Match Made in Heaven: Grady, Utah Have Improved Greatly Over Past Two Seasons
5,863 passing yards. 142 touchdowns. 68.5 completion percentage.
No, these are not the season stats for Clint Dolezel. Nor are they for Mark Grieb. They’re not even Aaron Garcia’s single-season numbers.
Instead, these are last year’s passing statistics for Utah Blaze quarterback Tommy Grady, in which he broke the single season records for both passing yards and touchdowns and also took home the MVP.
“I’ve gained a lot of experience the last couple years and I think this was the most comfortable season I’ve had knowing the offense, staying confident and knowing what I’m doing. It was just a fun season all around.”
For a quarterback putting up numbers this league hasn’t seen, Grady’s road to the Arena Football League follows a similar story to those great quarterbacks before him.
After graduating high school, Grady went to the University of Oklahoma, but after finding no room with the Sooners left for Utah. In his senior season with the Utes, Grady went 58 of 115 for 681 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.
Grady said those two experiences, including backing up for 2003 Heisman winner Jason White and Brian Johnson, have helped even as he has transitioned into the indoor game.
“Playing with different quarterbacks and different coaches, they’ve all helped me learn the game of football,” Grady said. “The outdoor game is a lot different from the indoor game, but I think watching a lot of football and playing a lot of football has definitely helped me gain experience. I’m able to improve every year with more experience.”
Grady went undrafted in the 2008 NFL Draft, and ended up with the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz, then in the af2, for the 2009 season; however, it would be in the 2010 season that Grady would burst on to the AFL scene.
After moving up to the AFL when the league came back from its year off, Grady came to the forefront as a quarterback who had the potential to be great in the league. As a starter, Grady completed 61% of his passes and threw for 4,307 yards, 81 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
Meanwhile, Utah was struggling to get a win. After starting off 1-6, then-head coach Ernesto Purnsley was shown the door. Ron James was named to fill the vacancy; however, things didn’t get better for the Blaze, who finished the year with only two wins.
Then, things started to look better for the Blaze.
Following the 2010 season, the Yard Dawgz folded, leaving Grady without a team for the next season. James jumped at the chance to get Grady.
“I saw his potential when he was played for Oklahoma City,” James said. “To me, he looked like a player that could develop into an elite quarterback with the proper coaching and support system. He reminded me a lot of Clint Dolezel, whom I had the privilege of coaching in Las Vegas. The fact that he played collegiately at the University of Utah was a bonus.”
The signing paid dividends almost immediately for the Blaze. In 2011, Grady threw for 4,357 yards, 107 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions, as the Blaze improved to a 9-9 record, but fell just short of the playoffs. In 2012, Grady not only broke, but demolished the single season records for touchdown passes and passing yards and led the Blaze to the National Conference Championship game.
In the conference championship, however, Grady made a critical mistake. With a 69-67 lead over the Arizona Rattlers and under a minute left to go, Grady and the Blaze faced a fourth-and-goal from inside the Rattlers’ ten. Needing a touchdown to put the game on ice, Grady instead threw an interception in the end zone, allowing the Rattlers to go down the field and win the game.
“It was fourth-down and I didn’t want to get sacked, so I threw the ball where I thought my receiver could get it,” Grady said. “Unfortunately, it came up short.”
Despite that loss, James said Grady has brought a lot to the Blaze, including confidence the team was missing in 2010.
“When I first arrived to coach the Blaze at the end of the 2010 season, Tommy Grady was not our quarterback,” James said. “The team played like a bunch that did not expect to win. Since Tommy’s arrival, the team not only expects to win, but expects to compete for the ArenaBowl. That difference in attitude is big for any team.”
Blaze wide receiver Aaron LeSue has been a major beneficiary of Grady’s success. Only totaling 233 receiving yards and five touchdowns in 2010, LeSue jumped up to catching 145 passes for 1,787 yards and 55 touchdowns this past season.
LeSue said he has a lot of confidence having Grady as his quarterback.
“It makes a big difference to know the ball is going to be where it needs to be,” LeSue said. “When you know your teammates are doing their job, you don’t have to worry much. There have even been times in which we have both made adjustments during a play based on the defense, whether it be flattening out a route or him having to fit it into a tight spot and put the ball on a line to get it to me and away from the defense.
“There is a lot of confidence once you start knowing that throw is going to be made and that he is noticing the same thing about the defense as I am. It definitely boosts confidence and starts to make scoring points a lot of fun.”
The confidence Grady has brought to Utah has not been limited to just the offensive side of the ball. Defensive lineman Keenan Mace said the defense has benefited from having Grady as the quarterback.
“It’s great to know you have a field general on the other side that can turn your takeaways into points,” Mace said. “I feel as a defense, we both boost each other’s confidence. If the offense isn’t scoring and we make a big stop, it changes the whole momentum of the game. If we don’t make a stop, we don’t become rattled because we know the offense can score at will.”
Despite the numbers and great improvement over the past four years, both James and Grady admitted there’s still room to improve for 2013.
“He has had to get better with his reads and understanding situation,” James said.” The thing we always preach is ball security – not giving the turnover to the other team. As an AFL quarterback, that means making better decisions quicker. Fortunately, he has had a great position coach and mentor in Matthew Sauk, who has been able to help make him a more efficient quarterback.”
For a quarterback with the numbers and talent that he has, Grady is surprisingly missing one thing a lot of other great AFL quarterbacks have—time with an NFL team. He has yet to spend time in a NFL camp and a chance to prove himself in the outdoor game. But James has a shot to be successful in the NFL.
“I think Tommy Grady has all of the tools you would look for in an NFL quarterback,” James said. “He is smart, big in stature, calm and professional in his approach to the game. He has a strong arm, good footwork, and has the competitive fire needed to make it at that level.”
But for Grady, the focus is on the now and the AFL and the search for the elusive championship ring.
“I hope to win a championship with the Blaze,” Grady said. “I’ll take it year to year, but hopefully I can stay healthy and try to win a championship.”