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Full Moon Football

The NFL is renowned for its marketing abilities. Textbooks have been written about the power of the league's publicity machine.

Under no circumstances, however, is the NFL conducting a campaign with promotional tie-ins to Halloween. But there are indications to the contrary, as the strange and bizarre have become hauntingly commonplace.

The only things missing from this latest collection of weird tales are organ music and the moans of lost souls. Demons appear to be roaming the sideline and taking possession of the minds of some players and coaches.

Consider these tales from the crypt:

+ Pittsburgh linebacker Greg Lloyd doesn't look like Linda Blair, but he had the nasty disposition of her Exorcist character in Sunday's game between the Steelers and Jaguars. On the first play, Lloyd rammed Jacksonville receiver Keenan McCardell in the chest with a late hit. McCardell, who had the wind knocked out of him, confronted Lloyd after the game, and Lloyd told him the hit was because McCardell had called his home in Pittsburgh and threatened his family.

McCardell denied making a call.

"This is a fraternity," McCardell said. "Nothing but a few players play this game. Why would we even jeopardize somebody's family? That's so low. He's as low as he is right now.

"That ain't nothing but the devil working."

+ The evil spirits had a grip on Indianapolis quarterback Jim Harbaugh and NBC analyst and former Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly. At a production meeting the day before Sunday's Colts-Chargers game, Harbaugh asked to speak to Kelly alone. What happened next depends on who you talk to, but the two apparently got into some kind of struggle, which resulted in Harbaugh fracturing a small bone in his right (throwing) hand.

Harbaugh apparently was upset because Kelly called him a "baby," on a cable show, and said the Colts quarterback "overdramatized" his injuries.

Asked if he regretted the incident, Harbaugh said: "Yeah, I regret that I have a crack in one of the bones in my hand. Coming in the middle of the season, it is not good timing."

+ Minnesota coach Dennis Green has spun a frightening yarn about career suicide. In Green's recently released autobiography, No Room For Crybabies, he details a plan to sue two of the team's owners if they don't sell him their shares of the team. Green believes those owners contacted Lou Holtz about replacing him last season.

Green said what he wrote was just him "thinking out loud." Then, after the Vikings' victory at Houlihan's Stadium, he did get loud, shouting at a Minnesota reporter.

"I was thinking out loud," Green said. "It was clearly spelled out that I was. I never said anything about what I would do. I said what I might do. I said, maybe I should think about this. I think it was unfair for the public to think Dennis Green definitively said something. There's a big difference between might, maybe, think about it and will."

+ New Orleans coach Mike Ditka and St. Louis coach Dick Vermeil are involved in one of those Twilight Zone-type stories about former greats trying to recapture their past. The only difference is they didn't use magic potions, and without magic, they're miserable.

Ditka went on NBC's Saturday Night Live, and as part of a skit that revived the famous "Da Bears" comedy sketches, told a national audience, "We s---."

"What am I supposed to do?" Ditka said. "Be politically correct and say, "Well, we're so-so.' We stink on offense. And that's what I was talking about. I wasn't talking about our defense. That's just the way it is. And that's a reflection of me more than anybody because that's my job. I'm the head coach."

Tuesday, Ditka staged a terse media conference. He snapped at reporters' questions and gave one-word answers.

"Not very much fun, is it?" Ditka snarled.

Vermeil has not been as testy, but he is threatening to sue the company that manufactures radio helmets for the NFL. About 20 plays were botched by the Rams Sunday because the signal from the coaches is cutting in and out on quarterback Tony Banks.

"It's the frickin' helmet thing. Guys, it's driving us crazy," Vermeil said. "The company that builds them, I'm going to sue the bastards here pretty quick. It's costing me a lot of yards and a lot of things."

The evil from all of these strange tales might be completely cleared up by next week. The league's top exorcist, commissioner Paul Tagliabue, is involved in a couple of the situations.

Lloyd, who reportedly told Bill Cowher Wednesday that the alleged McCardell call was not a threat but a trash-talking "dis," should be fined by the league sometime this week. The person reportedly called and identified himself as McCardell.

"The troubling thing is you're mixing something that happens off the field with what takes place on the field. That shouldn't happen," said Tagliabue, who added if Lloyd had concerns about an alleged telephone call he should have relayed them to NFL security.

Tagliabue also has intervened in the Minnesota situation, asking Green and the owners to settle their disputes privately and, failing that, to turn to the league arbitration. It still appears Green may be out of a job after this season.

"I don't know what Dennis is dreaming about here," Vikings vice chairman Philip Maas said. "My personal opinion is that he shot himself in the foot. I know if one of my employees did that, he'd be gone tomorrow. I don't know that anybody's riled up enough to want to do something now, but I think there would be a definite fallout in support for Dennis after this season."

Harbaugh and Kelly said they met the day after their altercation and resolved their differences, but Harbaugh will lose an estimated $147,000 for each game he misses because of his non-football injury.

As for Ditka and Vermeil, well, the demon that possesses them is not altogether uncommon. It's called a desire to win, and it always will be a part of their makeup.

"I saw Mike earlier and he said the part he forgot was the mental part and how agonizing defeat is," Fox analyst John Madden said. "He remembered the physical part, and he judged if he could do the job on the physical part, but he forgot the mental part.

"You only get in it to win. The overriding thing is that when you picture yourself coming back, you picture yourself coming back and winning. When you don't, it's tough. I've talked to both of them and they can't even sleep."

Trick or treat.

_ Information from other news services was used in this report.