Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Some of the guys on that patch of field are the PHILADELPHIA SOUL.
UNTITLE TOWN. I think you'd have to say that Philadelphians have mixed feelings about this weekend's event called "The Arena Bowl" and the championship it brought to a title-starved city.
Those feelings are probably best summed up by Ray Didinger's comments on WIP SportsTalk Radio the Friday before the game. Ray is the acknowledged Main Man of Philadelphia sportswriters. His knowledge of most sports is encyclopedic, and he is a continuously respectful, humble, and yet authoritative commentator on the city's teams. With the Phillies crumbling in the wake of the All-Star break and the Eagles wallowing in the aftermath of having failed to draft a first-round college prospect two years running, his WIP co-host asked Ray point-blank what the city's sports fans had to feel good about.
Ray said, "The Philadelphia Soul. They're playing Sunday for the league championship. That's something to feel good about."
Then the co-host, Glen Macnow, asked Ray, "So you'll be watching the game Sunday?"
And Ray replied, "Probably not."
Arena football just isn't a Philly kind of sport. For one thing, it's not exactly football. Well, to be more precise, it's almost nothing like football. Except for the ball (which is beige btw), and the helmets and pads, and the four downs of play, and the zebra stripes of the referees, and the endless delays caused by review of challenged calls, it's more like the much despised (in Philly) overtime shootouts in hockey.
Here's how it works. Team A receives the kickoff, heroically fields it off the net, and brilliantly returns it to the two or three yard line. Then Team A takes two, sometimes four, plays to throw a touchdown pass, which is always incredibly exciting because the field is almost twenty yards long. The extra point try is even more exciting because the goal posts are three feet apart.
Team B receives the kickoff, heroically fields it off the net, and brilliantly returns it to the two or three yard line. Then Team B takes two, sometimes four, plays to throw a touchdown pass, After the extra point, the whole drill is repeated. And repeated. And repeated.
Mostly it's that simple, except that it does get confusing whenever a player runs into what, in hockey, would be called the boards, which are thickly padded with rules too complicated to understand about when a player is actuallly out of bounds and when he is merely, uh, bouncing. Even the players don't understand these rules. In the championship game, the Soul allowed the San Jacinto Crab-Lice to score an almost unheard of rushing touchdown because they didn't remember that sometimes you still have to tackle, or at least touch, a ball carrier who caroms off what would be, in football, an out-of-bounds marker.
Not that it really matters. It's pretty much a given that whoever has the ball is going to score a touchdown. The announcers in the NFL get pretty excited about touchdowns. "TOUCHDOWN," they yell. In the arena league, the announcers have to conserve their voices. "That's another touchdown," they concede.
Defense consists of preventing the other team from scoring a touchdown. Since this almost never happens, it's what's considered a big play in arena football. And there's no punting. Not on a twenty yard field. If you're some impossible distance away from the goal line -- say 18 yards -- you bring in your field goal kicker and get three points instead. Which is still enough to lose the game.
Or it would be if all the rules didn't change as soon as you get to the one-minute warning. That's when all hell breaks loose. AFTER the one-minute warning, the team that's ahead is required to stop passing and call only running plays. Since there are no running backs in arena football (the 8-man offensive team consists of a quarterback, two blockers, and 14 wide receivers), this doesn't work. The clock stops every time the team in the lead calls a running play. Since there's no punter, the team that's behind gets the ball back almost immediately and scores a touchdown -- AND a two-point conversion since there are no defensive backs, safeties, or linebackers (the 8-man defensive team consists of six non-pass-rushers and two guys who gesture unhappily after the touchdown pass.)
For some reason, there are also a lot of onside kicks inside the one-minute warning, which are invariably successful, because the ball only has to go six inches before the kicking team can fall on it.
It's possible that I didn't entirely understand the rules of the game I was watching because I'd never seen an arena football game before. All I know is that Philadelphia was 185 points ahead going into the final minute, and they won by 3.1416 points in a real squeaker.
I guess my hockey shootout analogy above wasn't exactly right. It's actually more like roller derby.
Which is what leads to the mixed feelings. All of us who live in the Philadelphia area have a genuine regard for Ron Jaworski, largely because we know the fans (uh, that would be US) treated him like dirt throughout the 17 years he started for the Eagles. We called him the Polish Rifle, which wasn't a compliment. Sure he could throw the ball 130 yards, but he was dumb as a, well, Polish person. It's not exactly guilt because that's an emotion we don't recognize or accept -- we go to games half naked and painted green here, so give us a break on the deep emotional stuff, okay? -- but we've all had to swallow the fact that he's the smartest football guy on ESPN's smartest, most educational football show (NFL Matchups), and he's also such a big-hearted guy that he loves Philadelphia in spite of having had more cans and bottles thrown at him from the stands than any other athlete in Philadelphia sports history.
We want him to be happy. And now that he's happy about his Arena Bowl championship, we're incredibly happy for him.
We're also grateful to Jon Bon Jovi, whose funding and dedication to the Soul is a more generous service to this sports-obsessed city than Bruce Springsteen ever made.
Which is why, right now, people all over the Delaware Valley are drawing straws about who has to man up and go to the parade that's planned Thursday to honor the Soul.
If you've drawn one of the short straws won one of the tickets, you're in for a real treat, the Parade Committee informs me. According to their press kit, there will be a marching band (pictured below):
They're practicing their song, as we speak.
Entertainment will be provided by (some of) the world famous Philadelphia Mummers.
They can't wait to perform. That's why they're having a few brews first.
Best of all, the Philadelphia Soul team float is all ready to go.
The whole team will be there waving at us and everything.
Excuse me... I'm just getting word from my Soul cell... DAMN.
Great news! I'm going to the parade. I'll see you there! Some of you, anyway.