They had considered using Santa Claus, but decided that would be too mean. Then they went looking for a Bengal tiger suit -- the Redskins were playing Cincinnati, for heaven's sake.

But nobody had one, so the U.S. marshals staging Sunday's Great Redskins Ticket Scam had to rent the San Diego chicken instead.

Deputy Marshal Tom (sometimes known, inevitably, as Mickey) Spilane took it home Saturday to spruce up the feathers. It broke up his wife of barely two months.

"She laughed. She laughed for about an hour. And after that, every time she'd look at it . . . or at me, she would . . . cackle."

Yesterday Tom Spilane was dressed in a three-piece pin-stripe suit. "To build up my dignity a little," he said with a sad little smile. "Chicken yesterday, three-piecer today." And to forestall any cackling on the part of his colleagues.

On Sunday, Spilane was chicken all the way, clucking his way through crowds of festive football ticket winners (or so they thought). He flapped away, hidden revolver tucked under his left wing, fanning the ambiance, "the air," he said in retrospect, "that this is a party and you are WINNERS, and you're SAFE here, and the chicken is your FRIEND."

A hail chicken well met, he shook wing to hands with those putative winners of tickets to the day's game -- potential winners of a trip to the Super Bowl and of Redskins season tickets. Prizes almost worth going to jail for, a lot of people might think.

And, of course, a lot of the people on whom Spilane was bestowing a friendly flap -- 101 of them, to be exact -- went straight to jail. They did not pass RFK stadium. They did not collect anything except a pair of handcuffs each. Fowl, fowl, fowl, some of them were said to mutter.

"What we did," said Spilane, "was keep the partying [at the D.C. Convention Center] going. All of the winners had those name things pasted on, you know, 'Hello I am: Joe Doaks,' and a few at a time, we'd call the names of these 'winners,' actually the ones we had outstanding warrants on, and send them up for 'a little sales pitch.' There would be more partying upstairs and then the emcee would give them their little surprise -- handcuff, search and off to jail.

"Then after the last winner had gone, one of the team came in and told the waiting families and friends that it was all a police operation, the winners were all in jail and they should go home.

"Well," said Spilane, "when it was all over, there I was standing there holding my [chicken] head and this teen-ager looks up at me and shakes her head and says, 'the chicken's a COP?' "

Under normal circumstances, Tom Spilane is nothing to cackle at. A muscular 6 feet 3, he has been in law enforcement since 1976, when he joined the Prince George's County sheriff's department.

He's a little awed that "for all that time I was dealing with criminals and such and nobody notices, but there I am standing for four hours in a chicken suit and, whoosh, I'm all over the front pages, on national TV.

"What worries me a little is that when I retire in 20 years or so nobody will remember anything but that chicken."

Spilane's blue eyes tend to twinkle and he concedes, "Well, I'm pretty proud of what we did. We've been working on this for about eight weeks, and we're good. But," he added, "we're not that good. And if those people weren't all that greedy, they would have seen this for the scam it was."

The great Redskin scam was the latest -- and the most successful to date -- of a series of operations designed to help U.S. marshals get their felons.

The operation, which went off without a hitch, was Chicken Spilane's first. Tom Spilane thinks it was all fine.

He's not so sure about his mother, who lives in Cheverly. When he called her Sunday night and told her to watch TV because "I was the chicken," he said, "she said, 'You were the what?' and I said, 'the chicken.' There was this long silence. I could tell she was wishing I'd grown up to be a teacher or anything else. Anything."

Tom Spilane's mother is a bookkeeper for Church's Fried Chicken.