Smith plays wingback, kind of a slotted wide receiver, on offense. On defense he plays something called the J position, which is more or less a weakside line-backer. There's also the M, or Mike, linebacker, who blitzes. The J position is where you put 5'4" supergnats who have no pass-coverage skills. "I sort of stand around and watch out for guys sneaking through the line," says Smith. But I saw him step into the hole and bring down New England's 238-pound running back, Cletis Jones. "'Yeah, you can do it, if you put yourself in the right frame of mind," Smith says.
You see some strange things in Arenaball. The Steamrollers ended the game with Frank Bianchini playing the J linebacker. I was fascinated by Bianchini, who's listed at 5'8" (and 190 pounds) but looked about 5'6". His pads seemed too big, and so did his uniform. Standing on the sidelines I had trouble seeing him through the bodies. His bio says he played for the Brooklyn Mariners of the Mid-East Football Conference and the Parma Panthers of the Italian Football League, the good old IFL. He seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. I had the feeling that if I had stepped onto the field, held up a hand and said, "Hold it, I want to see Frank Bianchini blitz on this next series," the coaches would have said, "Yeah, O.K. Frank, you blitz from now on."
The one problem with Arenaball is that you have to be there. On TV it's a bore. "I watched it the other night," says Allie Sherman, the former coach of the New York Giants, "and after about five minutes I started losing interest." Me too. Arenaball on the tube can hold me for only five or 10 minutes. Then I get antsy and flip the dial to see what the Aussie footballers are up to.
"You see it on TV, it's like a fly on your shoulder that you brush away," says Bennett's father, Al. "But in person, it's a completely different feeling—once you get over the postage-stamp aspect. It's the intensity that gets you."
On television you don't hear the thump when a defensive back drives a receiver into the boards. And the gimmicks, the boards and the nets and what have you—which, like those steel cages in pro wrestling bouts, are designed to keep the action going—lose their impact on TV. "What really upsets me is when people write that it's a made-for-TV game," says Foster. "We need television for money, visibility and credibility, but anyone who's watched this game knows that it's much better in the flesh."
I can hear the purists: Enough about the ambience, tell us about the actual game. How good are the players? Some of them are pretty good. Bennett made the rounds of pro camps a few years ago and looks as if he could make it in the NFL. So does the Steamrollers' 6'4", 215-pound wideout, Jim Hockaday, a possession-type receiver with moves. Says New England coach Babe Parilli, who was a pro quarterback for 16 seasons, "I'd say each team has one or two players who could make an NFL roster."
Some of them already have. During last season's strike, NFL teams were loaded with Arenaball players, and some of them stuck with their clubs. The Dallas Cowboys had three former Arenaballers starting at the end of the season. "Sometimes NFL football makes you scratch your head," says Bennett. "You see guys who are deserving, and they're packing meat somewhere. And guys who should be driving a cab are starting at quarterback."
Arenaball games consist almost entirely of short passing. The patterns are timed off short drops—one, two, three steps and the ball is gone. Nothing much happens deep because the field is short, and if a defensive back gets beaten, he simply grabs his guy. The penalty for pass interference is only eight yards. The receivers are two wideouts and a slotback, who's often in motion. Sometimes all three line up on one side, and picks and crossing patterns form a big part of the offense. Receivers work against defensive backs who are generally wide receivers by trade and who, according to the rules, must play man-to-man.
"Let's face it, if the quarterback gets protection, I'm going to get beat," says Branch. "I can backpedal O.K. for the first three or four steps, then I'm running flat-footed."
The narrow field makes the running game all but useless, although Chicago has had some success with draws. Running the ball can be effective in short yardage and goal-line situations, because the three defensive linemen are basically pass rushers, who aren't used to stopping the run. If you like the nuances of offensive and defensive line play, Arenaball is not for you. It's a pass-block, pass-rush game.