.
New Orleans, auditioning for some potential owners, showed they can take advantage of what the other side of the ball does, as LB Cameron McGlenn caught a ball thrown right in his hands by Lee Chapple, and Adam Kennedy again used his legs to give the VooDoo a two-score lead with nine minutes left.
Chapple, who has some quick footwork of his own, reminded the crowd of Bernard Morris on a 16-yard run, setting up Tiger Jones on a 14-yard pass from Lee Chapple, his second scoring pass of the season. Down by five with time running out, Jacksonville decided to go for an onside kick, which they recovered, and Joe Hills broke free for 17 yards just two plays later. He and Chapple worked together on the drive, between Hills’ stutter steps and Chapple’s running, and after Tiger Jones scored his second rushing touchdown of the night, the two hooked up on the two-point conversion pass that gave the Sharks a three-point lead. The hostilities didn’t end there, as Tracy Belton reintroduced himself to his old teammates after the score. In frustration, he threw his helmet into the side wall, and was ejected for his troubles.
It was up to the defense to seal the game at the one-minute warning, and Nicolas Jean-Baptiste answered the bell by recovering a Roosevelt Falls fumble. Derrick Ross literally ran off a little clock, and Tiger Jones made his 148th and final catch of the regular season to close out the 36-33 win.
Overall, the postgame team mood was a need to play smarter football. “At the end of the day, we don’t want to put anything bad on film so Orlando feels they can beat us,” as Moqut Ruffins said while wearing an ice pack after a physical contest.
Tiger Jones, who finished with 2,101 yards receiving on the season, felt great about his personal achievement. “I have to give it to my teammates. The line blocking to give me enough time, it was the whole team.” He noted that the team has dealt with adversity, which is something they need against Orlando. “We all know what’s going on. We know what the deal is down there. It’s going to be crazy, but we can’t let that get to us like we did tonight. It’s a new season.”
Lee Chapple also noted the team effort in the comeback, and was glad to show what he could do under center. “It was a blast. We have a great group of guys, and I learned a lot from Tommy and Tiger Jones. It really slowed down for me the fourth, fifth, sixth series we had.”
On defense, Nicolas Jean-Baptiste mentioned the need to play four full quarters against Orlando next week. “We knew we had to be accountable on the defensive side [of the ball], and we had to play smart football. We got a wakeup call, and we’ll get ready on Monday.” While not the best, he was thankful of the performance because it gives the team a chance to make their final moves and work out all of the kinks.
Now that the regular season is done, all that’s left is to practice and prepare to get on the bus to Orlando. The Jacksonville Sharks officially begin their run at a second ArenaBowl title with their fourth and final meeting against the Predators this season. Kickoff is set for 7:30 pm on Saturday, August 15, and the game will be seen on ESPN3.