It takes more than talent to win in Cleveland
CLEVELAND – “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”
LeBron James’ epic words upon returning to Cleveland, particularly fitting on Cavaliers Night at Quicken Loans Arena, might be a useful guide to the Cleveland Gladiators following a devastating 52-48 loss to Tampa Bay Friday.
Last season was the exception. A lot of things were given to the Gladiators. They caught seemingly every break imaginable.
It’s back to hard work in Cleveland.
The Gladiators’ blown 11-point lead with less than a minute remaining took away any chance this team had at coasting to a playoff berth.
“Last year, we finished every game. We were the ones finishing, making the big plays, all the big plays we needed,” coach Steve Thonn said. “We just have to get back into that mentality here.”
They entered the night tied with the Orlando Predators, a game ahead of the Jacksonville Sharks, who they see next week, and a game-and-a-half ahead of the Storm in the fight for two American Conference wild-card slots. (One of the listed foes will make the postseason by winning the South.)
They could’ve knocked the Storm out of the water. They could’ve clinched a three-game season sweep of Tampa Bay. They could’ve set up a nice little 2-3-4 lineup in Orlando, Jacksonville and Cleveland – with all three teams making the postseason in whatever order. Now, they begin the fight for their postseason lives in Jacksonville.
"It's going to be a dogfight trying to get in the playoffs," Thonn said. "We could've gotten a big lead on Tampa right here if we had won it. It puts Tampa right back in the mix."
Can they do it?
The talent is there.
Take Amarri Jackson.
For a while, his kickoff returns and receiving flare were all Cleveland had going.
Trailing 7-0 late in the first, Jackson slashed right on the return to get Cleveland to midfield. He then nabbed a first down for the Gladiators, hauling in an overthrown pass from quarterback Shane Austin as he smashed into the boards.
His second return was ugly – yet productive – as he was caught watching a ball that drifted below the kickoff net – the equivalent of the short hop in baseball. The ball skidded against his leg before he picked it up – and broke three tackles to take it to the 21. Then, he broke free for a wide-open catch to get the Gladiators on the board.
On his third return, he shuffled left to evade a tackler, then found a seam toward the center of the field, where he criminalized Storm kicker Craig Peterson, juking him to the ground and leaving Cleveland a yard shy. With a smoothly oiled offense, who cares? It’s the Arena Football League. The Gladiators would have scored anyway. On a night like Friday, with Austin struggling, those types of returns couldn’t be bigger. They allowed Cleveland to score without ever putting the ball in the air – literally.
The one time he was stuffed, he made up for it, taking a screen for 10 yards. On fourth down in Storm territory, he broke free of a hold by Al Phillips to give Austin an easy target down the sideline and Cleveland a lead.
Jackson wasn’t the only receiver working.
With Dominick Goodman out and Thyron Lewis quiet, Quorey Payne exploded, drawing yellow flags on the first three balls thrown his way – even catching one with a defender draped all over him. On a fourth ball, he left the defense in the dust for a 48-37 lead.
“He gives you that real quick shifty receiver,” Thonn said. “We were hoping that we would get him a couple man situations and he did and he beat his man pretty good.”
This is the same Payne who produced 48-plus receptions and 10-plus touchdowns in three straight seasons for New Orleans.
How about the defense?
The Gladiators lost LaRoche Jackson. What did they do? Add a scrub? Not quite. They grabbed Fred Shaw, an 11-pick guy in 2013, and Terrance Sanders, the 2014 J. Lewis Small Playmaker of the Year as well as a First-Team All-Arena player.
The defense is tremendously talented.
They took four points off the board, by pinning Storm quarterback Jason Boltus against the sideline for one incompletion, then boxing a Storm receiver into the corner for another to force a field goal.
They took seven off right before halftime, as Dominic Jones hugged T.T. Toliver – and got away with it – to thwart one red zone try. 9.3 seconds to go. Then, it was Shaw all over Julius Gregory. 6.4 seconds. Then, it was Jones with perfect coverage – and Shaw with the diving pick.
In the second half, it was Jones chasing a seemingly open Kendrick Ings and smashing him against the boards as the ball skipped harmlessly into the seats. The next play, Donnie Fletcher stepped in front of a receiver for the pick.
Talent wasn’t enough to keep the team from falling behind 21-7 or from blowing an 11-point lead, however.
How Austin got out of Friday night without throwing an interception was miraculous. He threw three near-interceptions on the Gladiators’ first drive. The second drive featured a fumble on the quarterback-center exchange. The first drive of the second half saw Austin nearly send a ball to the carpet off fullback Jeramie Richardson’s backside.
The Storm blew two more chances at a pick on the Gladiators’ first drive of the second half. A diving stab at a pick – similar to the one Shaw made for the Gladiators in the first half – bounced out. The second, a dropped lob by Phillips, was humiliating.
Meanwhile, broken coverages haunted the Gladiators’ injury-riddled secondary. Without Justin Hannah and Terrance Sanders, they gave the Storm plenty of chances. There was Ings out-running the secondary, skidding across the goal line for a 14-0 lead. Then, Toliver slanted past the defense for a 21-7 advantage.
At game’s end, the Gladiators gave up a fourth-and-goal on the Storm’s penultimate drive – and a second-and-16, third-and-15 and third-and-goal on their final drive.
And most crushingly, they gave up a pivotal onside kick, leading by three.
This was the moment they really missed Goodman, out with a hamstring pull and leg numbness after a postgame emergency room trip in New Orleans.
“We did miss him,” Thonn said. “That’s Goodie’s spot and he’s done it for five years where he jumps up and knocks it out of bounds every single time for us.”
The talent is there. The winning just isn’t.
Not yet, anyway.