Trent Green was able to stand on the St. Louis Rams' sideline Sunday for the first time this season as he watched his team exorcise the demons of 17 straight losses to the San Francisco 49ers. Still, he admitted, though he was thrilled for his teammates and coaches, he often felt like an invisible man.

Green, the man the Rams had counted on to quarterback them into the playoffs this year, has been left behind, the victim of a late hit in the next-to-last preseason game that blew out his left knee and ended his 1999 season. Now, he shows up at the Rams' training complex every day for the arduous and painful rehabilitation that should get him back on the field next year, but who knows in what capacity.

In Green's absence, Kurt Warner has come out of obscurity to lead the Rams to a 4-0 record and is the leading passer in the NFL with 14 touchdown throws. Green, a St. Louis native, says he'd like to believe he could have put up many of the same astounding numbers, and "I think about it every day driving in and every night driving home."

"It's been very hard coming in, signing a contract, bringing in all these people, coming back to quarterback the hometown team and then having this happen," said Green, who came from nowhere himself last year in replacing Gus Frerotte as the starter in Washington. After throwing 23 touchdown passes for the Redskins, he signed a four-year, $16 million free agent deal with St. Louis.

"There were high aspirations and big expectations for the whole team," Green said the other day after a seven-hour rehab session. "I just haven't been a part of it. Other than Kurt, I'm as happy as anyone this has happened. He and I took different roads to get here, but I know he's paid his dues and it's great to see someone who's done that get an opportunity. For years, I never got the opportunity either. I know what he's been through, and I'm so happy for him."

Warner, in turn, feels for Green.

"One thing I don't ever want to forget is that he's as big a part of this as I am," Warner said. "I do have great sympathy for him. He could have done the same thing. He had his opportunity last year, and I know he's happy I'm getting the opportunity now. I know what Trent means to this team."

Coach Dick Vermeil said he hasn't even begun to think about what he'll do when Green gets healthy and he has two quarterbacks clearly capable of starting and starring. Green has the big contract; Warner is playing for the league minimum of $254,000.

"I'll worry about it next year," Vermeil said. "I like that problem. And I'd like Trent to feel part of this. It's hard for a guy who's dying to play and he can't. He wants us to win, but he's not emotionally involved. I'd love to have him more involved."

Green is mostly involved in the rehab, virtually a full-time job. He initially lost 25 pounds down to 192 after the reconstructive surgery to repair his medial collateral ligament. The anterior cruciate ligament was not as badly damaged as first diagnosed, and his doctors are now saying he'll be able to start focusing on football by February or March.

His goal is to be back to normal by spring minicamps. He has been making decent progress, despite the constant dull pain "like a toothache that won't go away."

He has no idea what next season will bring, but knows full well "as the team has more and more success, I guess it will become more of an issue. But it's nothing I can control. All I can control is my knee. I'll do what I've done every year since I've been in the league--work as hard as possible and prepare myself to play as if I was going to be the starter."