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?
05 Oct 2007
by Mike Tanier
Three weeks ago, we ran an excerpt from "Year of the Scab: The True Story of the 1987 Replacement Games" here at Too Deep Zone. We got a lot of response and quite a few subscribers. If you are still making up your mind, here's another excerpt to help you decide. The rest of the e-book -- well over 50 pages! -- is available for download 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" covers the battle between the NFLPA and management, but there's so much more to the story than Gene Upshaw vs. Jack Donlan. The strike and the replacement games were a human drama, and I strove to capture that drama by focusing on a handful of key characters. Mike Ditka may be the most interesting individual in the story: Just two years removed from the Super Bowl, Ditka became so disillusioned with the modern breed of athlete that he turned bitterly on his veterans while embracing the replacements. How Ditka treats those replacements -- one of them in particular, anyway -- at the strike's end is probably the most revealing moment in the story.
But there are other memorable characters and incidents in "Year of the Scab." There's a blow-by-blow recap of the near-riot that broke out in front of Veterans Stadium in Philly before the first replacement game. There's the sad story of Tony Dorsett and the Dallas fans who turned on him. And there's more: shouting matches, angry insults, dirty tactics, lopsided games. Year of the Scab is like "The Empire Strikes Back" of true football stories: The good guys lose, but you'll breathe a sigh of relief when they escape alive.
The next excerpt picks up where the previous one left off. It's the first week of the strike, and all of Sunday's football games have been cancelled. While the Bears assembled their replacement team and the Eagles veterans engaged in guerilla warfare, some Cowboys superstars found an unwelcome surprise in their mailboxes.
With the Vikings still holding tryouts and the Dolphins still learning the finer points of huddling, there would be no football on Week 3. As soon as the strike was called, the owners canceled all games slated for September 28 and 29. Television networks had several weeks to prepare for the cancellation and quickly rolled out their alternative lineups. Both NBC and CBS expanded their NFL pregame shows to a full hour to provide comprehensive strike coverage, and to kill time. Then CBS rebroadcast the 1986 Super Bowl while NBC took advantage of their baseball contract and showed a Tigers-Blue Jays game (Cubs-Cardinals in the Midwest). Faced with no Monday Night Football, ABC set their phasers on stun and showed "Star Trek III."
The networks weren't just worried about Week 3. They weren't high on spending top dollar to broadcast low-quality football. Network lawyers poured through their deals with the NFL, looking for loopholes that would allow them to ignore the games (or at least pay less for them). Several major advertisers pulled out rather than endorse a second-rate product. Cowboys president Tex Schramm put feelers out to local networks in the event the big three backed out. Ultimately, though, the networks decided to air the games, for three reasons. First, there was the curiosity factor that was sure to keep ratings acceptable for at least the first week. Second, there was the potential for strike-related shenanigans outside the stadium, particularly in Philadelphia, that would prove both newsworthy and ratings-friendly. Third, and perhaps most importantly, there wasn't much else to show.
The players, meanwhile, hoped to undercut network coverage by organizing some of their own games. They even had a potential broadcast partner: the fledgling FOX network, which was hungry to get into the NFL game. The major networks quickly sicced their lawyers on both FOX and the NFLPA, but it was much ado about nothing. The players lacked the infrastructure to travel, sell tickets, and host games, and attempts to lure fans to pick-up All-Star games in 1982 had flopped badly. The replacement games would be the only games in town, and there would be no pro football on the final Sunday in September.
Fans made the most of the respite. At the Meadowlands, hundreds of Jets fans showed up for a tailgate party hosted by several Jets players. In northern Virginia, a radio station hosted a Skinless Sunday Party that featured Redskins highlight films and a picket sign contest. "It's an excuse for Redskins fans to get together and pretend there's football on," a radio spokesperson said. Giants fans who flew all the way to Miami to see the cancelled Giants-Dolphins got an opportunity to take a $4 tour of palatial new Joe Robbie stadium (in a year filled with management chutzpah, canceling a game then charging four bucks for a tour barely registers). Giants fans who skipped the tour found that their ticket was good for free admission at a local racetrack.
With the stadiums empty, the rancorous war of words echoed. "This fight is over control of football, it's not over money," said Dolphins owner Joe Robbie, newly flush from his stadium tour windfall. "Owners are not going to surrender control of the games to the union." NFL Management Committee Executive Director Jack Donlan announced after Sunday's cancellations that the games would not be made up and players would not get paid; for individual players, that meant losses from $4,000 to $80,000. Upshaw, for his part, toured the country meeting with both labor leaders and his own player reps. Upshaw steeled resolve in a few cities where strike support was wavering, and he secured agreements from union workers in all 28 NFL cities to bolster picket lines and disrupt replacement contests. "We will haunt those games," Upshaw promised. He even added a hot-button accusation to the players' laundry list of charges against management: The league was allegedly shopping broadcast rights in Apartheid-torn South Africa. "I just noticed today at the airport that the NFL is not only trying to break us but also the people in South Africa by offering the services of NFL football to South Africa. We don't like that and we'll have something to say about that at a later date."
With Upshaw, Braman, Robbie and others on their soapboxes, the networks had plenty of soundbytes for their hour-long pre-no-game shows. The most interesting soundbytes came from Ditka. While preparing the Spare Bears to face the Eagles, Ditka kept one eye on his veterans. Player rep Mike Singletary hoped to organize full workouts when the regulars weren't picketing, but several big names -- Doug Flutie, Richard Dent, William Perry -- ignored the practice sessions. Singletary toyed with the idea of fining his teammates. Ditka gloated: His prediction of less-than-full compliance with union-run practices came true in a hurry. "We have some of the laziest guys who are non-motivated in the world," Ditka said of the veterans he led to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl two years earlier. "There is no togetherness. It's all for themselves. The egos rule."
Ditka didn't hold back. "The better word in the dictionary calls it 'prima donna.' She don't dance on this field, she don't sing in this theater. But she's around, if you let her be." As for his replacements: "They're a good bunch of kids. They work hard, they keep their moths shut and their appreciative. That in itself is different."
Ditka went so far as to suggest that teams might tell the regulars to "stick it" and keep the replacements for the rest of the season. His opinions were heard loud and clear at the veterans' practice site, where 36 of the 45 regulars worked out for no pay while the quiet, appreciative replacements earned the prorated rookie minimum -- about $3,200 per week, no guarantees -- to represent the Chicago Bears.
Randy White was the highest-profile player to officially renounce the strike at its outset. He and a handful of teammates -- including fellow defensive lineman Don Smerek -- had no intention of picketing. When White and Smerek drove to work in White's pickup truck on September 24, they were met by a picket line.
Veteran beat writer Mickey Spagnola (no relation to the Eagles player rep) recounted the tale last year on the Cowboys' Web site:
Well, the picket line was in progress, and the guys made White, of all people, wait patiently for an opening to drive through. Finally, White, nicknamed "Manster" for very good reasons, crossed the sidewalk into The Ranch entrance. But by then, Tony Dorsett and a couple of the other guys walked in front of White's truck. There was a standoff. White was burning. Know that Smerek once suffered a gunshot wound to his leg. And let me tell you, Randy White is the last guy you want burning, especially back in the day. The game of chicken was on.
Finally, White smashed the clutch in and raced his engine, sticking his head out the window. He then briefly popped the clutch. The truck slightly lurched forward. Teammates, you know. This was ugly. They were ready to go at it. That's what labor differences can instigate.
Dorsett and gang finally moved. White raced down the driveway to the players' entrance, tires smoking.
Despite his willingness to play chicken with a teammate in a pickup truck, Dorsett's resolve would soon waver. He would join White in crossing the picket lines. So would Ed Jones. So would quarterback Danny White, who on the first day of the strike announced, "I support the team. I'm not a supporter of union or management. It's a one-day-at-a-time deal for me. If at some point my family becomes more important than the team, then I might come back."
The two Whites, Dorsett and many other veterans received a letter from team president Tex Schramm on September 22, the first day of the strike. "I sent him a letter pointing out some things about certain parts of his contract," Schramm said of his letter to Dorsett. "I won't go into the details. It involves a lot of money." The letter indicated that many Cowboys veterans received annuities as part of their compensation. These annuities were a huge part of the players' retirement portfolios, and they were worth millions of dollars. Some players, like Dorsett, even had real estate options included in their contracts. Schramm's letter to the veterans reminded them that if they weren't on the Cowboys active roster on October 15, they wouldn't receive their annuity payments.
The annuity gambit explained Danny White's day-to-day statements: the closer it came to mid-October, the more likely he was to cross the picket line (White was also in debt as the result of a bad investment in a manufacturing firm). At a time when the Cowboys seemed out-of-step with most other organizations, Schramm still had some surprises up his sleeve. The annuity system essentially slapped golden handcuffs on the team's best players, who would be risking much more than a few paychecks if they stayed out on strike.
It didn't take long for other veterans to reach the same conclusions as Randy White. On September 30, a Cowboys spokesman announced that Danny White would cross the picket line. Dorsett was soon to follow. Neither player was immediately available for comment. Fullback Timmy Newsome, Dorsett's friend, said that the running back knew of the annuity situation at the start of the strike but tried to hold firm as long as he could. "I don't think there's any question he is being forced to return," Newsome said. "There is a choice, but it would be a very difficult choice, to say the least." In effect, Dorsett played two games of chicken in just a few days: one against an angry teammate holding the clutch of a pickup truck, once again a cagey exec holding his pension over a trashcan.
Not every Cowboys veteran was wooed back by Schramm's letter. "I've already considered that money as being gone," player rep Doug Cosbie said. "That's not going to affect my decision at all." Cosbie said that the defections didn't hurt morale on the picket lines, and that most Cowboys veterans were as determined as ever. Still, the replacement Cowboys -- with the two Whites, Jones, Dorsett, Smerek and others -- were starting to look a lot more like the real deal than they guys on the picket line.
With so many familiar faces in camp, Tom Landry had no trouble endorsing the replacement games. While Buddy Ryan was waiving off the games as "not real." Landry suggested that refund-seeking fans should reconsider. "I would pay it," he said if he would ask to spend money to see his replacement Cowboys. "I think it will be fun."
Fun, indeed. The All Pro-laden Cowboys would face the replacement Jets in Week 4. Then, if the strike continued, they would host the Eagles. By then, Ryan may have memorized a few of his players' names, or at least uniform numbers.
(For 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.)
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