To put it mildly, the Jacksonville Sharks (3-7) have had their worst season in franchise history. Yes, I’m putting that mildly. If they don’t win at least seven of their final eight games, they’ll finish with their worst record in their five-year existence, and it’s almost a foregone conclusion that a record fifth-straight division title is out the window. In fact, one look at the American Conference standings shows that a playoff spot is a good ways out of reach.
If you’re looking for good news, you won’t find much. The Sharks have lost five of their last six games, and among all the teams they’re staring up at in the playoff race, the lone tiebreaker advantage is against Iowa.
When it comes to this game, there’s even less to look forward to. Jacksonville has lost each of the last three meetings, the last two by at least 20 points. The one silver lining in this dark cloud is that Jacksonville won’t be facing MVP candidate QB Eric Meyer (out with a shoulder injury), and star WR Brandon Thompkins (traded to Philadelphia). However, current Spokane signal-caller Bryan Zbydniewski (just when I thought I wouldn’t have to spell that name again) is no slouch, proving to do an adequate job as both a starter in Cleveland and now coming into the top role with the Shock.
Jacksonville will see some new faces as well, with #1 WR London Crawford on injured reserve, two new wide receivers will join the fold. Bert Reed comes on assignment from the NFL, and Maurice Williams comes over to officially complete a trade with the Los Angeles KISS that involved offensive lineman Roderick Tomlin.
Last year, Williams split time with Orlando and Cleveland, and hopefully will remember a thing or two about Zbydniewski that the once vaunted Sharks defense can use to their advantage. While this isn’t the worst unit in the league, this isn’t the one that’s struck fear in opposing teams’ hearts like in years past. DL Darnell Carter, who wasn’t much of a contributor, is now on his way to Iowa. The group that’s remained is only a shell of their former selves. The group has combined for only 15 sacks this season compared to an Arena Football League record 45 last year, Jerry Turner leading the way with five. They do have 14 interceptions to their credit, with Terrance Smith’s team-leading six. But, with the team giving up at least 48 points in each of the last six games, Jacksonville will have to do better than hoping to match Spokane score for score.
This is also an adjustment for R.J. Archer. Yes, he’s fifth in the Arena Football League in touchdown passes (55), yes, his passer rating is very good (112.2, good for fifth best in the league), and yes, last week he threw his first interception in a month and only his seventh of the season. However, the only thing stopping his numbers from looking like a typical quarterback pre-2008 is the completion percentage. When Archer’s on, he has a fantastic chemistry with his receivers and can go toe to toe with anyone in the league. However, when he’s off, there’s just nothing, and he’s been off at some very key moments in games this season. If (a very big if) he can stay consistent and perform at a level of a top-five healthy quarterback, a win isn’t completely out of the question.
Another wrinkle to this week’s matchup also occurred off the field. With the international soccer friendly between the US and Nigeria set to kickoff at 6 p.m. (I’ve had my tickets for months, and my priorities were set before this move), kickoff for this game was moved up from 7 p.m. to 3 p.m., creating less competition for fans (who will still compete with a baseball game with a 3:05 first pitch). For those who opt to stay home, the Arena Football League did them a favor, flexing the game to be shown on ESPNNews, meaning that each of the next three home tilts will be televised. Normally this would be a good thing, but to see this sort of team a total of five times during the season might be more detrimental than beneficial. Originally, the game of the week was Tampa Bay hosting Philadelphia. To give the league and network some credit, they did themselves a bit of a favor in making that choice.
Overall, when you have a 6-5 team facing a 3-7 team, you expect an ugly, lopsided matchup. However, especially this season, on any given day, anything can happen. If Jacksonville can pull off a victory against a team hungry to take back the top spot in their division, then this could be the start to a run Jacksonville desperately needs. I’ll be holding my breath until the final horn.
For more on the Jacksonville Sharks, including the latest news, updates, and transactions, log on to www.jaxsharks.com. For more on the rest of the Arena Football League, log on to www.arenafan.com and www.arenafootball.com.