FRESNO — Henry Ellard was watching the Rams' Philadelphia fiasco on television Sunday when a comment by analyst Hank Stram caught his ear.
"I understand that . . . Ellard does not want to return kicks," Stram said, "and that's . . . why he hasn't signed."
Ellard sat bolt upright.
"What!" he exclaimed. "Where did that come from?"
Later, calmly but emphatically, Ellard said: "That's something I like to do, is return punts. I don't know where it came from. Maybe (Ram negotiator John) Shaw said something like that, misunderstood or something. To me, punt returning is bread and butter, something I enjoy doing . . . running with the ball."
Nobody ever did it better than Ellard, who holds the National Football League career record with an average of 13.51 yards on punt returns. And it certainly beats what he's doing now--mostly nothing.
As summer fades into fall, Ellard sits at home, a free agent without a contract. Stram's point was that the Rams needed him not only as a pass receiver but as a punt returner, considering that they are averaging only 6.8 yards a return with rookie Mickey Sutton this season.
Shaw, the Rams' vice president-finance, seemed to be under the impression that Ellard's presence wouldn't help if he wanted no part of punts.
"His agent had said that in one of our negotiating sessions," Shaw said Monday.
But Ellard's agent, Mike Blatt of Stockton, responded: "I never said that."
Blatt thought a moment and added that there might have been a misunderstanding.
"Shaw told me once: 'To us, Henry is just an average receiver and his value to us is as a punt returner.' I said: 'If you just need a punt returner, why not get some other guy to do it?' "
Ellard added: "One thing (Shaw) tried to do: 'OK, Henry, we'll pay you an extra $25,000 if you lead the team in punt returns.' It was a gimme clause. We couldn't believe it. I guess he felt he was doing us a favor because the first three years I wasn't paid for punt returns."
What we may have here, folks, is a failure to communicate.
Blatt said that Ram owner Georgia Frontiere doesn't know "what Shaw is doing."
He became convinced of that, he said: "When Georgia Frontiere's mother, who still lives in Fresno, called up Henry's mom and wanted to know why Henry hadn't signed."
Blatt's proposal to clear up any confusion is to have a meeting among Frontiere, Coach John Robinson, Shaw, Ellard and himself "so that everybody gets the same message." A similar meeting helped to resolve an impasse in signing Eric Dickerson last season.
Blatt proposed that to Shaw a week ago, but quoted Shaw as saying: "It hasn't come to that yet."
But perhaps by Monday it had come to that. Robinson said: "Hey, if I thought we could work something out, I'd be up there (in Fresno) in half an hour. We've got to break this logjam some way."
Said Shaw: "I really can't tell you anything at this point."
Negotiations are at a standstill. Blatt is asking for a $2-million package, including bonus, over four years. Shaw is offering $1.2 million for four years.
Blatt doesn't think his demand is unreasonable, since 17 other wide receivers in the NFL are earning $400,000 or more this season, with contracts escalating in subsequent seasons. "And only two of them return punts," he said.
He said other NFL executives told him: " 'You're right in the ball park,' and some said, 'You aren't asking enough.' "
Blatt said that Shaw had offered $300,000 a year plus incentives that could increase the figure to $340,000 or $350,000, "if he did what he did in '85 again."
In '85, Ellard led the Rams with 54 receptions, the most by a Ram wide receiver in 20 years. For his three-year career, Ellard has gained an average of 13.6 yards every time he touched the ball, running, returning or receiving.
"This is a real good example of why free agency is so logical," Blatt said.
Under the collective bargaining agreement, which expires Aug. 31, 1987, a so-called free agent can't approach another club without permission, and even then his old club would receive specified compensation in draft choices for his rights.
That's why Ellard is the only veteran free agent of prominence remaining unsigned in the NFL this season. The NFL Players Assn. has indicated that true free agency will be a goal in negotiations for a new agreement.
Blatt said that Shaw mentioned two weeks ago that he was working on a trade for Ellard to "a losing team east of the Mississippi" and wanted to know if Ellard was agreeable to it.
"He just wanted to force Henry into saying, 'Gee, I don't want to go to Buffalo, I'll sign,' " Blatt said. "I called around. No one knew of a trade. His (Shaw's) game didn't work.
"I think he's trying to use Henry's negotiations for next year's negotiations: 'Hey, look what we did to Henry.' He's just trying to bury him."
Michael Duberstein of the NFLPA agreed that Ellard may just be a pawn in a bigger game. He said: "With negotiations coming up, one of (management's) tactics is to make players fearful, but instead it gets 'em enraged."