"You ready to suit up?" a laughing Don Shula asked me at the Miami Dolphins' camp this week.
"What do you need?" I replied. "Guards, tackles, centers?"
"I certainly wasn't thinking about you for a skill position," he said.
This brand of deft repartee was undoubtedly heard at a number of camps as scab ball loomed. But it probably made as much sense as any other strike rhetoric. After all, the mere thought of my misshapen physique in the aqua and orange regalia of the Dolphins might make even the most Neanderthal of owners realize the folly of scab ball.
The folly swings onto center stage this weekend. Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm has suggested we'll see some wonderful Walter Mittys on our TV screens. I suspect most fans will vote resoundingly for Walter Payton. They have already cast their ballots by returning thousands of tickets to the owners. Now, the main question is if they will also vote "No" in the Nielsens.
The problem is that there isn't a whole lot else to do on Sundays. Last week, I sampled New England fall foliage. I can testify that leaves indeed change color at this time of year. But it must be reported that a little foliage goes a long way.
Sunday brunch is equally disappointing. Eggs prepared in some chic yuppie fashion are washed down with trendy beverages, and you are almost invariably surrounded by ferns. Indoor foliage is infinitely more boring than the outdoor variety.
So the alternatives are bleak. The fact is, these games are going to happen, a certain percentage of us are going to watch them -- and some people are actually going to wager on them.
Barring a Sunday morning attack of acute action withdrawal, I do not plan to be among the latter group. I'll stand on my 6-4 record until the real games begin again. But an intrepid handicapper, like many of the coaches who are caught in a bind that they hate, must proceed with the material at hand. So for those who must have opinions on such games, I have attempted to provide some guidelines.
Since my method of historical trend handicapping is virtually useless for evaluating scabs, I turned to two selectors who once thrived on the unknowns who populated USFL games.
"I look for rah-rah motivational type coaches," said Steve Turner of Texas Sports Wire. "With so little preparation time, I want a college-style guy who can fire guys up -- a Ron Meyer or a John Robinson."
"The offenses will be very basic," said Rich Bomze of Sports Reporter. "And the offensive linemen will be fat and out of shape. I think a few quick defensive guys can give a big edge to a team like New Orleans."
These opinions were not immediately useful, because Robinson's Rams are playing in New Orleans. But Turner and Bomze agreed on one significant factor: If scab ball is like the USFL, point spreads will mean little. In the USFL, the best teams and the best quarterbacks tended to win and cover.
This brings us to the game that looks too easy, the first intercontinental MOTO of scab ball. MOTO, for the uninitiated, stands for Master of the Obvious. When everyone from Maine to Spain seems to be betting the same side of a game, it is a MOTO. More often than not, it is also a loser.
The MOTO, of course, is Dallas over the Jets. The line, as shaky as all the numbers this week, is now at 4 and rising. The planet has been blanketed with the news that the Cowboys have the best scabs; and with Tony Dorsett and Danny White crossing the line, they also have some solid stars. Want more convincing? Try the fact that 34 members of the present Dallas roster spent at least four weeks in training camp. They should have cohesion as well as glitter, and should rout the disorganized Jets. If this were a normal game, I wouldn't touch the Cowboys, for fear of the dreaded MOTO. But in these abnormal times, I'll cast my own shaky vote: Cowboys minus 4.
The Steelers also have a decent squad, and they gained a real leader when Mike Webster checked in. Quarterback Reggie Collier can scramble if the blocking breaks down. And it is hard to envision either Collier or Steve Bono being worse than Mark Malone's recent form. The Steelers are in Atlanta, but the road might not hurt them. In a strong union city, their scabs might actually take more abuse at home. I like the Steelers plus 1 1/2.
Gary Hogeboom will win no popularity contests after his brilliant explanation of the contract clause that drove him across the Colts' picket line: "I'm talking about real money here. This isn't a matter of just a few hundred thousand dollars." But for the moment, Hogeboom is a giant among scabs. With the rah-rah college coach angle thrown in, I'll take Ron Meyer's Colts at Buffalo in a pick 'em game.
Like Collier, Tony Robinson appears the kind of quarterback who can survive a makeshift line. Bobby Beathard is certainly the kind of personnel man I'd want scouring the country for free agents. And Gene Stallings of St. Louis doesn't possess credentials that prove he can put together a new team in a few weeks. Take the Redskins minus 4.
The 49ers' scabs have scrimmaged already; the Giants have barely worked out. If Joe Montana checks in, his duel with the heralded ex-Ivy star Jim Crocicchia will supplant the Cowboys-Jets game as the MOTO of the moment. Without Montana, the 49ers still seem farther along than New York. Take them in a pick 'em Monday night game.
Finally, there's the team that must venture into Seattle's Kingdome without me as a secret weapon. I think the Dolphins can manage. The offensive line is woeful and the rest of the lineup will remind no one of the Dolphins' perfect season. But there is one formula that seems to apply here. If you were choosing sides for a playground scrimmage and could pick one coach in all of football to build a decent team from scratch in two weeks, whom would you select? Take Don Shula and the Dolphins plus 2.