Back in 1970, ABC's "Monday Night Football" burst onto the scene. Whereas Mondays previously were significant for being trash nights throughout America, they then become an extension of our football weekends from September to December.

The "Monday Night Football" phenomenon boomed during the 1970s, but since it peaked in popularity in 1981, it suffered a steady decline that has been slightly stemmed in the opening weeks of the 1985 season.

There was the players strike of 1982. There was the proliferation of cable, splintering the viewing audience. There was the series of mismatches in 1984, games that seemingly became routs before Dandy Don Meredith even knew he was on the air.

Most of all, it seemed, "Monday Night Football" lost its overwhelming appeal as The Event. It's still the NFL's prime showcase, but the novelty of prime-time football -- especially with the addition of games on other nights of the week -- has worn off.

Just ask the nation's saloon keepers.

"It ain't like it used to be," said Al Shapiro, owner of Millie and Al's in Northwest Washington. "People used to all stand around and watch the game. We used to get big parties in here and we'd have to turn people away. It's been on the downgrade for a while. We have a younger crowd, and they don't seem as interested in games."

John Wright, who owns Thursdays in Fairfax, agrees. He notes that only the Redskins (who beat the Cardinals, 27-10, last night), the Steelers and the Cowboys are big draws anymore. "And even then," he said, "when the Redskins are playing, people don't drink as much because they're concentrating on the game."

Shapiro said that ABC's Thursday and Sunday night games also are only fair-to-middling draws.

There's always been something slightly strange about ABC's insistence on calling every night of the week Monday night (i.e. "Monday Night Football: Special Thursday Night Edition"). If payday is Friday at ABC Sports, those folks seemingly might go for weeks on end without seeing a paycheck.

But it tells you a bit about ABC's regard for the "Monday Night" tradition and how the network tries to cash in on the popularity of that tradition. If "Monday Night Football" has become a weekly institution, why can't it be a twice-weekly institution?

Chet Forte, director of "Monday Night Football" since its inception, realizes that the public's perception of his show has changed dramatically in recent years.

"When we had Frank Gifford, Don Meredith and Howard Cosell, I almost thought the game was secondary," Forte said. "They were the game. They almost overshadowed it. People regarded them as the entertainment. It's a different ball of wax now (with Gifford, Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson). The game is of the utmost importance now. We are a slave to the game."

Forte always has understood the nature of his audience -- folks in bars where you can't hear the telecast and folks at home perhaps talking constantly to friends while watching -- so he makes a concerted effort to flash the score and down on the screen frequently. He's considering showing the game clock much more often, as well, especially in the final minutes of each half.

Forte's graphics have had added importance in recent years. When Cosell and Meredith became distractions for some viewers, they started watching with the sound turned down. The current crew isn't so much distracting as it is disturbing; the Pep Boys of broadcasting -- Giffer, Joe and Juice -- seldom rise above the cliche and also seem to be better appreciated with the sound turned off.

Given the nature of today's technology and the track record of many sportscasters, I strongly believe most games are better off without announcers.

Last night at RFK, the "Monday Night" men crammed another 15 or 20 minutes of solid broadcasting into a three-hour production. Roone Arledge's star system in the broadcasting booth demands an immediate reassessment.

Gifford began an evening of errors by mistaking St. Louis' J.T. Smith for Roy Green in the opening moments. Namath complimented the Redskins' Raphel Cherry late in the first half for running out of bounds after an interception in order to stop the clock; the clock automatically stops on change of possession. Only Simpson, with occasional sharp analysis, rose above the mindlessness.

As usual, ABC's cameras missed very little on or off the field. RFK is a haven for bizarre crowd shots; in addition to elected officials, there are a lot of weird people in D.C. willing to risk personal reputations for a few seconds of TV exposure.

Despite its recent ratings decline and the changes among the broadcasters, "Monday Night Football" appears to be on the rebound. Arguably, it has its strongest schedule ever since the NFL, realizing the importance of Monday nights to the league's health, shifted several key divisional games to ABC.

And despite the volatile nature of prime-time TV -- where the drop of one or two ratings points can force network executives to reexamine the meaning of their lives -- "Monday Night Football" seems like a safe bet to survive.

"If pro football remains attractive to the public, 'Monday Night Football' will be there. It's found its place in the sports spectrum," Gifford said.

"I think pro football is probably the strongest TV package in America," Forte said. "We've become a part of Americana. Nothing survives forever . . . but I think it'll be here when you and I are gone."

If it's not, we'll always have the garbage to take out.