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The Broncos and Rams played another thriller as the new NFL season beckoned

If by some strange harmonic convergence you've been possessed to keep track of the NFL exhibition season, you might have noticed that the series between the Los Angeles Rams and the Denver Broncos now stands even: The Rams won abroad (28-27 in London), and the Broncos won Stateside (24-20 in Anaheim last Saturday night). Anyone for a rubber match in Reykjavik?

Actually, we bring this up only because plenty of folks think that third game will come this January, in San Diego, in Super Bowl XXII. O.K., O.K., it's a loooong shot, but then again, until a couple of weeks ago you didn't know Irwindale from a hole in the ground, right?

And who's to say? Both these teams boast tall, surfer-faced, MX-armed quarterbacks: Denver has Johnny Dangerous, John Elway; the Rams have Jim Everett, who, strangely enough, isn't from the Canadian Football League. The Broncos may have the best four wide receivers in captivity. The Rams still have the best running back on earth in Eric Dickerson. The Broncos were at the Big Bowl last year. The Rams have loitered at the door the last four years and now may have a ticket in the form of ex-Air Coryell traffic controller Ernie Zampese, who is teaching the Rams that third-and-eight isn't just another way to say draw play.

This is not to say there aren't a few chuckholes that need to be paved along the way. The Rams, especially, have had a few shocks since last season, generated by the following:

•Charles White, former USC Heisman winner, who was apprehended Aug. 21 in the middle of a field in Brea, Calif. "incoherent," the police report said, yelling, and brandishing a trash-can lid Don Quixote-style. This means two strikes for White, who admitted to having a cocaine addiction while with the Cleveland Browns. Still, the Rams are giving him another chance, provided that he meets regularly with a Pyrex beaker for the rest of his career. It didn't help matters that he dropped two passes Saturday, one on fourth-and-five that killed the Rams' last chance to win. All in all, not one of Chuck's best weeks.

•LeRoy Irvin, reluctant Ram All-Pro cornerback, who wants to be traded so bad he's memorizing plane schedules out of town. The Rams aren't biting. "It's like somebody in the front office told me, 'It was your misfortune to be drafted by the Rams.' " Missed fortune is more like it. Across town, Raider cornerback Mike Haynes ($775,000 base salary) makes thrice as much per year as Irvin ($250,000).

In fact, when you look at the numbers and listen to the complaints, you get the idea that the Rams are the Charles Schwab of the NFL. According to newspaper reports, 17 of the 24 Rams starters make less than their Raiders counterparts. "It's one thing for a player to think he's worth more," says Irvin. "It's another thing when outsiders look at the situation and say, 'Damn, what the hell is going on?' " Or, as Hacksaw Reynolds said on ESPN the other night, the Rams are "just cheap."

•Madame Ram herself, Georgia Frontiere. First there was a snafu with California Angels owner Gene Autry about the use of Anaheim Stadium for the season opener, ultimately solved by Pete Rozelle's soothing phone call. Then, word was going around that the L.A. Coliseum was going to try to entice Georgia to come back from Anaheim now that the Raiders are singing their Irwindale anthem, "Who needs L.A.?" Don't hold your breath. And then there is the rumor that when husband Dominic Frontiere gets out of the Big House, which could happen in four weeks, he'll get the Peter Holm treatment: divorce papers. Tie a yellow ribbon.

•Dickerson, the self-styled World's Most Unhappy Superstar, whom life has continued to stiff-arm this off-season. For one thing, he was named in a paternity suit by his former girlfriend, Rea Ann Silva. For another, he hates his contract, which pays him $682,000 this year. For a third, he's suing his former agent, Jack Rodri, who negotiated the contract for him. Somebody must not know how to work a calculator—an estimated 40 guys in the NFL make more than Dickerson. Elway, who's about to sign a $12 million, six-year deal, will make almost three times as much. On the Raiders, Dickerson would be the seventh-highest-paid player (eighth if you count the leftfielder for the Kansas City Royals, and he's only a temp). No wonder Eric's red. This is a guy who's on schedule to become the NFL's alltime leading rusher.

All of which prompted Dickerson to say, "I feel like a stallion who once upon a time had spirit. But once you break a horse's spirit, the horse is no good." If that sounds as if Dickerson was figuring to phone in his performance this year, he wasn't. The stallion has been as brilliant as ever. He got 62 yards in the first half on Saturday and didn't even steam his goggles. Said Rams coach John Robinson, "Dickerson looks as strong and quick right now as I've ever seen him."

Another thing: Dickerson bought a house in Malibu Hills, which he likes, but which gives him a three-hour daily commute to Anaheim and back, which he hates, which left him deciding where to rent a hotel suite near Rams Park for the season. Decisions, decisions.

And another: All this talk about Air Zampese and the new fly-boy Rams was starting to get under his scalp. "People are talking like we're going to throw it 50 times and run it 10," Dicker-son says. Chill, says coach Z: "My goal this season is to put a little doubt in the mind of the defense—and to give the ball to Dickerson."

Still, there will be, yes, passing in Anaheim this year, and that's where Mount Everett, Mr. Tall and Tan, comes in. Why, with Everett, the Rams may even throw on third-and-20. "Ernie has us believing in ourselves," Everett said after his 14-for-22, 161-yard, three-quarter performance Saturday. "We used to have a third-and-five, and we'd say, 'Oh, no. What are we going to do, run the draw?' Now we're not afraid to throw on third-and-five." Or, as Robinson said, "We don't have to play around the quarterback anymore." After watching the Rams finish dead last in the league in passing the last two years, that will be like seeing Al Davis in pastels.

As for the Broncos, the last time we checked in with them they were losing 39-20 to the Giants in Super Bowl XXI. Since then they've been quiet, almost retiring, you might say. Tom Jackson, the team's outside linebacker and spiritual guru, retired. Rubin Carter, the aging nosetackle, retired. Steve Foley, the sort-of-aging free safety, retired. And, most surprisingly, Louis Wright, the team's 12-year, hardly-aging-at-all, possible Hall of Fame left cornerback, retired. Or did he?

What Wright did was deliver a two-line letter to Broncos owner Pat Bowlen announcing his retirement; then he refused to talk about it. You just don't do that in Denver, where the Broncos make Page One of the newspapers almost as often as Today's Weather. Speculation ran rampant. Among the many published theories was one that said Wright was steamed that Bronco coach Dan Reeves had moved problem-child cornerback Mark Haynes from the right side to Wright's spot on the left. As it turned out, Wright's reasoning was hardly so complicated. "I want to retire," he told SI. "I had heard so many retirement speeches lately that I just couldn't bear sitting through another—even my own." Nothing with Haynes? "No." Nothing with Reeves? "No, no." No way you'll come back? "No way."

That last answer really is too bad, if you've seen how Denver has played defense in the early exhibition season—giving up 28 points to the Rams in London, 28 more to a Marino-less Miami on Aug. 24. Or if you've watched Haynes. who was burned for two touchdown passes by Miami and was called for two offsides and a holding penalty. The town practically jumped down his esophagus. One cartoon in the Rocky Mountain News had Haynes lying on the goal line with a welcome mat across his chest. Haynes isn't talking much these days, either, so nobody knows how he feels, but against the Rams on Saturday, he was far better.

Besides, the Broncos don't think they have a problem. "I guess I have more confidence in our defense than the people who supposedly know," says Reeves. "Maybe I'll be proven wrong."

If he is, if the Orange Crush defense turns to slush, as it began to last year—yielding 34 points a game in the last four games of the regular season—there's always, always, Elway and a set of receivers that could save any day: Give up 39, get 40. The oldest and wisest (and slowest) is the Blade, Steve Watson. The other three are the Munchkins: Mark Jackson, Vance Johnson and first-round draft choice Ricky Nattiel of Florida. Nattiel has been unreal, catching passes in every game, returning punts and kicks with silky smoothness and generally making Elway feel like the luckiest creature this side of Spuds MacKenzie. "I've thought about it," Elway says, starry-eyed. "Hail Mary on first down. Hail Mary on second down. Hail Mary on third down...."

Elway-to-Nattiel could become as frightening to the nation as one more Jim McMahon commercial. Particularly sublime was a 53-yard laser beam Nattiel caught against Miami. Elway threw it as hard as he could, and Nattiel, shifting from first through overdrive, lay out and caught it one-handed. "It's the first time I can remember throwing a ball as hard as I can," Elway said, "and not having it be overthrown." That's sobering.

Nattiel was at it again on Saturday against the Rams—he had five more catches—and Elway and his trusty backup, Gary Kubiak, who may very well be the best quarterback in the league that we never see, made it a 27-for-36 day in all. But Everett wasn't dusted. He hit on 14 of 22 passes and was leading 17-7 when he came out of the game. And guess what? They threw it 30 times and ran it 30 times. Last year the Rams ran almost 200 more times than they threw.

All of which means next to nothing for either team, except that when it was over, the regular season was one game closer. "I'm ready for it," says Elway. "I don't like playing for nothing."

If the Broncos can hammer out their defensive dents by the time the games do mean something, this team could really be something. And if the Rams can figure out their fiscal failures and soothe their stars, that rubber match might happen. Even if the Rams should bomb, at least there will be some consolation: They won't have to drive all the way to Irwindale to do it.



L.A. is testing a new air game, but Robinson can always launch the levitating Dickerson.



Haynes, who has been taking a beating in the Denver papers, held his own on Saturday.



A breakaway by Gene Lang may be one way, but for Denver the best way is still Elway.



Frontiere's troops have been perturbed by the puny payroll.