Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
15 Sep 2007
by Mike Tanier
Twenty years ago, a players strike turned the football world upside down. Owners and coaches fought with players. Players sparred with one another. Fans battled picketers outside of stadiums. When NFL owners fielded teams of strikebreakers -- so-called "replacements" -- bartenders became quarterbacks and Hall of Famers became picketers. If your memories of 1987 are cloudy or your knowledge of the replacement games comes from Keanu Reeves movies, then you probably don't know very much about the craziest, most contentious month in the history of professional football.
About six months ago, Aaron suggested that I write a Too Deep Zone article or short series commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1987 replacement games. I tentatively agreed to write a three-part series on the subject. After doing some preliminary research, I discovered that the story of the 1987 strike was just too big to be covered in a couple of glib articles. There were too many storylines, too many memorable characters, too many hard-to-believe events. By the time it was finished, my "series of articles" was well over 50 pages -- more like a short book than a long article.
In the next few weeks, we'll run a couple of excerpts from that short book, now titled Year of the Scab: The True Story of the 1987 Replacement Games. If you want to read the whole book, you can download it from the FO store for the low price of six dollars. You also can get it as a free gift by becoming (or already being) a subscriber to the Premium DVOA Database.
"Year of the Scab" is funny, shocking, poignant and revealing. It's the story of three teams -- the Bears, Cowboys and Eagles -- and how they coped with a contentious, all-out war between labor and management. The cast features a mix of NFL legends and relative unknowns: Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, Mike Hohensee, Buddy Ryan, John Spagnola, Tex Schramm, Randy White and many others. The sweeping narrative covers dozens of events that seem almost implausible now: Cowboys fans booing Dorsett, Reggie White accosting a bus driver, Jim Harbaugh shooting Bears execs with a squirt gun and much more. You'll read about a near riot outside Veterans Stadium and learn the rags-to-riches-to-rags story of a replacement quarterback who couldn't escape Ditka's doghouse.
The following excerpt covers the first week of the strike.
They came from construction sites. They came from graduate programs and unemployment lines. They came from Arena Football League side jobs and from semipro leagues scattered across the country.
Lionel Vital was running a grocery store in Louisiana before the strike. He became the starting running back for the Redskins. John Reeves was a 37-year old NFL veteran who started some games for the Eagles and Bengals in the 1970s. He had been tooling around the "minors" -- Canada, the USFL -- since 1981. He became the Buccaneers' starting quarterback.
The Giants signed a dozen players from a semipro team called the Connecticut Giants. Some of them had USFL experience, but a team spokesman was skeptical about their talent level. "I dunno," he said as the team rounded out its roster. "We have a lot of 300-pound defensive tackles."
The numbers suggested that there were plenty of jobs to be had. On the first day of the strike, the Redskins announced that they had 50 verbal commitments, enough to field a team and even make a few cuts. The Eagles and Colts had 40, the Steelers 35, the Bears just 21. But the Seahawks and Vikings got a late start and didn't have enough players to begin practice sessions. And teams knew that verbal commitments didn't mean that the players would show up, or show up in anything approaching football shape.
Odds favored the dreamers. Jim Zorn, 37 and playing in the CFL, inquired about coming back to the Seahawks. He wound up in Tampa as Reeves' backup. Some NFL teams tried to raid Canadian rosters, as overzealous execs forgot or ignored the no-tampering policy shared by the league. Still, teams had their limits. Several high school players contacted Falcons exec Ken Herock and asked for tryouts. They were refused.
A handful of veterans joined the replacements, some of them injured players seeking medical treatment, others simply unwilling to strike for a variety of reasons. Raiders quarterback Marc Wilson, trying desperately to restart a fading career, couldn't afford to look a starting opportunity in the mouth. "I have terrible feelings about it. I've been up all night. I'm very supportive of the union and their issues," he said. He crossed the picket line. Mark Gastineau, a former Jets superstar on his last legs, crossed the picket line. All-Pro Cardinals safety Leonard Smith crossed the picket line. There were whispers about other big names, including Joe Montana, but there were few other defections in the first days of the strike.
Veterans and replacements alike took their share of abuse from striking players. In New Orleans, linebacker James Haynes left the picket line to bang on the hood of a car carrying two teammates who crossed the line while on injured reserve. In Green Bay, defender Charles Martin threw an egg at a replacement player's car, earning an arrest and a $99 fine (he claimed he just dropped the egg.) In Los Angeles, the back seat of a van was shattered as replacement players were bussed to the practice facility. Glass sprayed replacement receiver Samuel Johnson, but no one was hurt. A picketing player said it was an accident: "We were just shaking the car. Nobody's out here to do anything violent." At the Jets' practice facility, striking players hid five dozen eggs in baby carriages and threw them at replacements, including Gastineau.
Not all of the conflicts were so dramatic. In Cleveland, safety Ray Ellis threw himself in front of strength coach Dave Redding's car. "You're the first car we've ambushed," he joked. But many were tense. In Kansas City, strikers Dino Hackett and Paul Coffman stood in the bed of a pickup truck holding rifles. "We want to know where the scabs are," they shouted. Hackett later admitted that the guns weren't loaded and apologized for the incident. Meanwhile, striking linebacker Jack Del Rio got in a shoving match with Chiefs legend Otis Taylor as Taylor, a front office employee, escorted a replacement player to camp. There were similar incidents in other cities: eggs, broken windows, slashed tires, minor fisticuffs.
The rancor that was absent in August came to the forefront as veterans watched camp casualties and USFL refugees -- plus some traitorous teammates -- file into practice facilities to take their jobs. In New Orleans, cornerback Dave Waymer watched fellow veteran Steve Korte leave camp after receiving treatment for a separated shoulder. "He's nothing but a scab," Waymer said. "He's always talking about team unity. What kind of unity does this show?" Korte later responded: "I'm sure I'm not one of the most popular guys around right now. But it's a decision I had to make, and I have to stand up for what I believe. I have a family to support and I have a business to run." Korte said he couldn't afford medical treatment out-of-pocket, but Saints player rep Hoby Brenner paid for his own medical expenses, while defensive end Jumpy Geathers hobbled along the picket line on crutches.
In Chicago, it took the Bears a few extra days to assemble a full roster. On September 25, a charter bus containing 48 hopefuls pulled directly up to the locker room door. A few minutes later, a black limo appeared at the team's Lake Forest practice facility. Was it Mike Ditka? Team president Mike McCaskey? No, it was replacement defensive end Egypt Allen, who had spent some time in Bears training camp and wanted to return in style.
The Bears' roster may have been hastily assembled, but team vice president Bill Tobin wanted to convince fans that the team didn't just grab big guys off the street. "There's not a player here who called us," Tobin said after the first day of physicals. "We called every one of them. It was by invitation only. We did not plead with anyone. We had no tryouts. We have scouting reports on all but three, who were recommended to us by a minor-league coach. In my opinion, they are just a notch below the 1,600 players who walked out. These guys are the 'B' group who were an inch short, a step slow or maybe just plain overlooked."
The "B" group was given physicals, then uniforms, then hotel assignments and playbooks. Quarterbacks Mike Hohensee and Sean Payton roomed together. A few days earlier, Ditka named Payton the starter, but he soon admitted that there would be open competition between the Eastern Illinois star and his taller, more experienced competitor. The duo spent 14 hours per day mastering the Bears playbook, quizzing each other between practices. "We have to avoid getting impatient because we're not learning as fast as we want to learn," Hohensee said of the skull sessions. Offensive coordinator Ed Hughes, who was always shuffling quarterbacks in response to Jim McMahon's injuries, was philosophical about the switch from McMahon-Tomczak-Harbaugh controversies to Hohensee-Payton controversies. "Now we have two instead of five," he said.
In the chaos of those first practice sessions, Hughes noted that Hohensee had a stronger arm than Payton and was more likely to check down to secondary receivers. He was clearly a standout among irregulars. Three days earlier, the Bears barely had a team. Now they had a starting quarterback.
On Thursday, September 25, while the Spare Bears were completing their first physicals, a charter bus arrived at the Mount Laurel Hilton in Southern New Jersey to drop off the replacement Eagles after their first round of player meetings.
But the bus was met instead by 15 striking Eagles veterans, who formed a human chain across the hotel's driveway.
Reggie White told the driver to let his 53 passengers out into the highway traffic. The driver refused, then tried to merge back onto the highway. He was stopped by a vehicle bearing a large sign reading "Scab Buster," driven by linebacker Mike Reichenbach.
The police arrived and ordered player rep John Spagnola, organizer of the ambush, to clear the driveway. Spagnola did as he was ordered. His strikers retreated to the hotel's entrance, where they hurled insults and obscenities at the replacement players as they dashed to their hotels.
Spagnola and his troops wanted to stop the buses from entering Veterans Stadium that morning, but management anticipated the plan and delivered the replacement Eagles at 6:30 a.m.. So Spagnola planned an afternoon surprise. "We're just trying to make their lives miserable, just like they're making our lives miserable."
The next day, the striking Eagles were prepared. When buses arrived at Veterans Stadium for morning practice, Spagnola and his troops blocked the Broad Street entrance to the stadium. After a brief standoff, the buses turned and headed for a local hotel. Eagles management contacted City Hall. The team earned a temporary restraining order prohibiting the union from turning away traffic and an injunction prohibiting them from coming within 1,000 feet of the strike breakers. Spagnola, clearly a guerilla fighter in the labor war, fought the injunction and reduced the distance to 500 feet. "We just want to be somewhere they can see us," Spagnola said. "The whole idea is to make them think about what they are doing. We aren't looking to start trouble."
By day four of the strike, some veterans were already beginning to crack; in Denver, most players didn't even show up to picket while the replacements practiced. But the battle lines were clearly drawn in Philadelphia. When not planning ambushes, Spagnola met with the chiefs of various unions, including the Teamsters, whose trucks supplied Veterans Stadium with food and drink. Management might be able to field a team of scabs, but they would have a hard time serving beer.
Eagles owner Norman Braman, meanwhile, tried in vain to earn the sympathy of the fans, while at the same time holding firm as a management hard-liner. He said he was prepared for "a long difficult siege." "As much as I hate to say it," he added, "the issue of free agency is not something we're prepared to surrender on." In a battle of wealthy players versus multi-millionaire owners, Braman attempted a unique gambit: He cried poor. He claimed that the Eagles' cut from the league's television contract didn't quite meet the team's payroll requirements. Further, he claimed that the team's net profits were lower than the salary of their highest paid player.
Braman offered no hard evidence to back his assertions, and even a novice accountant knows that "net profits" can be cooked to look like losses through some creative ledger keeping. A successful auto dealer, Braman was trying to sell fans the primer coat and rust-proofing package. There were few buyers in labor-friendly Philadelphia, and a sports media cool toward free agency and high player salaries was even cooler toward an owner claiming to grow broke while collecting millions in ticket receipts and television revenues.
Braman's hollow proclamations were no match for Spagnola's media-savvy machinations. The labor rep's scheme didn't end when his picketers left the lobby of the Mount Laurel Hilton that Thursday night. Spagnola and a few others stayed in South Jersey after the other veterans left. Later that evening, they re-entered the hotel. Spagnola headed for the lobby bar, while running back Michael Haddix and another player followed a pizza delivery man up to the rooms. Their targets were Rich Comizio and A.J. Sebastianelli, two University of Pennsylvania alums with whom Spagnola was acquainted. Spagnola believed he could get the fellow Ivy Leaguers to abandon the replacement team and honor the picket lines.
"My first thought was, 'Oh, bleep,'" Sebastianelli said. "I wasn't physically afraid, but I didn't know what they wanted." Haddix and another player had a long talk with Sebastianelli while Spagnola and Comizio conversed in the bar. "I've always sympathized with what the union is all about," Comizio said. "But the opportunity to be there myself, I don't know -- I just felt I'd enjoy it. But it wasn't all that it was cracked up to be ... I think the coaches obviously want the strike over as much as the players do. It took me a day to realize. I felt exploited. The Eagles' staff could care less if I was there or not. They'd just replace me with somebody else tomorrow. They were just waiting for the call for this to be over, so they could send us all home."
Spagnola convinced the two young men to honor the strike. Then he convinced them to speak at a press conference at the posh Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia. "I have to live with myself, and now I can," Sebastianelli said, noting that he hailed from Pennsylvania coal country and his mother dated a union president. "I apologize for any damage I might have done to the (striking) players to this point. I'm doing this to try and undo any harm I might have done." Spagnola called the youngsters "real heroes." It was a public relations stunt, but it was effective. Most news reports focused on veteran players who broke union ranks. Spagnola and the Eagles fired the salvo in the other directions.
While Spagnola schemed and Braman searched for sympathy, Buddy Ryan coached the replacement Eagles. Barely. He installed a vanilla 3-4 defense that looked nothing like his vaunted 46 scheme. He gave the strikebreakers an off-the-shelf strategy guide from a local bookstore and told them to study it. His offensive coaches designed a skeleton of an attack that would include none of the sizzle produced by a Randall Cunningham scramble. Ryan described the experience as "boring as hell."
Every NFL coach was in the same boat -- in Miami, Don Shula used his first practice to teach players how to huddle and where to stand on the sidelines -- but Ryan was outspoken about his indifference. He didn't expend much energy learning his new players' names. Or colleges. Or uniform numbers. When asked who impressed him after an early practice, Ryan tried to be upbeat. "All those offensive linemen, I thought, looked good," Ryan said. "A couple of kids -- I don't even know who they are -- looked good. There was No. 78, I thought blocked well. He's some kid from Illinois. No. 94 is the kid from Notre Dame." It was a game try, but No. 78 (Mike Nease) played at Tennessee, not Illinois, and the kid from Notre Dame (Mike Perrino) wore No. 64, not No. 94. One player Ryan knew by name was his old friend Gary Bolden, The Kicking Mule. Bolden had been wrestling under the name Stagger Lee, but he used the replacement games to earn one last shot at NFL glory.
Ryan's options at quarterback were limited: Scott Tinsley, an insurance salesman who took a leave of absence to play for the Eagles, and Pat Brennan, who spent the summer playing for the Falcons â€¦ the Fylde Falcons, that is, of a semipro league in England. Brennan sold vitamins while not throwing footballs for small crowds of confused Brits. Desperate for a more feasible option, the team signed Guido Merkens, who played quarterback in college but had a workmanlike NFL career as a receiver and kick returner. Merkens, who at least possessed some of Cunningham's running ability, vowed to give fans a good show. "It's going to be tough, but I think it's going to be equal on both sides. It's all relative. They're going to see some good football, I think."
Ryan was less diplomatic as he chuckled his way through press conferences in the days leading up to the showdown against the Spare Bears. Asked what would decide the game, his players' talent or his coaching talent, he said. "I think it'll be how much talent the management council has." When asked if the game against his old boss would be a test of his coaching prowess, he laughed. "I'm too old to be tested. I've been in this business a long time. I don't need to be tested."
Ryan barely drilled the fill-ins in the days leading up to the Bears game. He admitted that he simply wasn't excited about the matchup with Ditka. He used words that surely infuriated Braman, who wanted his coach to invest in the replacement game concept. "It's not quite like getting ready for a real game, no," Ryan said. "It would have been exciting. Our players -- whatever you call the real players -- they'd like to play the Bears. Last year, they were supposed to beat us 100-0, and we gave 'em a pretty good game. This year, it might have been a good game, too. This game, I don't know. It might be 100-0 either way. Who knows?"
With Ryan going through the motions and Spagnola digging deep into his playbook of labor trickery, there was a good chance that most of the action on the Sunday of the Bears-Eagles wouldn't take place in Veterans Stadium, but around it.
(To be continued in two weeks ... or in the full text of Year of the Scab, available now at the FO store. If you subscribe to the Premium DVOA database, you'll find a link to download Year of the Scab on the main premium database page.)
25 comments, Last at 23 Oct 2007, 12:52am by jg