Henry Ellard was watching the Rams’ Philadelphia fiasco on television Sunday when a comment by analyst Hank Stram caught his ear.
“I understand that . . . Ellard does not want to return kicks,” Stram said, “and that’s . . . why he hasn’t signed.”
Ellard sat bolt upright.
“What!” he exclaimed. “Where did that come from?”
Later, calmly but emphatically, Ellard said: “That’s something I like to do, is return punts. I don’t know where it came from. Maybe (Ram negotiator John) Shaw said something like that, misunderstood or something. To me, punt returning is bread and butter, something I enjoy doing . . . running with the ball.”
Nobody ever did it better than Ellard, who holds the National Football League career record with an average of 13.51 yards on punt returns. And it certainly beats what he’s doing now--mostly nothing.
As summer fades into fall, Ellard sits at home, a free agent without a contract. Stram’s point was that the Rams needed him not only as a pass receiver but as a punt returner, considering that they are averaging only 6.8 yards a return with rookie Mickey Sutton this season.
Shaw, the Rams’ vice president-finance, seemed to be under the impression that Ellard’s presence wouldn’t help if he wanted no part of punts.
“His agent had said that in one of our negotiating sessions,” Shaw said Monday.
But Ellard’s agent, Mike Blatt of Stockton, responded: “I never said that.”
Blatt thought a moment and added that there might have been a misunderstanding.
“Shaw told me once: ‘To us, Henry is just an average receiver and his value to us is as a punt returner.’ I said: ‘If you just need a punt returner, why not get some other guy to do it?’ ”
Ellard added: “One thing (Shaw) tried to do: ‘OK, Henry, we’ll pay you an extra $25,000 if you lead the team in punt returns.’ It was a gimme clause. We couldn’t believe it. I guess he felt he was doing us a favor because the first three years I wasn’t paid for punt returns.”
What we may have here, folks, is a failure to communicate.
Blatt said that Ram owner Georgia Frontiere doesn’t know “what Shaw is doing.”
He became convinced of that, he said: “When Georgia Frontiere’s mother, who still lives in Fresno, called up Henry’s mom and wanted to know why Henry hadn’t signed.”
Blatt’s proposal to clear up any confusion is to have a meeting among Frontiere, Coach John Robinson, Shaw, Ellard and himself “so that everybody gets the same message.” A similar meeting helped to resolve an impasse in signing Eric Dickerson last season.
Blatt proposed that to Shaw a week ago, but quoted Shaw as saying: “It hasn’t come to that yet.”
But perhaps by Monday it had come to that. Robinson said: “Hey, if I thought we could work something out, I’d be up there (in Fresno) in half an hour. We’ve got to break this logjam some way.”
Said Shaw: “I really can’t tell you anything at this point.”
Negotiations are at a standstill. Blatt is asking for a $2-million package, including bonus, over four years. Shaw is offering $1.2 million for four years.
Blatt doesn’t think his demand is unreasonable, since 17 other wide receivers in the NFL are earning $400,000 or more this season, with contracts escalating in subsequent seasons. “And only two of them return punts,” he said.
He said other NFL executives told him: “ ‘You’re right in the ball park,’ and some said, ‘You aren’t asking enough.’ ”
Blatt said that Shaw had offered $300,000 a year plus incentives that could increase the figure to $340,000 or $350,000, “if he did what he did in ’85 again.”
In ’85, Ellard led the Rams with 54 receptions, the most by a Ram wide receiver in 20 years. For his three-year career, Ellard has gained an average of 13.6 yards every time he touched the ball, running, returning or receiving.
“This is a real good example of why free agency is so logical,” Blatt said.
Under the collective bargaining agreement, which expires Aug. 31, 1987, a so-called free agent can’t approach another club without permission, and even then his old club would receive specified compensation in draft choices for his rights.
That’s why Ellard is the only veteran free agent of prominence remaining unsigned in the NFL this season. The NFL Players Assn. has indicated that true free agency will be a goal in negotiations for a new agreement.
Blatt said that Shaw mentioned two weeks ago that he was working on a trade for Ellard to “a losing team east of the Mississippi” and wanted to know if Ellard was agreeable to it.
“He just wanted to force Henry into saying, ‘Gee, I don’t want to go to Buffalo, I’ll sign,’ ” Blatt said. “I called around. No one knew of a trade. His (Shaw’s) game didn’t work.
“I think he’s trying to use Henry’s negotiations for next year’s negotiations: ‘Hey, look what we did to Henry.’ He’s just trying to bury him.”
Michael Duberstein of the NFLPA agreed that Ellard may just be a pawn in a bigger game. He said: “With negotiations coming up, one of (management’s) tactics is to make players fearful, but instead it gets ‘em enraged.”
Ellard said: “I haven’t given up hope yet. It’s still too early in the season. Even if I have to sit out the year, it’s best for me rather than to go in and play for what they’re offering me, because I know I wouldn’t be happy. It might even take away from my performance, and I don’t want that to happen.”
Ellard has taken up golf.
“I’ve played only five or six times,” he said. “I average about 108, but it’s just relaxing to go out and hit the ball . . . take out my frustration. It clears the mind.”
He spends time at home with his wife Lenora and Henry Jr., 1 1/2, but his psyche is on “tilt.”
“I’ll think: ‘I know I’m not supposed to be here. Henry, you should be playing football right now.’
“I get on my wife’s nerves. I walk around the house, just bored to death, knowing I should be doing something, ‘cause I know I should be playing football. I can’t just sit around the house. I have to be doing something to keep myself active.”
He works out almost every day at his old school, Fresno State. Star quarterback Kevin Sweeney, son of Coach Jim Sweeney, throws to Ellard after practice.
Last Saturday night, Ellard was around the bench for Fresno’s game against Louisiana Tech. He saw Stephen Baker, the Bulldogs’ spectacular wide receiver, make two long, leaping touchdown catches and return a punt to set up another--things that Ellard thinks he should be doing about now.
“When I was in the locker room with ‘em, it was like I was getting ready to play myself,” he said. "(I had) butterflies (and) a serious look on my face.”
Kevin Sweeney said of Ellard: “He’s ready to play, I know that.”
Said Jim Sweeney: “Kevin would rather throw to Henry than eat filet mignon. He throws all kinds of routes, so we see him a lot. He loves football. He’s dying to get back to play. I think it’s a shame that he’s not playing.”
Baker said: “When he’s on the sidelines, it pumps me up. He’s one of the main reasons I came to this university. I’d heard of his reputation and I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
Ellard hasn’t been to Rams Park since the end of last season so he hasn’t met Dick Coury, the new quarterback coach who is trying to fire up the passing game. Ron Brown is his contact with the team.
“Probably once a week I give him a call,” Ellard said. “We talk about my situation more than anything and how they’ve started using more three-wideout (formations) and how they’re trying to make things happen in the passing attack.
“It looks very promising, like something is ready to happen. When I watch it, it gets me excited, like it’s about ready to take off and bloom out, and I want to be part of that.”
Ellard met Steve Bartkowski once when he came down to Anaheim for the practice game against the 49ers.
“I met him out in the parking lot. I was talking to some of the players and he came by and LeRoy (Irvin) introduced me to him. He said he was excited and anxious to get me back, and I told him I was just as excited to get back myself.”
Bartkowski injured his knee Sunday, so for him, it may not matter for a while.
Ellard has not talked to Shaw about his situation.
“ ‘Hi, how you doin’,’ that’s about it,” he said. “I talked to Ron (Brown) about it and he said, ‘It would probably just get you upset.’ ”
But he would like to ask Shaw about the deal for quarterback Jim Everett two weeks ago.
“How long did it take them to negotiate Everett’s contract?” Ellard asked. “A couple of days?
“It’s good for the Rams to get a good quarterback like that, but for them to get him settled in and still have me sitting out and not getting anything worked out with my contract was kind of disappointing, (considering) how long mine’s been dragging on.”
As Ellard watches the Rams play the Eagles, Brown drops a pass.
“Oh, Ron,” Ellard groans.
Told that the Rams are averaging only five yards on punt returns (before Sunday), Ellard says: “Is that right? Oh, gosh, I didn’t know that.”
And as Sutton goes back to field a punt, Ellard mutters: “C’mon, Sutton.”
He has never met Sutton, either, nor Steve Busick, the new linebacker acquired from Denver who was injured Sunday.
“Number 53, who’s he?” Ellard asks.
Long after the issue is settled, Brown catches a touchdown pass from Steve Dils, who has succeeded the injured Bartkowski. Ellard applauds.
“Hey, Ronnie! Was that a seven route? Yeah, a nice seven route.”
Later, Bobby Duckworth, who now plays Ellard’s position, scores another.
“Awright, Bobby!” Ellard says.
Then, Mike Young gets one.
“Nice. Make (the defender) think he’s running a fade and come back underneath. Nice.”
But the last image Ellard sees is that of another Ram receiver, Chuck Scott, left lying on the turf as the game ends. Overall, it’s been a rotten day for the Rams, who have lost, 34-20.
“Things didn’t go well for them today at all,” Ellard says. “You hate to see something like that happen. I played for the Rams and still may play for ‘em.”
Then he expresses the obvious thought, that maybe the game showed that the Rams need Henry Ellard.
“I hate to see it, especially to see somebody get hurt, but yet it kind of helps me,” he says.