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.)

23 thoughts on “NPF: MAYBE THEY WON'T NOTICE”

  • I was never much of a football fan, but this even made an impression on me. It was my sophomore year in college, and the cries of anguish could be heard from the frat houses on Sundays. I knew that it was a true cultural phenomenon when "Bloom County" satirized it.

    Once again I'll ask for some help from those in the know: what was the big deal about the 49ers running a Wishbone offense? Both Ed and the author of the article referenced mention it while assuming that the reader will understand its significance. (Wikipedia has a pretty detailed article about what the Wishbone is, but that didn't help me to understand the context.)

  • Jimcat,
    The Wishbone is a running offense, that you really can't pass that much out of.
    Therefore, it's pretty much been a College offense that hasn't been used in the NFL much at all, except as a very, very rare change of pace, ever since the time the NFL decided the fans preferred a game that mixed a running game with the long pass, instead of just watching every play be "3 yards and a cloud of dust.'
    And now, 25 years later, not even many colleges use the Wishbone.

    What I remember most about that season, is that it kept my Giants from making the Playoffs, and the chance to try to win two SB's is a row.

    That, and the GREAT Lawrence Taylor crossed the picket line. And I forgave him – what else could that knucklehead do, except play Football? As great a player as he was on the field, he was just as big a potential personal screw-up off it.
    The only time you didn't worry about LT was when he was playing on the field – he always gave 100%.
    It was the rest of the time you worried about him. It's not like he wasn't attracted to coke, crack, booze, and women – just not neccesarilly in that order.

  • There's an entertaining movie about this called The Replacements, starring a lot of guys who then went on to star in other movies.

    As a non-football fan, my response to this is "So what?" You have a bunch of 1% football owners acting like entitled asses…this is what you get from them.

  • But Ed…how can The Replacements be Gene Hackman's worst movie? Jeffrey Lyons said it was "Enormously Funny!" ENORMOUSLY.

    As a non-football fan, my response is amusement about how all of the non-football fans on the internet feel the need to let you know that they are non-football fans and are rather unaffected by the whole thing.

  • I was in Chicago and went to a replacement game. I was able to make my way down to the field and stand on the sidelines along with a few hundred others.

    I recall that a lot of former pro players were asked to come back and play for the teams that had cut them a year or two earlier. I don't believe many, if any, did.

  • I was just skimming G-Hack's IMDB page looking for irrefutable evidence that The Replacements is not, in fact, his worst movie. No such evidence exists.

  • The NFL played the games and were somehow forgiven. MLB cancelled the World (not really) Series in 1994 and I never forgave them. Of course, I live in Pittsburgh so baseball has reached tragic proportions.

  • What I remember about it was Joe fucking Montana being a traitor and becoming a scab.

    Never have forgiven him for it. He is an asshole.

  • Wow, I'm sure the 12 year old me watched every game with excitement but holy crap the Bears must have been the most boring 11 win team in the history of the NFL.

    Their best receiver was their Fullback (actually split HB) Neal Anderson with 47 catches, #3 was Payton, and #5 was the TE. Their best 2 WR's caught 35 catches and 27 catches in 12 games. Ron Morris was a starting WR and had 20 catches in 12 games. That's frighteningly bad.

    7 guys threw a pass that year: 3 during the strike, McMahon got hurt (of course) and only played 6 games, Jim Harbaugh was a rookie, and Payton threw a 45 yard interception. I wonder what the record is for most # of players attempting a pass in a season. It must be from 1987, right?

  • ha, i was at that very same 'eagles'-'bears' game. it was unmemorable, other than the being there part. the strike kicked the bears in the balls that year. stomped the defending superbowl champ ny giants on monday night football to begin the season, the strike happened a few weeks later.

  • like others mentioned i don't have any use for players that crossed the picket line. the owners? jesus christ, who wants to watch anything except the real pros? the nfl is still the best league, & the most fun to watch. but the owners have made some huge mistakes. i've heard some people say during the ref lockout, the game had degenerated into the wwe. nonsense, the wwe is extremely well choregrafted with tremendous athletes who are the best trash talkers in the world. it was becoming more like boxing which i also love, but it has the worst judges of any sport. see, a lot of them have bet on the outcomes, & this has been going on for a century. nope, the nfl saw the loss of the packers on mnf as the last straw when twitter exploded. it was almost like we were going to have a revolution over a game. as much as i love football & the other sports, they are really entertainment & not very important compared to the inequality of incomes & corruption of almost all of our corporations & our government. but i'm sure glad the real pro refs are back.

  • Ed, please do not be ashamed of your excellent memory. Many will say derogatory things about it, but that you can remember these things means that you can learn from them, and pass it on. Your memory is a gift, and it makes you amazing.

  • What keeps haunting me about the call on Monday night is that one ref signaled an interception, but he must have been overpowered in the discussion. Because of my knowledge of human relations, I know exactly how that conversation must have played out, and exactly why the correct ref must have backed down. However, it is also my knowledge of human relations that keeps me from saying what really needs to be said.

    But if you think about it, I think you'll see it.

  • Fitzroy Glibherbert says:

    Ursula, I had very much the same thought, and also something which, while we're making assumptions, is profoundly more likely to occur when the people involved are not "real" professionals.

    Not just human relations in conference, either: that stadium was packed full of a certain class of people who are able to afford to attend a game, who are drunk and raucous and number around 70,000, and for whom the "l" word might even precede the other single letter word.

  • Oh, yes. 1987 was the year I discovered football. I don't understand why anyone would have been looking forward to seeing the Eagles take on the Bears, since those two clubs were the league's two expansion teams. I do remember staying up late to see the Blues take on the Hawks for the league title. I'm doing the same thing this year, except that it's the Swans who are playing the Hawks for the premiership.

    Wait a minute — you weren't talking about the West Coast Eagles and the Brisbane Bears. This wasn't Australian Rules Football. This was the boring type of football.

    "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)."

    We are not in unanimous agreement. It's impossible to ruin something that's already rotten.

    I'm curious. Of all the types of football in the world — association, Australian rules, rugby league, rugby union, Gaelic, etc. — how did the United States end up with the boring version?

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