NEW YORK — The NFL unabashedly presents its second weekend of second-class football, despite lack of fan interest, picket lines and edgy television networks.
The biggest differences between today and last Sunday is that union head Gene Upshaw and owners' chief negotiator Jack Donlan have talked during the week and the number of players who have left the picket line has hit 140.
Many of those will play alongside non-union players today while their teammates walk picket lines outside to try to persuade fans to stay away.
The average attendance in the NFL last week was 17,000 -- under one-third the normal average -- and the television ratings were down by about a third on CBS, NBC and ABC. Still, the networks will broadcast the 13 games today and the Monday night game and the owners are hoping for attendance to pick up.
The players say the "curiosity factor" has worn off and there will be even less interest this week.
Both sides claim they are winning the labor battle, which resulted in the strike Sept. 22. One weekend of games was wiped out completely.
"Two things happened that strengthened our position," Miami owner Joe Robbie said of last week. "One, players continued to come back and two, we played a full schedule of games."
But the turnstiles were hardly spinning.
"There were 76,000 votes taken," New York Jets punter Dave Jennings said of the Jets-Dallas game that drew a club low of 12,370 at 76,891-seat Giants Stadium. "Sixty-four thousand at Giants Stadium voted to support the players and 12,000 voted to support the owners."
Commissioner Pete Rozelle admitted the games didn't live up to NFL standard but the owners claim the games were competitive and exciting.
"I hope the strike doesn't go on too long," said Chicago Bears President Mike McCaskey, whose team is among the two unbeaten clubs remaining. "But if it does, the caliber of play will get better and better."
The return of regular players threatens the competitive balance, however. Of the six teams with more than 10 regulars returning, only New Orleans and St. Louis play each other this week.
The Dallas Cowboys, with a league-high 18 strike-breakers, are home against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles' entire roster is on strike and Coach Buddy Ryan splits time at quarterback between Guido Merkens and Scott Tinsley.
The Eagles were crushed, 35-3, by Chicago last week. The Cowboys topped the Jets, 38-24, and should be stronger this week -- on the field if not on the picket line.
"We're not respected around the league on the field because of what's happened the last couple of years and off the field because of what we (strikers) do," Cowboys tight end and player representative Doug Cosbie said in criticism of his teammates crossing the picket line.
Another probable mismatch looms in Atlanta. San Francisco has 12 regular players back, including Joe Montana, Roger Craig, Dwight Clark and Dwaine Board. Coach Bill Walsh said his veterans might not start, but his replacement team was good enough last week to club the New York Giants, 41-21, Monday night without any regulars.
"As the players arrived, we intergrated them into the 45-man unit," Walsh said. "We have a strong enough B unit that our veterans could come in and play with those people without a total mismatch."
The mismatch comes against the Falcons, who have two active regular players -- linebacker Tim Green and wide receiver Joe Costello.
"If they (49ers) use all those people they got back this week, it's likely to be the worst mismatch in NFL history," Falcons Coach Marion Campbell said.
The replacement games are already playing havoc with the standings. The Super Bowl champion New York Giants are 0-3, and so are the 1986 NFC wild-card playoff Los Angeles Rams. Help is on the way for the Rams; 11 veterans have quit the strike and will shore up the squad at home Sunday against Pittsburgh.
The Giants' entire regular team remains on strike. They are home Sunday against the Washington Redskins, who have no regular players either but were good enough to beat a St. Louis team with 11 regulars playing last week.
"We're facing our second division loss at home and fourth conference loss," said Giants Coach Bill Parcells, who described his team as "teetering on the brink."
The AFC champion Denver Broncos are 1-1-1 after the replacements were battered 40-10 by Houston. The Broncos have nine players back, including Steve Watson, and will be home Monday night against the 3-0 Los Angeles Raiders, with Howie Long among their 13 regulars.
Win or lose, Broncos Coach Dan Reeves is so disgusted he said he might leave the NFL, if the players sign another three-year collective bargaining agreement, rather than go through this situation so soon again.
While players on the picket line aren't so sure, everybody else is certain these replacement games count. Even owners who would benefit by scrapping them would rather see them stand.
"I didn't make the policy but the league is on record saying the games count," Giants owner Wellington Mara said. "There's no way I would vote to wipe out the games, even if we were 0-7."
Several owners believe their ticket sales will be much better than they were last week. McCaskey said the Bears will draw a near sellout crowd against Minnesota, only about 10,000 tickets were reported returned at Cleveland for the Browns-Houston Oilers game and a big crowd is expected in Miami for the belated regular-season opening of Joe Robbie Stadium. The Dolphins were to open the stadium against the Giants two weeks ago but that round of games were canceled so today's game against Kansas City will serve as the opener.