Sharks in the Water: 2015 in Review
by Erik Watkins
The Jacksonville Sharks started 2015 by assembling the greatest team on paper that the Arena Football League has ever seen: 13 All-Arena players, a veteran QB with more than 500 TD passes to his credit, the greatest fullback in league history, and two star wide receivers, just to name a few. They ended the season by running into the greatest team on the field that the league has ever seen, but losing to a team earning their record-breaking 20th victory of the season is nothing to be ashamed of, even though it took some crazy roads to get there.
If you look back on my season preview, I had the Sharks winning somewhere between 8 and 14 games. They almost landed exactly in the middle by winning 10 for the second time in three years, marking their fifth winning season in the six-year franchise history. But, for a team that was picked by many to win it all, the first few weeks of the season cast nothing but doubt.
To a man, the team said that they had to build chemistry. They had great individual talent, but all of that was achieved with other teams. They had to get timing, cohesion, and all sorts of things that help build a winning team.
The season started against New Orleans, in what would be the last season in franchise history. In an early sign of what could go wrong, the VooDoo scored three touchdowns before the Sharks even blinked. In an early sign of what could go right, Jacksonville rallied to tie the game halfway through the third quarter, but a fourth down incomplete pass sent the team to 0-1. Orlando provided another tough test, but this time Jacksonville was more up to the challenge. The end result was still the same, as a blocked Fabrizio Scaccia missed extra point dropped the team to 0-2.
After the first meeting with San Jose left the Sharks at 0-4, the calls rang loud for head coach Les Moss’ head. The team was one of only two winless teams in the league, Orlando had clear control of the South division, and nothing was going well consistently on the field. Finally, Jacksonville got the cure for all of their ails: the Las Vegas Outlaws. In their only season, they struggled as modern expansion teams do, and against a team that has a tremendous amount of talent at home looking for their first win, it spelled trouble. Vegas was competitive for nearly a half, but Jacksonville put their foot on the gas and scored four consecutive touchdowns, then another three in a row on their way to a 60-28 win.
While times were turning, there was only one thing on Coach Moss’ mind: “We’re 1-4.”
Week 6 provided the last bit of humiliation for some time, as Tampa Bay gave their home fans something to cheer about with a 63-28 win in which Jacksonville looked discombobulated. Couldn’t throw, couldn’t defend, and another 21-0 run gave the Storm a field day.
That game could’ve easily shut down the 2015 season for Jacksonville, but instead, they opted to really show the league what they were about. After the loss to the Storm, they went on their Run of Revenge. Starting with their first road win against Cleveland, the Sharks won five in a row, including beating Orlando, Philadelphia, and New Orleans to tie all three season series. At 6-5, Jacksonville was a first place team and opening pundits’ eyes league-wide. They had arrived.
Still, things weren’t perfect. Going back to Tampa Bay, the Sharks had a chance to extend the winning streak, show a national TV audience who they really were, and prove to everyone that they were the team to beat come ArenaBowl time. However, what they did show was the one thing missing: a finishing touch when they need one. The Sharks had a chance to close out a wild first half tied at 49, but instead couldn’t complete a drive and let Tampa Bay take a two-score lead into the locker room. They had another chance to force overtime, but couldn’t complete the clutch passes and instead give the season series to the Storm and headed back home 6-6.
With the South division now ultra competitive, Jacksonville knew they were in a dogfight, and that loss hurt twice as much, especially because they had a bye week to sit and let it fester. It did give some motivation, as Cleveland found themselves victim to a re-energized Sharks team that beat them 74-41.
Jacksonville shouldn’t have needed another kick to help them into the playoffs, but they got one anyways. After the league-wide 4th of July bye, they headed west to take on the Portland Thunder. Former Sharks QB Kyle Rowley had something to prove against his old team, and the team had something to show the league: yes, we’re still new, but we’ve got indoor snow, teddy bears, and a team that can compete with anyone.
Jacksonville laid arguably their worst egg of the season, losing by 24. At 7-7, they were back where they started, with Orlando on top and almost on the outside looking in on the playoff race. With the 13-2 Soul coming into town, things were looking grim. But Jacksonville remembered…they were one of the two.
Both teams came out swinging, and the Soul got a couple extra good punches in early on. Philadelphia first claimed a two-score lead late in the second quarter, and used it to keep Jacksonville at arm’s reach for most of the game. However, a newly found, not-so-secret weapon emerged in Greg Reid. The former Florida State DB intercepted 2015 MVP Dan Raudabaugh and ran 49 yards to tie the game, and nearly did it again a few plays later to give Jacksonville the lead. The Soul had a few seconds left to drive and tie the game, but the clock ran out and the Sharks found themselves back on track.
With that momentum, Jacksonville gave Tampa Bay the last word in their lone visit to the Shark Tank. Thanks to a touchdown celebration by WR Tiger Jones, the Sharks earned respect from the league, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and a new nickname: The People’s Team. They left that night 63-16 winners, playoff bound, and with a chance to take back the South from Orlando.
With the division title on the line, Jacksonville had one last chance to step up and give themselves an easy road to a title. However, the early-season demons resurfaced. Bad penalties, turnovers, and not keeping that killer instinct doomed them. For all the good the 17-0 lead did, the Predators scored 16 unanswered as part of a 30-7 to win the game and own the South.
In an unimpressive effort against a team that gave away almost everything they owned a week earlier, Jacksonville played out the string against a three-win New Orleans team. Trailing 33-21, Lee Chapple got to show the world what he could do, engineering a comeback win. At 10-8, there was only one thing on the Sharks’ mind: winning.
Like the last meeting, the Sharks built a lead. Unlike the last time, Orlando clawed back in early, trailing 21-14 with less than a minute left in the first half. However, the defense turned on a switch they didn’t quite have fixed before, and dominated the rest of the way. They helped Jacksonville score the last two touchdowns of the first half, and the first three of the fourth quarter en route to a 55-33 win, setting up a third American Conference Championship matchup in four years against Philadelphia. While there was a renewed sense of hope, it was something of a Pyrrhic victory, as DE Joe Sykes, who broke his own record with 18.5 sacks on the season, broke his leg, ending his season.
In another game of deja vu, both teams went back and forth all over again. This time, though, it was Jacksonville’s turn to play keepaway with the score. The teams traded TD for TD and stop for stop, and the Sharks did their job to hold on. Despite a little mismanagement on their last offensive possession, LaRoche Jackson made sure the team got over the hump, ended the Soul mystique, and made it to the ArenaBowl. Les Moss, sitting up in the box due to an injury suffered prior to Week 7, released all of his emotions and found himself in tears as the horn sounded.
Jacksonville, after another tumultuous, drama-filled season, ended on something of a high note. There were plenty of records and milestones: Tommy Grady joining the 600 TD club, Tiger Jones leading the league in receiving yards and netting his fourth 2,000 yard campaign in five years, Derrick Ross completing the list of top five rushing seasons in league history, Joe Sykes with his record sack total, you name it. There were also awards: Joe Sykes as Defensive Player of the Year and seven All-Arena players (Sykes, Hills, Ross, Jones, Moqut Ruffins, Reid, and Alvin Ray Jackson).
However, the 2016 season motto has already written itself: Swim for a Ring.
In speaking with many fans (one of them a senior citizen who holds a special place in my heart) and other writers, and covering the team throughout this year, the one thing missing was mental toughness. Jacksonville allowed too many long scoring runs just by getting in their own way and inside their own heads. When things went right, you saw world beaters. When things went wrong, you saw a team that could easily go 0-18. If they can stick together and capitalize on adverse moments as well opponents’ mistakes, they will be the ones holding the James F. Foster trophy as the 29th champions of the Arena Football League.