In 1984, E.J. Junior made the NFC Pro Bowl team. In 1985, E.J. Junior made the NFC Pro Bowl team. So what's the difference, you might ask.

Try night and day.

A year ago, the St. Louis Cardinals were a playoff contender and their 6-foot-3, 235-pound middle linebacker was one of the more prominent of their many talented young players. The Cardinals finished 9-7, just missed the playoffs in the season's final week and Junior went to Hawaii with all the other all-pros.

In 1985, his Cardinal team has been dreadful. And even his performance was not as good as it might have been. If the Cardinals had an MVP -- which in this season is hard to justify -- most think it would go to running back/kick returner Stump Mitchell. Mitchell always has been a steady return man and this year has filled in well for injured halfback Ottis Anderson.

"In some aspects, I played a lot better than last year," said Junior, "but in others, I didn't."

The Cardinals' offense has been inconsistent all year, and especially inept within the opponents' 20-yard line, which only adds to the frustration. The kicking game has been a joke -- Novo Bojovic, the third kicker this season, got the job after Coach Jim Hanifan brought five kickers to a Tuesday practice for tryouts.

But, as Junior points out, the defense has done its share to get the team into last place.

"There's a lot of aspects that didn't come through this year," Junior, a five-year veteran, said. "We gave up more points than we should have. Almost 400 points (387) is way too high. We wanted to improve on our turnover ratio, and we haven't done that. The defense hasn't won too many ball games, which we felt we had to do. You win or lose with defense and special teams, and so far we haven't done that at all this year."

Junior said that because so many Cardinals are having sub-par years, there hasn't been much bickering.

"If you point one finger," he said, "you've got three more pointing right back at you. You've got to evaluate yourself before criticizing someone else."

Though Junior, like other Cardinals, will be glad to see this season completed, he sees no trouble getting ready for Saturday's game against the Washington Redskins.

"For one thing," Junior said, "we're in a position to do to them exactly what they did to us last year. Two, it's already a long rivalry that was begun before I was ever born. And, three, there's a lot of self-pride that this team has to gain.

"Are we just another fly-by-night team that has one good year and says 'Hey, that's it?' I'm not satisfied with that. Or are we going to learn how to win the big game, learn to overcome adversity like this year, and come back, strap on the pads and say, 'We're not gonna let what happened to us in 1985 happen again?' "

Cardinals fans, who expected to be holding playoff tickets by now, had high hopes for this season. Busch Stadium has an official capacity of 51,392, making it the second smallest in the league. There are 37,776 season-ticket holders this year, and the league-best increase of over 4,000 from '84 to '85 was due not only to the high expectation, but also to a fear that the team would leave town.

But with the team on the bottom of the division for most of the season, the Cardinals have sold out only two of seven home games. Two weeks ago, only 29,527 showed up to watch the Saints. More than 4,000 tickets remain available for Saturday's game and with the forecast calling for cloudy skies, a chance of snow and temperatures in the low 20s, scalpers will take beating.

Owner Bill Bidwill, 53, with his bow tie, conservative suits and reserved manner, is one of the few NFL owners whose primary business is football. His family has owned the team since 1932, and he works out of an office at Busch Stadium.

"It's been a very disappointing year," he said yesterday.

Hanifan is completing his sixth and most disheartening season as coach of the Big Red. In between saying he just loves to coach football, he mentions he's tried to retain his sense of humor. Junior thinks Bidwill will retain Hanifan.

"The coaches can only get the players prepared, and I think they've done a good job at that," Junior said. "The problem is we haven't executed what we've learned."

But, as Bidwill said, "I don't think the players have played well enough to have a say in the matter."

Junior said he thinks the Cardinals will survive. And maybe prosper.

"Maybe we had the wrong attitude going into this season," he said. "Maybe it was the build-up we got and trying to live off 1984. There's a lot of factors, many of which I don't know. If I knew all of them, we would be 10-5 instead of 5-10.

"It's a growing experience. They say it's always darkest before the dawn. Maybe this is the darkness we have to experience before we become a championship-caliber team. Eventually things will fall our way . . . it's been painful darkness, though."