Ja’Quon Gardner and Terrell Watson are proving to be offensive weapons for the San Diego Fleet. The two running backs have complimented each other well early this AAF season and could be a force for the rest of the 10-game season.
The San Diego Fleet offensive philosophy might be changing sooner rather than later.
When Mike Martz was first announced as the head coach of the Fleet, the belief around the league was that Martz would implement his high-powered offensive system that was the basis of arguably the greatest offensive attack in NFL history.
Martz’s system mimicked the famous Air Coryell offense, which included a balance of a vertical attack and a sound run game. The Rams would pound the rock with Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk and then air it out deep to the likes of Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, and Az-Zahir Hakim. It was an aggressive style of offense that wanted to push the ball through the air and finish drives on the ground.
There was obviously a ton of excitement and hype surrounding the Fleet offense as fans were eager to see this appealing offensive system that Martz would implement. Some people, including myself, went as far as to say that the Fleet would have one of the better offenses in the league solely because of his system.
It is very obvious that the Fleet would not have the same Hall of Fame level talent that the Rams did, but there were pieces in place for an offense to be successful. Josh Johnson, the first overall pick in the Alliance of American Football league’s inaugural draft, appeared to be a good fit for this offense. Wide receivers Dontez Ford and Francis Owusu were the big-bodied receivers on the outside while Nelson Spruce would operate out of the slot. On paper, the offensive line looked like a solid unit that would be able to hold its own. Bishop Sankey, who at one point was the odds on favorite to win the league’s most valuable player award, was ready to dominate the league on the ground. All of the pieces appeared to be in place for the Fleet to have major success on the offensive side of the football.
Unfortunately for the Fleet, a wrench or two were thrown into this plan.
Johnson was signed by the Washington Redskins and quickly departed for the NFL, leaving a gigantic question mark at quarterback. Bishop Sankey went down in training camp and was declared out for at least four weeks of the regular season. Through two weeks, the Fleet’s offensive line has been one of the worst in the entire league and the struggles do not appear to be coming to an end. This prolific offense turned into a question mark in what seemed to be a matter of days.
This was on full display in the Fleet’s inaugural game against the San Antonio Commanders. Gunslinger Mike Bercovici was the perfect quarterback for this system, but his turnover issues continued to plague him as he threw two interceptions and was benched midway through the third quarter. Bercovici was sacked six times due to absolutely atrocious offensive line play and it seemed like he was under pressure on every single play. What once appeared to be a high-powered offense looked like a complete and utter disaster.
Despite all of these struggles and an eventual loss, one part of the Fleet’s offense looked competent.
Ja’Quon Gardner, the team’s starting running back and Bishop Sankey’s replacement, ran the ball eight times for 55 yards including a game-long run of 25 yards. The Humboldt State product looked impressive on the majority of his runs, as he hit the holes created for him and ran the ball hard. Gardner gave the Fleet offense the spark that it needed and it was quite baffling to me that he touched the ball as little as he did.
With the benching of Mike Bercovici came a new opportunity for Fleet backup Philip Nelson. The 25-year-old quarterback came into the game late against San Antonio and put the Fleet in a position to potentially win the game before an incredible interception by Commanders cornerback Zach Sanchez. His play, however, was good enough for Martz to name Nelson the starter over Bercovici.
The Fleet’s offensive woes continued in their home opener against the Atlanta Legends. Rainy weather conditions probably did not help their case, but Nelson was intercepted on his very first pass attempt and the Fleet went into halftime without scoring their first touchdown in franchise history. Head coach Mike Martz must have decided at halftime that because of the weather and his team’s awful quarterback play, establishing the run would have to be a priority for his team.
By doing so, Martz and the Fleet coaching staff discovered what could quite possibly be their deadliest offensive combination moving forward.
Despite giving Gardner the ball early on in the third quarter, however, the Fleet offense was still stagnant and had not recorded a touchdown yet. After an Atlanta field goal that would tie the game at 12-12, the Fleet imposed their will via the ground game on the Legends.
Terrell Watson, a 6’3″ 244 pound back out of Asuza Pacific, was given the ball to start the fourth quarter. After a few incompletions by Nelson, Martz reverted back to his run game where he would give either Garnder or Watson the ball on eight of the next nine offensive plays. After completely breaking down the Legends offensive front, Gardner scampered for an eight-yard touchdown run to give the Fleet their first-ever touchdown.
Gardner and Watson are the perfect compliments for each other. With Gardner standing at 5’7″ it is very hard for opposing defenses to tackle him because of his elusiveness and low center of gravity. He also adds another dimension to an offense by being able to catch the ball out of the backfield and is viewed as a prototypical “scat” back in today’s NFL. Watson, on the other hand, is a massive human being that absolutely wears defensive fronts down just because of how big he is.
The first comparison that comes to my mind when I think of these two is Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard. Cohen is one of the shiftier players in the league and is almost impossible to tackle, while Howard just pounds on defensive fronts to open up lanes for Cohen. The Bears were extremely successful this season because of their ability to tire defenses on the ground and open up passing lanes for Mitchell Trubisky.
In my opinion, the Fleet should do the same. Both Trubisky and Nelson are game-manager like quarterbacks that will almost never win you games with their arm. In the Fleet’s case, forcing Nelson to throw the ball 30+ times a game is not going to translate into success the majority of the time. Had they faced a team like the Hotshots or Apollos last weekend, it’s very likely that they would have lost because of how poorly he played under center.
Martz is not going to change his offense and there is no need for him too. Transitioning from a pass-heavy team to a run-heavy team, however, will more than likely directly correlate into more success for the Fleet. They potentially have the nastiest running back combination in the league and if they use it to their advantage, watch out for the San Diego Fleet moving forward.