SAN DIEGO, JAN. 28 -- No amount of free lunch, baseball hats, Marilyn Monroe look-alikes, reef 'n' beef dinners, boat races, cheerleaders, blimps, shrimps, killer whales or loaner Buicks (please return after eight hours) could erase the fact that there is no such thing as a free lunch, not even for the media at a Super Bowl.

This is why they yelled "Don't! Don't!" when Redskins defensive end Dexter Manley strode back into the press tent outside Redskins headquarters today for the third time in half an hour.

On Wednesday, he didn't show up at all for interviews, and minutes before, he had gone into the press tent, read a statement, walked out in a direction that would have taken him into the harbor if the security and public relations people hadn't caught up with him, then come back to read it again -- scream it, actually -- while he pulled at the collar of his black Puma jump suit and sweated like a hunted man: "There are so many questions that are repetitions that I suggest that you submit your questions in writing -- IN WRITING! -- and I will answer them tomorrow."

The media cheered, shook fists of delight and triumph in the air. At last! A story! Manley bites press! A hundred lead sentences jumped into a hundred minds.

"If brevity is the soul of wit, then Dexter Manley was Jay Leno yesterday," thought Morrie Siegel, the Washington sportswriting institution (currently affiliated with Regardie's and The Washington Times).

Then Manley ruined it, came booming back out of something called the Redskins "Control Room," all teeth and sunglasses, and, ignoring the media's pleas of "Don't!" went back into the tent and agreed to answer their questions.

If Manley was puzzled by the "don'ts," he was just as puzzled by the fact that Coach Joe Gibbs had wanted him back out here: "He's always worrying about what I'm gonna say, now he wants me to come here."

Well, there he was for the third time, in a whole tentful of football players answering questions about the game, a drone of phrases that hung over the place like the blimps or the smog over San Diego: "... play the game we came to play ... contain Elway ... come together for a common goal ... not a team in the league we can't beat ..."

And suddenly Manley started doing it too: "The trenches, that's where the game is won," he said, along with other boilerplate that was everything Gibbs, the National Football League and the media could have wanted. So of course the reporters began walking away before Manley ruined everything.

"Love you!" Manley shouted and left the tent once more.

The problem for the media in San Diego is that the only way the 2,300 sportswriters whom the NFL has accredited can get their papers to send them on this junket next year is to file stories. And, as Channel 9's Glenn Brenner says: "It's 3,000 guys covering nothing. There's nothing going on. The trick is to say that 1,000 different ways. We had a pool on how many times Doug Williams would be asked what it's like being the first black quarterback to play in a Super Bowl the other day. I guessed 68 and won -- it was 70."

Who could even think, much less come up with something original, with the endless free feed going on -- a whole parking lot full of steaming food and waiters in wing collars at 8 o'clock in the morning outside Broncos headquarters, the biggest Caesar salad in the history of the world greeting the press at an excursion down to Agua Caliente race track in Tijuana (yes, it was announced as the new record in a morning paper). After days of this, the media were starting to loll and stagger like lions full of fresh wildebeest, carnivore slump.

"They feed us like this to keep us less aggressive," said Judson Hand of the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press as he wrote his story at poolside. "Were you at the Hotel Del Coronado last night? They even had cheerleaders greeting us as we got off the boats."

Who could ask for anything more, much less a good question? Broncos quarterback John Elway, an Adonis with eye bags, twisted his wristwatch around and around and winced at each question as if he were getting deaf or desperate or both: "... The Super Bowl is not only the ultimate win but the ultimate loss ... a quarterback is only as good as his supporting cast ..."

Sad, shambling Doug Williams jiggled his leg and looked at his jeweled Rolex. Broncos backup quarterback Gary Kubiak and linebacker Rick Dennison played a nonstop gin rummy game through their interviews: "... think we're ready ... knock for three ... try to get better as the ball game goes on ... I know you got my card."

So after days of boilerplate at the carefully controlled press conferences, the media were starting to feed on themselves as well.

Channel 4's George Michael interrupted some poolside basking to get Redskins wide receiver Art Monk to videotape special teams' Reggie Branch interviewing him, Michael.

"Why do you talk so fast?" Branch asked while Monk taped.

"The faster you talk, the less people remember," Michael said.

The San Diego Tribune reported that the press was not following its custom of trashing the host city, but what's to dislike about San Diego, the Teflon City, the pastel city where it's always 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and flags on top of the glass buildings seem to flap in some sort of special wind they have only here, which is to say they flap more slowly, like they do on the TV screen when the station plays "The Star-Spangled Banner" and signs off at night.

"I tried to get some man-on-the-street reaction to the game," said a guy from New York's WFAN all-sports radio. "Everybody's too laid back."

People were complaining about the media covering the media, and then there were media covering those media in turn. A columnist in the San Fernando Daily News quoted CBS's Brent Musburger as saying that "the most boring story of the week has been the press talking about the hype."

"Everybody's looking for angles," said ABC's Al Michaels, who joined with Frank Gifford, Dan Dierdorf, Keith Jackson and a bunch of offscreen executives to hold a press conference of their own in a hotel ballroom, to deal with details like the fact that the precise time of kickoff had yet to be established between ABC and the NFL.

"We're trying to fine-tune that," said Dennis Lewin, an ABC senior vice president.

On and on.

What was left? What was not known? What sort of advanced level of Zen were things getting to when Dexter Manley could come up with better answers by not answering questions than by answering them?

Except for the all important one: "Where's the food?"