NPF: MAYBE THEY WON'T NOTICE

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on September 28th, 2012 by Ed

We're in unanimous agreement that the NFL replacement refs just about ruined the game for a few weeks. If you think nothing could make the games more painful to watch, you're betraying your age (or lack thereof). You clearly don't remember 25 years ago when the NFL owners decided that they would continue playing games during a players' strike using replacement players.

The year was 1987. Nine year-old Ed had only recently discovered football and was thoroughly convinced that it was the greatest thing ever. No comic books or anything like that for me. Just sixteen football Sundays per year. I remember quite clearly turning on the first game after the players went on strike (a concept I understood only vaguely) and seeing the Chicago Bears play the Philadelphia Eagles. In those pre-satellite days I didn't have the option of watching the Cardinals, but I was still plenty excited. The recent Super Bowl champs! Walter Payton! Jim McMahon! Samurai Mike Singletary! All of the superstars would be there!

Imagine my shock when I saw not The Punky QB throwing to Sweetness but some asshat named Mike Hohensee throwing to the legendary Lakei Heimuli (and I am deeply ashamed to admit that I didn't have to look either of those up. I remember this shit.) The Eagles human highlight reel Randall Cunningham was gone, and their QB was named, I am not even shitting you, Guido Merkens. It turned out that the NFL owners thought we wouldn't notice if they took the familiar jerseys and helmets and slapped them on a bunch of…random dudes, essentially. Even at nine years old I noticed that all of the defensive linemen looked like guys who drove beer trucks, which was true because most of them were guys who drove beer trucks.

If you're too young to remember this, let me summarize: it sucked. In hindsight it was pretty hilarious – guys off the street playing in empty stadiums, often looking like they just met (which they had) and running high school or college type offenses. In a nationally televised game between the 49ers and Giants, Niners coach Bill Walsh had his team run the Wishbone while he and Giants coach Bill Parcells stood at midfield, shrugged, and laughed like two guys who know they're doing something really embarrassing.

The real players were back after 3 "replacement" games that, yes, counted in the standings. It was a crushing win for the players, who won the right to free agency (although full unrestricted free agency didn't arrive until the Federal courts mandated it in 1993) and the 25 year salary explosion that followed. And all the scab players just…disappeared. Never heard from again.* Never to play another game.

If you peruse the NFL records you'll find the curious phenomenon of guys who accomplished statistical feats despite playing only three games in the league. For example, Redskins fans might assume that the team's single-game receiving record is held by Hall of Famers Art Monk, Bobby Mitchell, Paul Warfield, or Charley Taylor. Nope. Turns out it's some gas-pumper named Anthony Allen, who developed magical chemistry with a human being named Ed Rubbert (!) who happened to be playing QB for the team that would go on to win the Super Bowl that year. Allen caught 255 yards worth of passes from (giggle) Rubbert against the then-St. Louis Cardinals, one of the top 20 performances in NFL history. His name is alongside guys like Jerry Rice and Steve Largent. Allen, in fact, was one of the few scrub players who actually stuck around past the strike. For one year, anyway.

In short, the players' strike was one of the last gasps of the old-school owners who had purchased or inherited their teams in the olden days and thought so little of the players (and fans) that they thought we'd swallow the shit sandwich and smile. It turned out they were quite wrong. We only put up with real players officiated by scrubs for three weeks; in hindsight it's stunning that the experiment with fake players lasted that long. Needless to say neither the fans nor the media were willing to take the fake players seriously, and the strike and its players quickly became a mere footnote. I wonder how I would have reacted to it had I been an adult at the time…but when the games are so bad that even a nine year old won't watch them, we can safely assume that it really was that bad.

And then they made Gene Hackman's worst movie about it to add insult to injury.

*(The Bears QBs that day, Hohensee and Sean Payton, each played only those 3 scrub games but had 20 year coaching careers. Hohensee has been a fixture in the Arena League since it was founded and Payton is a Super Bowl winning – and suspended – coach of the Saints. So I guess they weren't all losers. They were just awful, awful players.)