CLEVELAND — The Rams return to the regular season tonight with all the togetherness of a jigsaw puzzle dropped from a 10th-floor window.
Help collect and identify the pieces of a once-proud, Super Bowl-bound organization, which faces the Browns at Cleveland Stadium.
Some jagged edges:
First, and always foremost, is tailback Eric Dickerson, who couldn't wait for the strike to end so he could fill empty newspaper holes with a re-released version of the trade-me bombshell he dropped last August in London.
"We'd like to see him get his money," linebacker Mark Jerue said Saturday. "We think he deserves it. But we don't think it's time to do it right now. It's not that everyone doesn't agree with him, but there are 45 other guys whose only chance to make money is making the playoffs. We'll never have the leverage he has."
Or, some would say, the nerve.
Dickerson will be with the Rams tonight in uniform only, his wish to serve as Charles White's stand-in having been granted by Coach John Robinson who, as Dickerson so wisely remembered, seemed so understanding when White had his little drug problem earlier this season.
Dickerson has suggested all week that White is the better man for the job, Dickerson's mind being cluttered by how much Denver is paying John Elway these days.
With the National Football League trading deadline approaching, a solid non-performance from Dickerson tonight might just be the national television jolt Robinson needs to shuffle Dickerson off to Buffalo. It's suddenly one of Dickerson's favorite cities.
Robinson is again banking that his star back, proud and talented as he is, will leave his worries behind the very moment he touches the ball on 47-Gap, the run that made Dickerson famous and the one he's suggested Robinson run a few times.
The Browns, not surprisingly, are playing the Dickerson saga strictly for laughs. Do you think they've even cracked the seal on the Charles White film?
"I'm not saying I don't believe what he's saying about being unhappy," Browns' Coach Marty Schottenheimer said of Dickerson. "But I don't think players that have the kind of pride that obviously a guy like that has to have, well, you don't accomplish what he's accomplished on talent alone. It's a combination of talent, teamwork and pride. I just don't think it will be a factor in the game."
But Dickerson's discontent is only one of several cracks in the Rams' armor.
As defensive end Shawn Miller says, "We've got enough problems around here as it is."
And they do.
The 24-day NFL players strike left the Rams with a 1-4 record, thanks in large part to the non-union squad. It also left them three monster games behind the San Francisco 49ers.
Among other things, strike fallout forced union and non-union Rams to congregate in the same meeting rooms. Some saw it as Iran inviting Iraq to lunch.
At the same time, striking players were essentially asked to invite picket-crossers back into their homes.
Does time heal all strike wounds, too?
Two weeks ago, for instance, Ram picketers took a dozen eggs and made a Spanish omelet on the hood of Miller's pricey car, the price to be paid for crossing their line.
Miller is still getting estimates for a new paint job.
"I haven't forgotten about it," Miller said. "But I'm going to let it slide right now. To say I don't care is . . . . It's my personal property. If someone has something to say to me, say it to my face. Don't screw up my car. Sooner or later, it'll surface, who did it. And I'll confront him, man-to-man, and see what he wants to do about it."
That aside, the Rams actually had a good week of practice after airing out a strike's worth of frustration in one heated and emotional team meeting last Monday.
"We got it all out," Jerue said. "There still may be feelings that are hurt, but I haven't noticed anything off the field."
On the field, the real Rams must only recover from an 0-2 start in games in which they led entering the fourth quarter.
And the Browns? Well, they made it to the American Football Conference title game a season ago. And next week for the Rams it's the 49ers, and maybe the season.
Is there really time for fussing and fighting?
"We've gotta go," Rams' quarterback Jim Everett said. "We've got to perform as a team, with or without (Dickerson). It's just another distraction, but we've had many this year."
Ram Notes Charles White, asterisk or no asterisk, is the NFL's third-leading rusher with 330 yards in 75 carries. He's rushed for 321 yards in the team's last two non-union games. White, of course, was the Browns' No. 1 pick in 1980. . . . Eric Dickerson, by the way, has rushed for 239 yards in two games this season. . . . Dickerson missed the first two games of the 1985 season in a contract holdout. Not counting strikeball, those are the only two he's missed in his career. The Rams, though, won both games. White, Dickerson's replacement, gained 83 yards in a win over Denver in the opener and had 144 in 36 carries a week later against Philadelphia.