FOXBORO, Mass. -- The New England Patriots will send a message to the National Football League tonight: SOS.
When they play the Washington Redskins in their second exhibition game at Foxboro Stadium, the majority of the seats will be empty.
Their two home exhibition games last year drew 23,768 for the Cincinnati Bengals and 24,196 for the Atlanta Falcons.
That was before the team crashed to 1-15 last year and was struck by the Lisa Olson incident. The team has lost 22 of its past 23 games, including five exhibition games.
The Patriots hope to draw as many as 25,000 only because of a promotion honoring the military in which they gave away a couple of thousand tickets to military personnel and sold some others at half price.
The Patriots are having so much trouble selling tickets that NFL officials are worried that the Patriots could be the next team to call in the moving vans.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue is already planning to meet with Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld to study ways to try to get a new stadium for the Patriots.
"The time is here for the league to get into the stadium-building business," Tagliabue told the Boston Globe. "States and cities no longer can afford to finance and build stadiums. The money just isn't there. Times are tough."
He also told the Globe: "We are looking at putting together our own stadium-building division within the league. These would be people with the know-how and building expertise to get something done."
Tagliabue was long on rhetoric and short on details. A league spokesman said the commissioner was talking only about a concept and hadn't drawn up a plan.
Complicating the situation is Boston's status as a top 10 television market. The league gets more concerned when it is in danger of losing a top 10 market.
For example, when the Colts left Baltimore in March 1984, the league's position was that it was powerless to do anything because it lost the court case over the Raiders' move from Oakland to Los Angeles.
Nine months later, when the Eagles threatened to leave Philadelphia for Phoenix, the league no longer felt powerless. It swung into action, filed a lawsuit and helped the Eagles negotiate a new deal with the city that kept them from moving.
"I do not want to see the Patriots move," Tagliabue said. "Our owners do not want to see the Patriots move. Television doesn't want to see the Patriots move."
But the commissioner acknowledged that Foxboro Stadium, which lacks the revenue-producing frills such as adequate skyboxes and club seats and is in an inconvenient location, halfway between Boston and Providence, is a problem.
"The Patriots cannot compete financially in the stadium they're presently in, and there are other teams in the league that do not have great situations," Tagliabue said. "It could become a big problem for the league."
The Patriots are already a big problem, and it's difficult to imagine them getting a new stadium in Massachusetts or winning their fans back any time soon, because the team has such an image problem.
The Patriots appear locked in New England for two more seasons, because the league won't name the two expansion teams before next fall.
But once those teams are named, it wouldn't be surprising if Patriots owner Victor Kiam started negotiating with one or more of the cities that get left out.
There are two cities that have public funding for new stadiums -- Baltimore and St. Louis -- and a third, San Antonio, has a new one under construction.
Meanwhile, new coach Dick MacPherson is starting the long, slow rebuilding process. The team's 28-7 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the opening exhibition game didn't provide much hope of a quick turnaround.
The team has three defensive starters -- nose tackle Tim Goad, linebacker Johnny Rembert and cornerback Maurice Hurst -- holding out, and running back John Stephens, who's also holding out, said he wants to be traded.
MacPherson asked the fans to support the team "and help us get through this thing until the dark days of October, and there might be some sun there in November."
By then, the Celtics and Bruins will be playing, and nobody in New England likely will be looking for sunny football days.
Meanwhile, the Redskins figure to use this game as a tuneup. Coach Joe Gibbs hasn't been happy about the way his team has played and says it is behind schedule. A game against the Patriots may solve all that.
With the first cut to 60 players coming a week from Tuesday, it's a chance for rookies Dennis Ransom and James Jenkins, tight ends, and Jimmy Spencer, a cornerback, to win jobs.
It's also a shot for veterans such as linebacker Ravin Caldwell, defensive lineman Tracy Rocker, safety Clarence Vaughn and wide receivers Walter Stanley, Joe Johnson and Stephen Hobbs to show they deserve to stay.
"We'll try to play the guys and let them determine it on the field," Gibbs said.
The Redskins got some good news yesterday, when quarterback Mark Rypien said his stiff back felt better. Although the official decision won't be made until the pre-game warm-ups, trainer Bubba Tyer said Rypien should play.