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NFL's replacement games not slapstick affairs some anticipated

Despite the obvious wreckage created by the players' strike, the National Football League show goes on. But what kind of a show is it? A travesty, as some people claim, or a reasonably decent imitation of the regular product?

Having witnessed just one complete game played with makeshift rosters of replacement players, and part of another on TV, I would give the action passing grades, which doesn't mean it was unflawed.

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There were botched plays - an above-average 76 fumbles in 14 games. On the whole, however, the games were not really littered with egregious errors.

In fact, from my press box vantage point at the New England Patriots-Cleveland Browns game, I was struck by the lack of confusion that seemed to exist in lining up, switching formations, taking the snap, and handing off, all areas where telltale breakdowns were anticipated.

This was decidedly not the Three Stooges in shoulder pads. Here were fill-in players who knew the game, had played it extensively in high school, college, and, in some cases, even the NFL, and were performing admirably given their time away from the game and their short time together - little more than a week in most cases. (Ironically, it was regular Patriot running back Tony Collins, a picket line dropout, who looked as rusty as anyone, fumbling on two of his first three carrries.)

If the play deserved a scarlet letter, it was ``D'' for dull. In part, of course, the situation dictated no-frills, conservative football. But the play calling was only one factor. Another was a perceived absence of exciting, big-play ability. The Patriots game was more lumbering than usual. No one seemed to possess the breakaway speed or moves to make the long run, and the quarterbacks lacked the throwing velocity of NFL starters.

In this regard, fans who didn't request refunds before the last Sunday's games allowed themselves to be shortchanged. This was not the genuine article, not the real NFL, and in fairness the owners should have slashed ticket prices at least in half. They're losing money anyhow, so instead of business as usual, a wiser strategy might have been to try to fill more seats and attract new patrons with ``bargain days.''

As things turned out, attendance was way off. Stadiums were filled to just 26.2 percent of capacity with an average of 16,987 fans, some 43,000 below the league's 1986 average.

This Sunday's games will provide a gauge of whether audience acceptance has bottomed out. As more regulars defy the union and return to work, and as the replacement players improve, the ugly duckling could gradually be transformed.

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Last week only a trickle of NFL regulars returned to their teams, but this week the number increased, with the total number of union defectors reaching 112 by Wednesday's payday deadline. Though no teams crossed the picket line en masse as had been rumored, about a dozen San Francisco 49ers, including quarterback Joe Montana, rejoined the team. The St. Louis Cardinals lead the league with 18 returnees.

Though the idea of playing games during the strike seemed foolhardy at first, it may turn out to be the straw that breaks the union's back. Most pro athletes can't stand to sit idly by and watch as others play, especially at the cost of one-sixteenth of their salary each week. So the current games, whether critically acclaimed or not, provide a carrot for union fence-sitters.

Still, there are several inherent dangers here. Uneven defections could cause team friction after the strike ends and lopsided competition while it continues. Indianapolis's 47-6 rout of Buffalo last Sunday is certainly an early warning sign that NFL parity may be a pipe dream in the current situation.

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