At least two dozen of the United States Football League elite forfeited their guaranteed contracts Wednesday to pursue more substantial prospects in the National Football League.
Quarterback Doug Flutie was among a handful of exceptions. The former Heisman Trophy winner, whose NFL rights belong to the Rams, chose for now to continue to pursue his $8 million contract with the New Jersey Generals and owner Donald Trump.
The Rams either were not distressed by Flutie's decision or did a great job of hiding their disappointment. They have other problems, and they don't think any of the USFL refugees, including Herschel Walker, will have a major impact this season, although the NFL will give them every chance.
As Walker signed with the Dallas Cowboys, the NFL owners voted in New York to keep the roster limit at 45 but to exempt USFL refugees from the count until the final cutdown Sept. 1.
Ram Coach John Robinson, anticipating seeing Walker alongside Tony Dorsett, said: "I think it's naive to say you're going to put 'em both in the same backfield and have this monstrous weapon.
"People underestimate the importance of being there and knowing what you're doing. Unless you're a player everybody is willing to make room for, you have a problem."
Jack Faulkner, the Rams' administrator of football operations who keeps track of talent in all leagues, said: "It depends on what position you need at this time. We've been in training camp for five weeks and they (USFL players) haven't played in, what, 14 or 15 months? We're in the process now of reducing our roster to 60 (by next Tuesday)."
Robinson: "We'll start letting some go tomorrow and Friday."
But they'll look over any cornerbacks and linebackers very carefully before sending them on their way. The Rams have 85 players in camp at Cal State Fullerton, but too few seem healthy enough or talented enough to play football in the NFL right now.
Eric Dickerson missed another practice with a sprained toe, left cornerback Gary Green (neck) is out indefinitely, and four of the top five linebackers, plus reserve Norwood Vann, did not participate in Wednesday's practice, for various reasons.
Mel Owens is still holding out, along with wide receiver Henry Ellard; Jim Collins has a shoulder nerve problem, Mike Wilcher has a sprained toe and George Andrews' wife, Heidi, was preparing to deliver their first child.
Robinson would settle for an impact player from anywhere at cornerback. After Wednesday's afternoon practice he conducted a 20-minute tryout for three veteran free agents: former San Francisco 49er Dwight Hicks; former 49er, Cardinal and Chief Tim Collier and former Saint Rodney Lewis, who also played in the USFL.
"I'm most worried about solving the cornerback position and getting the two holdouts in," Robinson said.
He said he didn't mean that Jerry Gray, last year's top draft choice from Texas, wasn't adequate as Green's replacement.
"What if somebody else gets hurt?" Robinson said. "Vince Newsome is outstanding in that linebacker spot in our nickel, but if he has to play the nickel spot (as a defensive back), then Mel Owens will have to do it (linebacker), and I think Mel Owens is in Afghanistan right now."
Two others who could help the Rams are linebacker Howard Carson, who jumped to the Express in 1984, and defensive end William Fuller of the Baltimore Stars. They were among the USFL players with guaranteed contracts remaining who filed written statements with the USFL Players' Assn. before Wednesday's 7 a.m. PDT deadline to forfeit future claims on the USFL.
John Macik, assistant executive director of the USFLPA, said: "So far 24 out of 29 guys with guarantees have done that."
They may now contact NFL clubs, who would be obliged to obtain final clearance from NFL headquarters before signing them. The Rams own NFL rights to Fuller and Carson.
Two days earlier the NFL issued a directive to all clubs to lay off 29 such players unless they have "written permission from the player's USFL employer or . . . until after an unequivocal written release of any further obligation owed by him within the USFL is received and approved by this office."
The league obviously feels it dodged a big bullet in court and isn't about to take any chances.
The one thing the Rams don't seem interested in is a short quarterback, even after losing rookie Hugh Millen and veteran Dieter Brock with injuries. Flutie's advisors may sense that and continue to exercise caution to protect his personal services agreement with Trump.
He didn't file notice, Randy Vataha said, because "Doug is gonna honor the contract with the Generals and Donald Trump. He still is owed approximately $2 million for the next year and a half. It doesn't make any sense to walk away from that."
However, Trump gave his three stars--Flutie, Walker and quarterback Jim Kelly--permission to talk to the NFL clubs holding their rights, so it's obvious he's willing to make a deal.