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The 1987 strike and what could have been, Part I

Posted by Chase Stuart on April 1, 2010

Per Patrick W's request, I'm going to spend the next couple of days looking at how the 1987 player's strike impacted the NFL. There have been thousands of pages written on the 1987 strike, so any analysis here would be woefully inadequate. But to provide at least some color on the event, let's start at the beginning.

Part I: Labor History

In 1956, the NFL Players Associated was formed. It's original goal was to create a minimum salary for all players and to gain some benefits that would be considered standard today. Threatened by a lawsuit, the NFL owners mostly gave into the players' demand, but refused to enter into a collective bargaining agreement with the NFLPA. In 1968, a brief lockout and subsequent strike occurred. It ended when, with Art Modell serving as NFL President and Chairman of the Owners Labor Committee, the players and owners negotiated the sport's first CBA, guaranteeing veteran players a minimum salary of $10,000. When the AFL and NFL merged, so did the league's respective Player Associations.

And, in the summer of 1970, the newly merged NFL saw its first strike. A new CBA was created, the minimum salary was raised to $13,000 and a more favorably pension plan was approved. By 1974, the NFLPA had become a stronger organization, and was ready to tackle the NFL on more serious issues. The PA wanted to eliminate the option clause and the Rozelle rule, which created a serious barrier to free agency; the PA also demanded that the NFL eliminate the draft, abolish and the waiver system, and begin including guaranteed contracts. The owners didn't budge, and the players went on strike for 42 days. The owners stayed tough, so the players called off the strike and instead chose to take the NFL to court.

The NFLPA's lawsuit lasted until 1976, but the players won; the owners were found guilty of violating federal labor and antitrust laws. The Rozelle rule was declared to be an unfair restraint of trade. As defined by the court, the "Rozelle Rule essentially provided that when a player's contractual obligation to a team expired and he signed with a different club, the signing club had to provide compensation to the player's former team. If the two clubs were unable to conclude mutually satisfactory arrangements, the Commissioner could award compensation in the form of one or more players and/or draft choices as he deemed fair and equitable." But after winning the case, the players used their new leverage not to force free agency but to increase their salaries. Following the lawsuit, the NFL and the NFLPA met to discuss a new CBA for the '77 season. Heres what happened:

In 1977 the NFLPA and the league negotiated a new deal in which the owners successfully convinced the players to accept compensation for those players affected by the Rozelle Rule while leaving a form of the compensation system in place. Under the new agreement benefits for players were upgraded and arbitration was introduced as a method to settle contract impasses. The subjective power to determine team move compensation on a case by case basis was removed from the commissioner's office and converted into a value based system that determined due compensation to the old team based on the value of the player's new contract with the new team.

Not anticipated by the player's association was the huge increases in revenue experienced by the league in the late 1970s due to the increasing popularity of the game itself as well as the addition of two regular season games (taking the schedule from 14 games to 16) and the expansion of the playoff field from eight to 10 teams in 1978.

The unintended and unforeseen consequence of this success was an increase in the size of new player contracts. Under the system agreed upon in 1977 many new player contracts now qualified the original team for compensation of up to or exceeding a first round pick from the new team; the compensation system was fixed based on lower overall average contract numbers and did not have a sliding scale based on growth in average contract size. As such movement between teams was still depressed.

It didn't take long for the NFLPA to realize it needed to fix players salaries to revenue; one of the goals for the '77 CBA was to get 55% of gross revenue given to the players, but the NFLPA gave up on that issue. But with drastically rising revenue, that decision proved to be foolhardy. Five years later, the players went on strike and the league canceled seven games during the 1982 season. And when it ended, not much had changed. The players still wanted the 55% rule; the owners still didn't want it. The two sides agreed to give the players a lot more money, in addition to more benefits, and to remove the cloud over contracts; previously, players had no idea what other players were making. Once they were able to find out the salaries of their teammates, salaries naturally began to rise. Additionally, the two sides agreed on a CBA that would take ensure labor peace... until 1987.

And that brings us to the 1987 strike. Just as in 1982, the players went on strike at the conclusion of week 2 of the NFL season. The NFL owners responded by choosing to hire replacement players if the real players would not play. The league canceled games for week 3 to allow the coaches to bring the replacement players up to speed. And in what was originally scheduled to be weeks 4, 5 and 6 of the NFL season, replacement players played in the NFL. The NFLPA saw this was a losing battle, and caved:

The 1987 strike ended in total defeat for the NFL Players Association. Having lost all leverage, the players crawled back to work without winning free agency, without winning a guaranteed share of league revenue, without even reaching agreement on a collective bargaining agreement. The owners' victory was so crushing that in 1989 the Players Association actually went out of business as a union; under federal labor law, workers gained standing to file class-action lawsuits against their employers only if they didn't belong to a union. Therefore, having been utterly thwarted in their 1987 strike, the players took the radical step of decertifying the union two years later to pursue their goals in court.

Part II: Team performance during the strike

Enough about history and labor disputes -- what happened on the field? Some teams, like the 49ers and the Redskins, were well prepared for the strike. Other teams put almost no effort into finding replacement players, thinking it might offend their real players. Some stars crossed the picket line after one or two weeks; most never crossed. But when you look at team statistics from the 1987 season, they feel flawed; they're 80% (or more) like every other season, but close to 20% of the statistics were compiled by replacement players. What I hope to do, over the next two days, is separate out the efforts of the replacement players from the performances by the real ones.

For starters, we can look at SRS ratings for the "replacement teams" during weeks 3, 4 and 5 of the '87 season (aka originally scheduled weeks 4, 5 and 6). It should be obvious that you need to take these SRS ratings with a huge grain of salt -- they're based on only three games (and therefore highly susceptible to outliers) along with the very faulty assumption that the teams had substantially the same roster in each of those three games. That said, the table below shows SRS ratings, margin of victory (with victories of more than 24 points counted as the average of 24 and the actual number), strength of schedule, and actual wins and losses.

Team MOV SOS SRS W L
New Orleans Saints 9.0 12.1 21.1 2 1
Washington Redskins 13.2 7.3 20.4 3 0
St. Louis Cardinals -1.7 19.6 17.9 1 2
San Francisco 49ers 12.3 4.8 17.1 3 0
Cleveland Browns 11.8 3.9 15.8 2 1
Pittsburgh Steelers 7.7 7.2 14.8 2 1
Chicago Bears 13.8 -2.5 11.4 2 1
Indianapolis Colts 8.7 2.4 11.0 2 1
Dallas Cowboys 8.0 2.7 10.7 2 1
Houston Oilers 6.5 2.9 9.4 2 1
New England Patriots 2.7 5.5 8.2 2 1
Los Angeles Rams -6.0 13.1 7.1 1 2
Atlanta Falcons -9.7 13.0 3.4 1 2
New York Jets -5.7 6.5 0.8 1 2
Miami Dolphins 9.2 -11.5 -2.3 1 2
Seattle Seahawks 5.3 -8.6 -3.2 2 1
San Diego Chargers 6.7 -12.0 -5.4 3 0
Cincinnati Bengals -8.2 2.4 -5.8 1 2
New York Giants -16.5 9.7 -6.8 0 3
Buffalo Bills -12.7 4.1 -8.5 1 2
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2.3 -12.8 -10.4 2 1
Green Bay Packers 2.3 -15.4 -13.0 2 1
Philadelphia Eagles -16.2 3.0 -13.2 0 3
Minnesota Vikings -11.3 -4.0 -15.4 0 3
Denver Broncos -1.2 -14.2 -15.4 2 1
Detroit Lions -8.7 -8.9 -17.6 1 2
Los Angeles Raiders -2.3 -17.6 -19.9 1 2
Kansas City Chiefs -19.5 -12.5 -32.0 0 3

Some notes:

  • The Cardinals had a brutally difficult schedule, facing the the three best teams they could face, with two of those games coming on the road. By beating New Orleans, and losing one-score games in San Francisco and Washington, St. Louis manages to finish in the top three in SRS despite a 1-2 record.
  • On the other hand, the '87 Broncos strike team was not nearly as good as their 2-1 record. Denver lost by 30 at home to the Oilers, before beating up on the two worst teams in the league. For the LA Raiders, their only victory was against the pitiful Chiefs.
  • The Jets got some travel breaks due to the strike; New York only played true road game outside of its division in 1987. The Jets, scheduled to have 8 road games, lost one when the week 3 games were canceled, and played the last game of the season "at" the New York Giants. The faux Falcons were the only replacement team to play host for all three games, although a tough strength of schedule more than made up for that; the strike Chargers had to travel for all three matchups, but used stepping stones wearing Chiefs and Raiders uniforms to join the 49ers and Redskins as the only undefeated replacement teams.

Part III: Real players, fake games

A bunch of real NFL players, including some of the game's biggest stars, played during weeks 3, 4 and 5 of the '87 season. Who crossed the picket line? The following is an incomplete list of players who crossed the picket line and played during one of the three strike games; only players who recorded a major statistic (i.e., nearly all skill position players, a handful of defensive players, and almost no linemen) or any player who played in 13, 14 or 15 games are included. Because of the inaccurate way of deciding when a player crossed the picket line, there are bound to be many errors in this (i.e., player crosses after week 3, is on the roster but does not record a stat in week 4, records stats in week 5, and gets counted as crossing before week 5). This is just meant to provide a very rough guideline (and, obviously, all the players crossed no later than when they're listed as crossing):

Played in the first strike game

player team age pos carAV
Randy White dal 34 DT 121
Mike Webster pit 35 C 103
Too Tall Jones dal 36 DE 97
Mark Gastineau nyj 31 DE 80
Reggie Williams cin 33 LB 74
Nolan Cromwell ram 32 DB 72
Roy Green crd 30 WR 68
Eric Martin nor 26 WR 67
J.T. Smith crd 32 WR 58
Tony Collins nwe 28 RB 48
Leonard Smith crd 27 DB 47
Lance Smith crd 24 G 45
Bruce Clark nor 29 DE 44
Jim Collins ram 29 LB 41
Marc Wilson rai 30 QB 35
Ethan Horton rai 25 TE 33
Doug Smith oti 28 NT 31
Earl Ferrell crd 29 RB 31
Earnest Jackson pit 28 RB 30
Charles White ram 29 RB 28
Alvin Wright ram 26 NT 24
Mike Guman ram 29 RB 23
Gary Hogeboom clt 29 QB 23
Greg Meisner ram 28 NT 23
Steve Dils ram 32 QB 15
Walt Bowyer den 27 DE 13
Vai Sikahema crd 25 RB 9
Darryl Holmes nwe 23 DB 6
Bobby Micho den 25 TE 4
Jamie Kimmel rai 25 LB 3
Derrick McAdoo crd 22 RB 2
Broderick Sargent crd 25 RB 2
Dale Hatcher ram 24 P 0
Mike Lansford ram 29 K 0

Crossed no later than after the first strike game was played

player team age pos carAV
Joe Montana sfo 31 QB 123
Tony Dorsett dal 33 RB 107
Howie Long rai 27 DE 98
Roger Craig sfo 27 RB 93
Carl Hairston cle 35 DE 78
Danny White dal 35 QB 71
Dwight Clark sfo 30 WR 61
Eddie Edwards cin 33 DE 61
Dave Studdard den 32 T 55
Joe Cribbs sfo 29 RB 54
Tootie Robbins crd 29 T 53
Dwaine Board sfo 31 DE 50
Steve Watson den 30 WR 49
Jim Ryan den 30 LB 43
Sean Farrell nwe 27 G 36
Mike Renfro dal 32 WR 36
Frank Pollard pit 30 RB 33
Charles Baker crd 30 LB 30
Tony Elliott nor 28 NT 28
Dwight Stone pit 23 WR 25
Pete Kugler sfo 28 NT 20
Jeff Fuller sfo 25 DB 19
Charles Martin 2tm 28 NT 16
Liffort Hobley mia 25 DB 15
Ron Heller sfo 24 TE 14
Harry Sydney sfo 28 RB 12
Mike Morris crd 26 C 8
Troy Johnson crd 25 WR 7
Carl Byrum buf 24 RB 5
Jim Perryman clt 27 DB 4
Blair Kiel clt 26 QB 4
Walter Murray clt 25 WR 3
Tony Franklin nwe 31 K 0
Greg Cater crd 30 P 0
Robert Lavette dal 24 RB 0

Crossed no later than after the second strike game was played

player team age pos carAV
Lawrence Taylor nyg 28 LB 139
Steve Largent sea 33 WR 103
Ray Childress oti 25 DT 93
Andre Tippett nwe 28 LB 91
Donnie Shell pit 35 DB 90
Ozzie Newsome cle 31 TE 82
John Stallworth pit 35 WR 80
Kevin Ross kan 25 DB 67
Cody Risien cle 30 T 64
Greg Townsend rai 26 DE 61
Joe Phillips sdg 24 NT 58
E.J. Junior crd 28 LB 57
Fredd Young sea 26 LB 55
Gary Dunn pit 34 NT 53
Haywood Jeffires oti 23 WR 52
Marty Lyons nyj 30 DE 50
Gene Atkins nor 23 DB 48
Mike Prior clt 24 DB 43
Eddie Anderson rai 24 DB 42
Merril Hoge pit 22 RB 38
Scott Mersereau nyj 22 DT 37
Brian Brennan cle 25 WR 36
Mervyn Fernandez rai 28 WR 34
Ron Wooten nwe 28 G 33
Barry Bennett nyj 32 DT 33
Terry Long pit 28 G 31
Elvis Patterson sdg 27 DB 29
Shawn Miller ram 26 DE 28
Tyronne Stowe pit 22 LB 28
Sam Clancy cle 29 DE 27
Leon Seals buf 23 DE 23
Kevin Brooks dal 24 DT 21
Dan Turk tam 25 C 21
Jeff Kemp sea 28 QB 20
Robb Riddick buf 30 RB 17
Milton Mack nor 24 DB 16
Brian Blankenship pit 24 G 15
Pat Ryan nyj 32 QB 13
Gerald Nichols nyj 23 DT 11
Tony Lilly den 25 DB 11
Randy Kirk sdg 23 LB 8
Cornell Gowdy pit 24 DB 8
Jeff Rutledge nyg 30 QB 7
Mike Freeman den 26 C 6
Charles Lockett pit 22 WR 4
Terry Wright clt 23 DB 4
Danzell Lee pit 24 TE 3
Paul Tripoli tam 26 DB 3
Domingo Bryant oti 24 DB 3
Clyde Glover sfo 27 DT 2
Danny Lockett det 23 LB 2
Steve Strachan rai 24 RB 1
Lee Johnson oti 26 P 0
Chris Bahr rai 34 K 0
Jim Gallery crd 26 K 0
Jeff Jaeger cle 23 K 0
Norm Johnson sea 27 K 0
Tony Zendejas oti 27 K 0
Jeff Gossett cle 30 P 0
Kelly Goodburn kan 25 P 0

Part IV: Stats leaders

Here were the top QBs during the three weeks of replacement player games:

Player gms repl? cmp att pyd ptd int ay/a rsh rshyd rshtd
Brent Pease 3 yes 49 99 660 3 4 5.5 13 27 1
Scott Tinsley 3 yes 48 86 637 3 4 6.0 4 2 0
Vince Evans 3 yes 39 83 630 5 4 6.6 11 144 1
Ken Karcher 3 yes 56 102 628 5 4 5.4 9 3 0
Tony Adams 3 yes 49 89 607 3 5 5.0 11 31 0
Kyle Mackey 3 yes 57 109 604 3 5 4.0 17 98 2
John Fourcade 3 yes 48 89 597 4 3 6.1 19 134 0
Alan Risher 3 yes 44 74 564 3 3 6.6 11 64 1
Erik Kramer 3 yes 45 92 559 4 5 4.5 2 10 0
Todd Hons 3 yes 43 92 552 5 5 4.6 5 49 0
Ed Rubbert 3 yes 26 49 532 4 1 11.6 9 31 0
Bruce Mathison 3 yes 36 76 501 3 5 4.4 5 15 0
Steve Bono 3 yes 34 74 438 5 2 6.1 8 27 1
Steve Dils 3 yes 37 75 431 4 2 5.6 5 1 0
Joe Montana 2 no 36 47 397 5 2 8.7 5 19 0
David Norrie 2 yes 35 68 376 1 4 3.2 5 5 0
Gary Hogeboom 2 no 32 53 374 5 1 8.1 2 1 0
Rick Neuheisel 3 yes 40 59 367 1 1 5.8 6 41 1
Jeff Kemp 1 no 20 27 344 4 1 14.0 3 12 0
Mike Hohensee 2 yes 28 52 343 4 1 7.3 9 56 0
Danny White 2 no 24 39 321 1 1 7.6 3 12 0
Matt Stevens 3 yes 32 57 315 1 1 5.1 3 7 0
Mike Kelley 3 yes 17 29 305 1 0 11.2 4 17 0
Pat Ryan 1 no 30 49 301 4 2 5.9 2 -3 0
Jeff Christensen 3 yes 24 58 297 1 3 3.1 11 41 0
Kevin Sweeney 2 yes 14 28 291 4 1 11.6 5 8 0
Gary Danielson 1 yes 25 31 281 4 0 11.6 1 0 0
Mike Busch 2 yes 17 47 278 3 2 5.3 0 0 0
Shawn Halloran 2 yes 18 42 263 0 1 5.2 3 -9 0
Bob Gagliano 2 yes 16 29 229 1 1 7.0 0 0 0
Jeff Rutledge 1 no 17 46 203 0 2 2.5 1 0 0
Doug Flutie 1 yes 15 25 199 1 0 8.8 6 43 0
Jim Zorn 1 yes 20 36 199 0 2 3.0 4 4 0
Blair Kiel 2 no 17 33 195 1 3 2.4 3 22 0
Sammy Garza 2 yes 11 20 183 1 2 5.7 8 31 1
Brian McClure 1 yes 20 38 181 0 3 1.2 2 4 0
Bob Bleier 2 yes 14 39 181 1 1 4.0 5 -5 1
Jeff Van Raaphorst 2 yes 18 34 174 1 2 3.1 1 6 0
Willie Totten 2 yes 13 33 155 2 2 3.2 12 11 0
Tony Robinson 1 yes 11 18 152 0 2 3.4 2 0 0
Mike Hold 2 yes 8 24 123 2 1 4.9 7 69 0
Dave Walter 3 yes 10 21 113 0 0 5.4 16 70 0
Reggie Collier 2 yes 4 7 110 2 1 15.0 4 20 0

Top running backs

Player gms repl? rsh rshyd rshtd ypc rec recyd rectd
Lionel Vital 3 yes 80 346 2 4.3 1 13 0
Charles White 3 no 73 339 1 4.6 7 40 0
Earnest Jackson 3 no 61 262 1 4.3 2 12 0
Kevin Willhite 3 yes 53 251 0 4.7 6 37 0
Chuck Banks 3 yes 50 245 0 4.9 9 50 0
Dwight Beverly 3 yes 62 217 2 3.5 1 8 0
Andrew Jackson 3 yes 50 208 1 4.2 5 14 0
Larry Mason 3 yes 56 207 2 3.7 5 26 1
Marc Logan 3 yes 37 203 1 5.5 3 14 0
Derrick McAdoo 3 yes 42 202 3 4.8 1 6 0
Ronald Scott 3 yes 47 199 3 4.2 2 7 0
Carl Byrum 2 no 44 198 0 4.5 1 -4 0
Michael LeBlanc 3 yes 49 170 1 3.5 2 3 0
Eddie Hunter 3 yes 48 169 0 3.5 5 24 2
Roger Craig 2 no 34 162 2 4.8 8 111 1
Joe Dudek 2 yes 35 154 2 4.4 7 41 0
Robert Parker 3 yes 47 150 1 3.2 7 44 0
Earl Ferrell 3 no 42 146 2 3.5 3 13 0
Herman Hunter 3 yes 34 144 0 4.2 3 17 0
Craig Ellis 3 yes 33 138 2 4.2 5 39 0
Reggie Brown 3 yes 39 136 0 3.5 8 53 0
Lakei Heimuli 3 yes 34 128 0 3.8 5 51 1
Nathan Poole 2 yes 28 126 1 4.5 1 9 0
Dennis Bligen 2 yes 29 125 1 4.3 7 58 0
Alvin Blount 2 yes 46 125 3 2.7 1 5 0
Jacque Robinson 3 yes 24 114 0 4.8 2 9 0
Chris Smith 3 yes 26 114 0 4.4 2 21 0
Cleve Wester 3 yes 33 113 0 3.4 0 0 0
Adrian Wright 3 yes 37 112 0 3.0 13 98 1
Tony Dorsett 2 no 23 108 1 4.7 2 11 0
Van Williams 3 yes 29 108 0 3.7 5 36 0

Top receivers and tight ends

Player gms repl? rec recyd rectd
Anthony Allen 3 yes 13 337 3
James Brim 3 yes 18 282 2
Otis Grant 3 yes 16 280 0
Kelvin Edwards 3 yes 14 272 3
Steve Largent 1 no 15 261 3
Lee Morris 3 yes 16 259 1
Walter Murray 3 yes 14 256 3
Al Williams 3 yes 12 247 1
Bobby Micho 3 yes 24 236 2
Michael Harper 3 yes 18 225 1
Perry Kemp 3 yes 12 224 2
J.T. Smith 3 no 15 217 0
Eric Truvillion 3 yes 12 207 1
Eric Martin 3 no 14 206 3
Glen Kozlowski 3 yes 15 199 3
Jimmy Teal 3 yes 14 198 2
Lewis Bennett 3 yes 10 184 1
Milton Barney 2 yes 10 175 2
Lenny Taylor 2 yes 12 171 1
Troy Johnson 2 yes 6 170 1
Joey Clinkscales 2 yes 7 169 1
Cornell Burbage 3 yes 7 168 2
Oliver Williams 2 yes 11 165 1
Leonard Harris 3 yes 10 164 0
Craig McEwen 3 yes 12 164 0
Larry Linne 3 yes 11 158 2
Scott Holman 3 yes 15 155 0
Curt Pardridge 3 yes 8 145 1
Stacey Dawsey 3 yes 13 142 0
Darrell Grymes 2 yes 9 140 2
Mike Waters 3 yes 5 140 1
Brian Brennan 1 no 10 139 1
Mike Siano 3 yes 9 137 1
Carl Aikens 3 yes 8 134 3
Kevin Bowman 2 yes 6 127 1
Steve Holloway 3 yes 10 127 0
Dwight Clark 2 no 11 126 3
Edwin Lovelady 3 yes 10 125 2
Sylvester Byrd 2 yes 7 125 0
Marc Brown 3 yes 9 120 1
Eric Streater 3 yes 5 117 2
Sheldon Gaines 3 yes 9 115 0
Ted Wilson 3 yes 5 112 1
Terry Greer 3 yes 6 111 1
Reggie McGowan 2 yes 4 111 1
Eddie Chavis 2 yes 7 108 0
Stacey Mobley 3 yes 8 107 1
Malcolm Moore 3 yes 6 107 1
David Williams 3 yes 4 104 0

Tomorrow, we'll take a look at how the "real" players performed during the 12 "real" games of the 1987 season, again using the SRS; I'll also take a look at what could have been in the NFL had the strike never happened.

This entry was posted on Thursday, April 1st, 2010 at 7:42 am and is filed under History, Insane ideas. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.