BY JEFF GORDON
Post-Dispatch Online Sports Columnist
09/29/2004

Back in the day, "***** Week" triggered a call to arms at Rams Park. The long-standing Los Angeles-San Francisco rivalry came east when the Rams franchise fled Orange County.

"Forty-Niners versus the Rams, that was a big game when I was young, growing up," ***** coach Dennis Erickson said during a conference call with St. Louis media members. "That's just the way that it was."

The Niners owned the Rams during most of the 1990s. Then the Rams started retaliating for those beatings in '99, during their dramatic Super Bowl-winning season.

The last two seasons resulted in a spirited 2-2 split. But now the rivalry lacks the usual sizzle, since both teams are stumbling along at the bottom of the NFC West.

The Rams are 1-2 and desperate for a victory. The ***** (0-3) are in a state of emergency after that 34-0 spanking they took from the Seattle Seahawks.

"This is what I would say is just a flat (backside) kicking," Erickson said after that loss.

"The reality of it is we weren't competitive," general manager Terry Donahue said.

We're guessing that ESPN didn't envision this sort of match-up when it booked these teams for a showcase Sunday night game. The Rams are a good team playing badly these days.

And the Niners? They are just plain bad after letting veterans Terrell Owens, Jeff Garcia, Tai Streets, Garrison Hearst and others depart the offense.

Erickson has tried to foster high expectations despite those losses, but it hasn't been easy.

"You don't tell players that they are not going to be successful because this guy goes here, this guy goes there," he said. "You just don't do that. That's the attitude we've taken. We know that we have to and still are replacing players from the offensive football team, starting at quarterback, wide-out, the offensive front.

"But we do have those players in place. Now we just have to get better and continue to improve in those positions."

Perhaps looking to build some confidence for Sunday night's home game, the ***** renamed their stadium Monster Park. The only scary aspect of this team, though, is all the mistakes it has made through three weeks.

The ***** have lost five fumbles and thrown four interceptions. Their turnover ratio is minus-7. They have been penalized for 232 yards. They have allowed opponents to complete 68.2 percent of their passes.

In other words, they have struggled with many of the issues plaguing the Rams in this young season. Unlike the Rams, however, they have precious few offensive playmakers.

Running back Kevan Barlow appears to be legitimate; he rushed for 1,024 yards last season while sharing the load with Hearst. This season he has rushed for 212 yards and a 4.3 average in three games.

The team may get starting quarterback Tim Rattay back from the injured list this week. Fill-in Ken Dorsey has a grim 59.5 quarterback rating. He has suffered six sacks and lost a couple of fumbles.

The Niners also need to get receiver Brandon Lloyd (groin strain), center Jeremy Newberry (knee surgery) and tackle Kwame Harris (ankle, knee injuries) back on the field. With those guys missing, San Francisco couldn't run or pass on the Seahawks.

"We've been beat up pretty good from the start, but everybody in this league gets beat up," Erickson said. "You just have to make that adjustment and do whatever you can personnel-wise, whatever you do with Xs and Os according to the personnel that you have.

"It's been a tough start for us. Normally, you see something like this halfway through a season or even further. We had the injuries earlier. Hopefully we'll get some of these guys back as time goes on. We'll be playing some of our seconds and they're starting right now. That's just the way it goes."

And it is NOT going very well.