ST. LOUIS — It was like a bad movie that you wanted to walk out on a dozen times but for some reason found yourself watching at the end.
Maybe the popcorn was good. Or, in this case, maybe the running back.
For by game's end, the St. Louis Cardinals had the Rams clawing their fingernails into their benches, packing the only palatable moments of a Sunday afternoon game into the final 1 minute 52 seconds.
That the Rams escaped with a 16-10 win at Busch Stadium in their 1986 National Football League opener is less a tribute to themselves than to the clock, which expired as the Cardinals stood fixed and stunned on the Ram goal line, left to wonder how 18 seconds had not been enough time to snap two balls from scrimmage.
The Cardinals, a team that served as comic relief for opponents a season before, were one measly yard away from sticking it to the Rams, who, it was discovered, still adhere to the axiom that wins are directly proportional to how many times their running back can carry the ball without blacking out.
And so it was on his 38th carry that Eric Dickerson surrendered the ball--and a few of his ribs--to the Cardinals at their own 37 on a fumble that allowed 1:52 for St. Louis to get directions and locate the end zone.
Somehow, they nearly did, quarterback Neil Lomax suddenly cutting the Ram secondary in pieces as he drove his team down field.
The Cardinals made it to the Ram 10-yard line with 45 seconds still left.
Three plays later they had worked down to the four-yard line, where they faced fourth down and two yards to go for a first down.
With 18 seconds left and no timeouts left, the Cardinals figured that getting two plays off would be a cinch. They ran Stump Mitchell up the middle for the first down but the Rams, tired as they were, found it difficult to unpile from on top of Mitchell.
Nine . . . eight . . . seven. . . .
First-year Cardinal Coach Gene Stallings, still sketchy on some of the rules, is screaming at officials to stop the clock.
"I thought they stopped the clock on first downs to reset the chains," Stallings said later. "Obviously, they don't."
Not, as he learned, when there are no more first downs to get.
Six . . . five . . . four. . . .
Lomax rushes to the line of scrimmage, picking up bodies from the pile that was keeping his team from victory.
"I was grabbing guys and yelling at them to get off," Lomax said. "I grabbed (referee Bob) McElwee, and he just looked at me and said 'Yeah, don't grab me.' "
Three . . . two . . . one. . . .
Lomax locates his center and orders another snap. He whips the ball out of bounds to stop the clock, but it's too late.
The Rams, who chose not to wait around to hear final arguments, raced off the field with all the speed of a hoodlum fleeing a robbery.
The Rams hooted and hollered as if they had something to be proud of, though that was hardly the case.
Afterward, Coach John Robinson awarded game balls to safety Nolan Cromwell and cornerback Jerry Gray, the men who stumped Mitchell short of the goal line.
"We couldn't give the game ball to anyone else," Robinson said. "Because they would have thrown it back. . . . This was perhaps the sloppiest game I've ever been involved in."
There were a few Rams who were shaking as the Cardinals drove down the field in the final moments.
Barely escaping as goats were:
--Dickerson. Though he had a game that most running backs only dream of (193 yards 38 carries, 2 touchdowns) he sounded afterward as if the whole thing was his fault.
"I don't feel I had a great day," he said. "I don't feel very good about it. It wasn't memorable."
Dickerson, who broke the single-game Ram record for carries, scored on a one-yard run in the first quarter and on a brilliant 16-yarder in the third in which he stutter-stepped Cardinal safety Lonnie Young into another time zone.
But Dickerson also fumbled three times, the last one nearly costing the Rams the game.
An unexpected summer shower caused Dickerson's hands to grow slick and even dared to fog his goggles.
"Dickerson didn't fumble once in preseason," Robinson said. "But how many times did he today?"
--Quarterback Steve Bartkow-ski. He was supposed to be the missing link for a stone-aged offense. With him, teams couldn't beat on Dickerson for fear of Bartkowski's golden touch.
But Bartkowski seemingly picked up where Dieter Brock left off, throwing over and under his receivers--and around them a few times, too.
His final statistics look like some sort of clerical error; 5 completions in 21 attempts for 91 yards.
Bartkowski, who also complained of a slick ball, was disgusted that his Ram debut had to end up like this.
"I want to take the heat off Dickerson," the veteran quarterback said afterward. "I think that's what I'm here for. The headlines will be great, but I know he's going to feel terrible tomorrow. We have to be more effective on offense. You can't run a guy's wheels off. I mean, they were beating on him."