JUDGE: Some guys just need proper Arena

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Clark Judge

I don¿t know much about the Arena Football League, and I know less about the New Jersey Red Dogs. But I know that without either we wouldn¿t have and in NFL starring roles this year.

Two years ago Maddox and Lewis played together for New Jersey, and if you¿re looking for the Red Dogs on your AFL map I can save you the trouble. The club was sold after the 2000 season.

But that doesn¿t matter. What does is that the Red Dogs served to give Maddox and Lewis the experience and exposure that brought them to the attention of the NFL. Yeah, I know, Maddox became a hot property only after he was named the XFL¿s Most Valuable Player one year later, but where would he have been without the Red Dogs?

I¿ll leave that answer to Kevin Guy, the team¿s former defensive coordinator and interim head coach.

¿The speed of the Arena League game is so much faster it forced Tommy to make quick decisions and force the ball into tight spots,¿ said Guy, now head coach of the Tennessee Valley Vipers. ¿And that forced him to quicken his release. He definitely started to get rid of the ball fast, and he was very accurate. It took some time, but he picked it up as he went.¿

I guess he did. He threw 64 touchdown passes that season. Now he¿s throwing touchdown passes for Pittsburgh, and if you saw Maddox operate during the closing minutes of the ¿ 16-13 overtime defeat of Cleveland on Sept. 29, you know he¿s still making quick decisions.

He completed 6 of 7 on the game-tying drive and 11 of 13 in four series.

Then there¿s . Nobody heard much about the New Orleans wide receiver until he returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last weekend against Washington, and now people want to know how driving a beer truck gets you to the NFL. I¿m not sure it does. What I¿m interested in is how in the world the Red Dogs discovered this guy. Again, I¿ll hand the ball off to Guy.

¿His wife called us and told us we should sign him because he runs a 4.1 40,¿ he said. ¿Some of us thought it was a good idea, but I remember the head coach saying, ¿Are you crazy? We haven¿t even seen him.¿ But here¿s the way we looked at it: Most everyone who calls tells you they can run a 4.3. This was the first time anyone said he could do a 4.1, so we figured he was good for at least a 4.3. We brought him in, worked him out and the rest is history.¿

And so it is. Lewis scores touchdowns for New Orleans; Maddox throws touchdowns for Pittsburgh, and I wonder where they¿d be without the AFL. Not here, and not now, I¿m afraid. I¿ve seen enough of the Arena League to know it¿s far, far different from the NFL. Different rules. Different speed. Different players. Different scores.

¿It¿s all about speed, agility and quickness,¿ said George LaFrance, a two-time Arena League MVP and possibly the best wide receiver in AFL history. ¿In the NFL you make your reads as you¿re running down the field; in Arena ball you make your reads before the play happens. You have to make your adjustments that fast, and know where the linebacker, defensive linemen and defensive backs are going to be — almost like a quarterback.¿

LaFrance played his final season in New Jersey with Maddox and Lewis, acting as a target for one and a mentor to the other. He and Lewis shared more than the same position; they grew up in New Orleans, and that served as a bond that kept the two together while LaFrance was signing off on a career of 20,000 all-purpose yards and Lewis was hauling down 12 TD passes from Maddox.

¿I¿m happy for him,¿ LaFrance said of Lewis¿ recent exploits, ¿but I¿m not surprised. These guys have ability. All they needed was an opportunity, and that¿s what the AFL is all about. That¿s the key. You know when you go in for that job interview. What¿s the first thing they¿re looking for? Uh-huh, experience. You have to have an opportunity to showcase your talent.¿

It worked for . And now it¿s working for Maddox and Lewis, but let¿s get something straight: The AFL isn¿t, wasn¿t and won¿t be a developmental league for the NFL. As LaFrance said, ¿they¿re two different ballgames.¿ Nevertheless, the league is one more place NFL scouts look to for talent, and they found enough to put 19 players with AFL experience on this year¿s opening-day rosters.

Some of them you know, like Miami¿s , New England¿s and of Indianapolis. Some of them you don¿t, but, like , they could be headlines waiting to happen. The NFL will take no chances, and after what Lewis and Maddox have done, that¿s probably a good idea.

¿We scout the Arena League because we¿re always looking for players,¿ said San Diego general manager John Butler. ¿Guys fall through the cracks, and you¿d be cheating yourself if you didn¿t look there.¿

But don¿t take it from him. Take it from the people in St. Louis. And Pittsburgh. And New Orleans, Miami and Indianapolis. There¿s talent in the Arena League, and we¿re just getting another glimpse of it.

Clark Judge can be reached at his e-mail address,

Tagged: Colts, Rams, Dolphins, Patriots, Saints, Eagles, Steelers, Mike Vanderjagt, Kurt Warner, Michael Lewis, Tommy Maddox

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