For those who haven’t noticed, there wasn’t a lot coming from me about the Jacksonville Sharks towards the end of the 2014 season. Well, after sitting on the sidelines through the rest of it and witnessing everything that’s happened through the offseason, I can finally explain why.
First, I want to say this is nothing against those that I have directly worked with in the organization. All of the people I’ve met over the past couple of seasons have been nothing but friendly and accommodating, but I noticed a bit of a culture change this season.
Yes, I came to the team in a bit of a lean time: the 2012 team started their defense of their ArenaBowl title at 1-3, their quarterback situation was a mess (mostly due to injuries), and the league in general was dealing with a labor crisis. However, as time went on and I started attending games, there was a certain level of friendliness, respect, and overall feeling that this is a good organization and I was welcomed for providing additional coverage. The team started to get better, netting two-three game win streaks (including the last three games of the season) to win a division title. It was a good time, I got to talk to players and coaches, and I felt like this is what I knew I wanted to do for a long time.
Things got better in 2013, I met more photographers and people covering the league, players remembered me, and the team was better. Jacksonville started 6-0 on the way to another division title and the top seed in the playoffs. I started to get my pick as far as postgame interviews, and the media interns had more faith in me to take the lead when necessary, and I felt like more of a part of the team.
That vibe completely changed as 2014 got underway. First, the team was inexplicably losing, starting the season 3-7. Second, there was the whole Aaron Garcia situation. First, the Sharks traded for him. Then no one involved in the trade showed up, then Garcia came (and started all of one game), Orlando complained and forced a second, all-new trade. Garcia eventually left to LA for a variety of reasons, and the Sharks were stuck with nothing.
Behind the scenes, I could see the change. People were mad, there were fights with fans, and interviews were harder to get (if I was lucky to get any at all). Jacksonville started to mirror the whole toxicity of the league. While I constantly saw advertisements of eight and nine thousand fans each week, every time I saw a shot of the stands I’d be lucky if I counted five. As the weeks went on and losses continued to pile up, I knew I made the right decision.
Finally, after a dismal 7-11 season with no playoff challenge whatsoever, I started to keep a closer eye on the offseason news, and what I heard renewed my faith in both the Sharks and the Arena Football League. First, Commissioner Jerry Kurz stepped down and became the league president, turning a traveling chorus of boos into resounding cheers welcoming new commissioner Scott Butera. Next, the instability started to work out when the Orlando Predators, a cornerstone franchise, found a new owner to salvage the team. Yes, there are still questions with the New Orleans VooDoo and San Antonio Talons, but between Orlando staying and rebuilding and Vince Neil (yes, that Vince Neil, former part owner of the Sharks) getting his Las Vegas Outlaws green-lit for 2015, the league as a whole is still in a decent place as we approach October. There’s room for improvement, but there’s at least the hope that the Arena Football League can return to its glory days.
Finally, I got the biggest, somewhat most random piece of news some weeks back. The league announced that they were forming a Fan Council, and I put my name in for it. Out of the blue, I got accepted. I started getting acquainted with the other members of the council, and I’ll have more details as time goes along. But for now, there’s a template in place.
On the field, the Sharks were lucky enough to keep the core of their team together. The offense stayed pretty much intact, with quarterback R.J. Archer, wide receivers London Crawford and Jeron Harvey, offensive lineman Cornelius Lewis, defensive back Micheaux Robinson, wide receiver/defensive back Terrance Smith, and defensive lineman Jerry Turner all re-signed, and wide receiver/kick returner Jeff Hughley remaining under contract.
The Sharks also kept several rookies: defensive backs George Baker, Xavier Brewer, Brodrick Brown, and Keiron Jones; wide receiver Charles Gilbert; defensive lineman James McClinton; and fullback Jared McGriff-Culver; quarterback Alex Carder; and wide receivers Mardy Gilyard and Bert Reed, who were all on the official roster at the end of the 2014 season.
I want to write my first article of the 2015 season saying how the Sharks have improved and will take back the South division title. I want to write about how Scott Butera is taking steps to turn the league around. Will I be able to? Stay tuned.