On Oct. 4, 1987, 35 years ago, the NFL was introduced to scabs. No, not the ones on your knees that you get after you take a fall. These scabs were players who crossed the NFL Players Association’s collective picket line during their strike. Most of the players were previously released from teams during training camp or players who had played in the recently shut down USFL. Roughly 15% of the regular NFL players crossed the line, including stars such as 49ers quarterback Joe Montana and teammate Roger Craig. Other stars included Seahawks wide receiver Steve Largent and Patriots QB Doug Flutie.
This strike was due to the end of the Collective Bargaining Agreement that was signed in 1982 and the fact that it wasn’t replaced with another one. The players wanted free agency and to be able to choose where they played like other professional sports leagues. The league had some free agency for the previous decade, but teams had to be compensated with draft picks for losing the player, so it really limited player movement.
The ‘82 strike shortened that season to nine games. The NFL did not want to repeat the same mistake and lose out on nearly a half-season of revenue again in ‘87, so they brought in these replacements to at least put a product on the field. Most of these picket-crossing players were not treated kindly by those striking or by the media due to the fact that they were seen as disloyal to the rest of the players and inferior alternatives.
“When you watch the NFL, you are expecting filet mignon, not hot dogs,” said Gene Upshaw, NFLPA head and Hall of Fame player.
The strike started after week two of the season, the same tactic that was done in 1982. As a response, the NFL canceled the week three games to try and call their bluff. This caused teams to scramble to find players to fill out their rosters to be able to play games while the dispute was settled. Interesting replacement players of note were eventual Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight, who played multiple games for the Los Angeles Rams as a defensive end, as well as eventual Super Bowl-winning head coach Sean Payton as a QB for the Chicago Bears.
These scabs played three games before the regulars came back. The only team to go 3-0 were the now named Washington Commanders. The most impressive of their wins came on Monday Night Football against the rival Dallas Cowboys. What was so impressive about it was that Dallas had almost all of their starters in the game, including Hall of Famers Randy White and Tony Dorsett, as well as pro bowl QB Danny White.
Washington had zero starters during this time and squeaked out a 13-7 upset victory. They were led by QB Tony Robinson who was on prison release playing semi-pro ball before getting the call. He came in for injured starter Ed Rubbert in the second quarter. Robinson did not light up the box score but he did lead multiple scoring drives and led the tempo for the game. Robinson was formerly a University of Tennessee QB and held a lot of school records until Hall of Famer Peyton Manning came to Knoxville. He was in prison for cocaine distribution just days after his collegiate career was finished.
Robinson and almost all the other replacement players were cut from their teams after this night, ending the 24-day strike. Washington won those key games with the scabs and used them to springboard the team to a win in the 1987 Super Bowl over the Denver Broncos, thrashing them 42-10. Doug Williams set a big game record with five touchdown passes that has still not been broken. We have come to learn years later from the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “The Year of the Scab” that none of the replacements were given championship rings for their efforts, but were eventually given them over 30 years later. The 1987 scab season inspired the movie “The Replacements” with Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman. Even though none of the players were acknowledged for their accomplishments by the NFL their efforts still went down in history as one of the most interesting and unique seasons that the NFL has ever had.