By Jim Thomas

MIAMI In three exhibition games, coach Scott Linehan hadn't seen the Rams' first-team offense score a touchdown. But apparently he'd seen enough.

In a surprise move, Linehan rested nine offensive starters in the Rams' exhibition finale against Miami, starting only rookie tight end Joe Klopfenstein and fullback Paul Smith among the regulars. The same held true on defense, where the entire starting unit was given the night off in what was a 29-9 loss to the Dolphins.

NFL coaches traditionally cut back on the play of their starters in the final exhibition game, for fear of injury. But in the 12 seasons the Rams have played in St. Louis, it's the first time basically all of the starters have been given the night off.

"We had a very treacherous training camp," Linehan explained after Thursday's game. "We pushed them hard all the way up through the start of our preseason games. We were in pads, we hit a lot, we did a lot of 9-on-7."

That, plus the fear of injury prompted Linehan to give the starters Thursday off. Orlando Pace's hip, ankle and knee injury in practice the week following the exhibition opener against Indianapolis was a wake-up call for Linehan. And so was Torry Holt's bruised sternum suffered the following week against Houston.

"I just felt like at that point we were going to work them in that third game pretty good (in Kansas City), and just make sure we don't have ourselves in a position where we get somebody possibly injured in the last game," Linehan said. "So that was the decision I made."

For the most part, the entire Rams roster played like it was taking the night off. Exhibition or not, the Rams closed August with an uninspired effort. After taking a 6-0 first-quarter lead, the Rams were outscored 29-3 the rest of the way.

They finished the preseason with a 1-3 record and 60 points, the lowest total scored by the Rams in 12 exhibition seasons in St. Louis.

So bring on the Denver Broncos and the season opener on Sept. 10. Linehan said he wanted to concentrate on the bottom half of the roster in the exhibition finale, and he wasn't kidding.

What conclusions can we draw from the play of the starters over the preseason? Very few. Throughout the entire preseason, the starting units on offense and defense played the equivalent of one full game. In the first three games, the Rams' starters were outscored 27-9.

Not even backup quarterback Gus Frerotte played on Thursday at Dolphin Stadium. Ryan Fitzpatrick got the start at quarterback, with Tony Fisher at running back and Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald at wide receiver.

Fitzpatrick apparently was told during the week that he would start against the Dolphins. But after a normal work routine in the practice week, the starters didn't know for sure that they'd be sitting out the game until Thursday morning.

If Fitzpatrick was looking for a knockout blow in his battle for the No. 3 job, he didn't get it Thursday. Rather it might be a case of Dave Ragone losing out because of self-inflicted wounds.

The Rams managed only a pair of Jeff Wilkins' field goals in the first half with Fitzpatrick at quarterback, and one of them came after a Miami turnover gave the Rams the ball on the Dolphins 20.

"I didn't play as well as I would've liked to, but I made some plays out there, put some points on the board," Fitzpatrick said. "I would've liked to get in the end zone a few times. But they did a good job blitzing us and keeping us off-balance. They came after us pretty good."

Fitzpatrick completed seven of 14 passes for 94 yards and was sacked three times before giving way to Ragone. But if Fitzpatrick was so-so, Ragone was downright awful. Ragone went zero for seven passing, with one of those tosses returned 35 yards for a touchdown by Deke Cooper. Ragone also lost a fumble on a sack.

"I missed a throw early on third down that would've helped us," Ragone said. "We kind of took some shots after that and it just didn't go my way."

Ragone said he was more nervous than usual before Thursday's game and now must wait for a phone call either Friday or Saturday that could decide his football future.

"I would feel a lot better if I helped my case out, but I really didn't," Ragone said. "So I'm just going to expect the worst and hope for the best."

With Joey Harrington starting in place of Daunte Culpepper at quarterback for Miami, the Dolphins' first series ended when Rams linebacker Dexter Coakley stripped the ball from wide receiver Derek Hagan after a two-yard pass reception. Middle linebacker Jamal Brooks recovered the fumble for the St. Louis at the Miami 20 with 10 minutes 17 seconds remaining the first quarter. Three plays later, Wilkins kicked a 31-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.

The Rams' best drive with Fitzpatrick at quarterback came on the next series, a 42-yard march culminating in a 49-yard field goal by Wilkins late in the first quarter