The Tampa Bay Storm won their sixth-consecutive game on Saturday following a 58-57, come-from-behind effort over the Washington Valor -- their third victory in three tries this season over the Valor.
The Storm’s current streak is their longest since winning eight in a row in 2010.
Tampa Bay clinched a postseason berth after Saturday’s victory.
And yet, there was disappointment in the voices and answers of Storm coaches and players in post-game comments.
Such is life when your lofty goals culminate with winning ArenaBowl 30.
“I hold myself and the team to a higher standard,” Tampa Bay Storm head coach Ron James said on Tuesday in his team’s first practice since improving to 7-1 on the season.
“I’m not focused on what has gone on here in the past. I’m focused on what we have here in the present. And presently, we have a good football team, a team that has the ability to be a dominant team at times and has the ability, I think, to make a stretch run into the playoffs here for the Arena Football League and contend for a championship. But to be able to do that, there’s a series of steps we need to take, and right now I feel like we have to start making those steps forward and not staying at neutral.”
James talks often to his team in post-practice huddle sessions about the process necessary to meet those high expectations and the need to stick to the script. The appropriate steps have to be taken each and every week to build toward something special.
If the team stagnates, their current play might be sufficient to get by the opponent that particular week.
But it won’t be enough once the stakes are higher.
“Obviously, it’s great to continue to win and things like that, but if you’re not continuing to get better week to week, there’s a problem,” said Storm quarterback Randy Hippeard, who currently leads the AFL for passing yards (2,165), completion rate (69.9 percent) and QB rating (124.8) while tossing a league-high-tying 51 touchdowns to just four interceptions.
“You’ve got to be able to continue to get better and continue to improve. That way, when it comes that time when playoffs hit, we’re hitting it full stride.”
One of Hippeard’s four interceptions this season came in the last-second win over Washington when the Valor’s Dominic Addison stepped in front of a wayward pass and returned it 43 yards for a pick-six. That score put Washington ahead 32-21 with 41 seconds remaining in the first half. The Storm spent the rest of the contest battling back from the deficit, tying the game 51-51 with 2:20 to go on an intentional grounding in the end zone that resulted in a safety and pulling ahead on Hippeard’s seventh touchdown pass of the night 35 seconds later.
The Storm have proven repeatedly they came from rally from any deficit they face. The issue, then, is making sure those deficits don’t happen in the first place.
“There’s always some point in the game where we look a little off tilt,” Hippeard said. “There are one or two drives where we’re not clicking or something happens and we start doing uncharacteristic things. We get out of our game plan.”
The momentary lapse in consistency is frustrating because other than those blips, the offense has been producing at near-perfect levels all season.
“Because we’re so talented on the offensive side of the ball, our standard is a little bit higher I think than a lot of folks,” Hippeard said. “So when we’re coming out here and we do have one drive or something, it just looks that much different than everybody else’s because our expectations are so high. And that’s a good thing.
"So at the end of the day, if we continue to progress and continue to get better with what we do, at a certain point, the sky’s the limit.”
Fortunately for the Storm, the issues are correctible.
“It’s 100 percent self-inflicted,” Hippeard said. “There are times when the defense changes things up and confuses us and does their best, and don’t get me wrong, there are great defenses in this league, got a lot of great coaches. But you can ask anybody in this league, a lot of time when an offense messes up, it’s something they did, not necessarily something the defense did.”
To be sure, the Storm are proud of their accomplishments to this point of the season. From a team that won just twice in 2016, the Storm have more than tripled that total and there are still six games to play in the regular season.
But so much more can be accomplished in 2017.
James wants to make sure his team doesn’t become complacent with winning and remains focused on the ultimate goal.
“It’s become now a matter of how we win and not just winning,” James said. “And that’s a good thing. But after looking at the film and reviewing the situation, we’re just a little bit off and that happens from game to game.
"We’re back to the basics, doing the things we need to do this week, and we know we’re facing a very good opponent [in Philadelphia]. It’s got everybody dialed in.”