NEW ORLEANS — Assistant coach Artie Gigantino perhaps summed it up best last week when he walked into the Rams' press room wearing a lost look on his face.
"This is really happening, isn't it?" Gigantino said after the team's first practice with non-union players.
Yes, it's really happening. Today. In the Superdome. The Also-Rams vs. Saints Elsewhere. The NFL vs. the AFL(-CIO). Picket walkers vs. picket crossers. The Asterisk Bowl. Names you and the coaches have never heard of.
Take New Orleans' starting quarterback, John Fourcade, for instance.
"He's from the University of Mississippi," Saint Coach Jim Mora said. "I'm not sure when he came out. He was in our camp in 1986 (before Mora arrived), and they let him go. This year, he went to play in Canada. I'm not sure with whom. Then he played in the Arena Football League with the team that won it. I'm not sure what team that was."
Well, there you have it.
Coach, we don't know much about your team.
"God, I don't either," Mora said.
Actually, it's not as bad as that. In fact, nine Saint players crossed the picket line this week and will play today. Four of them are starters, wide receiver Eric Martin, defensive end Bruce Clark, who played in the Pro Bowl after the 1985 season; nose tackle Tony Elliott and safety Antonio Gibson.
Early in the week, the hastily assembled non-union Rams seemed doomed, their pace of returning strikebreakers lagging far behind New Orleans'.
But the Rams picked up some steam late in the week. It began Wednesday when reserve nose tackle Alvin Wright reported. On Thursday it was quarterback Steve Dils and running backs Mike Guman and Charles White. The Rams' stock really shot up Friday, when four defensive starters--safety Nolan Cromwell, linebacker Jim Collins, linemen Shawn Miller and Greg Meisner--returned. The Rams also got back their punter, Dale Hatcher, to boot. And Saturday, kicker Mike Lansford flew to New Orleans and joined the team, becoming the 10th Ram player to cross the picket line.
"My team now would beat my team last Tuesday," Ram Coach John Robinson said confidently Friday.
But can it beat anyone else? Although the Rams have some players back on defense, their offensive line is anchored by center Navy Tuiasosopo, who could use the rest of the Pentagon for support. The only other name quarterback Dils might remember is starting left tackle Hank Goebel, a real Ram until the team's final cut in September. The others--guards Tom Taylor and Joe Murray and tackle Kelly Thomas--are anonymous. Yet their assignment is to block one Pro Bowl defensive end, Clark, and talented nose tackle Elliott.
It could get real messy.
Robinson said that the Rams will employ the offense they used against the maniacal Chicago Bears' pass rush a season ago.
"It's 1, 2, 3 throw it!" Robinson said.
Others wonder whether the action inside the Superdome will match that expected outdoors, where striking Saints, supported by local AFL-CIO unions, are expected to picket vigorously.
As of Friday afternoon, refunds were made on 13,766 tickets sold for today's game. The team had sold 46,440 tickets for the Ram game before the strike was announced.
And maybe it's better that no one sees it.
Even Miller, the Ram defensive end who crossed the line to play in the game, isn't trying to pass this game off as anything but a farce.
"You've got people coming in here who couldn't beat the Sioux City Buffaloes," Miller said of the non-union players. "All the Joe Publics, if they're expecting to see a great game, they've got another think coming. It's not even going to be close to the caliber of a good college football game." Neither coach has a real clue as to how the other's team will perform. Neither is sure that throwing a few quality players into a blender with duds will really make a difference.
"We're not an NFL team," Mora said. "We're not even as good as the USFL team we ended up with, the Stars." Mora coached the Philadelphia-Baltimore Stars to three consecutive title games.
Scarier still is that the game will count in the standings and in the record books. Don't laugh, but Cullen Bryant could become the NFL's single-game rushing leader. The Rams could drop to 0-3.
And what of the striking players? If the games are going to count in the standings, can the Rams afford not to root for their non-union team?
Can a striking player who recently smashed a van window cheer for a player who was the target of egg yoke only days ago.
"That's really two-faced, isn't it?" Ram player representative Carl Ekern said. "It really puts you in a tough spot. It's with mixed emotions that you watch this game. Obviously, I want the Rams to win as many games as they can this year, to give us the best chance to go somewhere. If these games are going to count, I sure as hell want us to be winning."
Here's egg in your face.
The Rams brought 55 players to New Orleans, but only 45 can suit up. All players will receive full-game checks. Charles White and Mike Guman will start in the backfield with quarterback Steve Dils. The wide receivers are Samuel Johnson and Bernard Henry. . . . Greg Meisner, Shawn Miller and Alvin Wright will start in the defensive line. Joining Jim Collins at linebacker will be non-union players Rick DiBernardo, Kyle Whittingham and Neil Hope. Reggie Richardson will start at safety with Nolan Cromwell. The cornerbacks are Kirby Jackson and Greg Williamson.