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The 1987 strike and what could have been, Part II

Posted by Chase Stuart on April 2, 2010

Part I

Yesterday, I posted SRS ratings for the teams during weeks 3, 4 and 5 of the 1987 season -- the replacement teams. The more interesting question, I think, is how did those real teams perform in the other 12 games? The table below shows team SRS ratings for all 28 NFL teams in 1987 during games 1, 2 and 6 through 15:

MOV SOS SRS w l t
San Francisco 49ers 12.8 -0.4 12.4 10 2 0
New Orleans Saints 8.9 0.4 9.2 10 2 0
Cleveland Browns 8.5 -0.1 8.4 8 4 0
Denver Broncos 7.7 -1.0 6.7 8 3 1
Seattle Seahawks 2.9 0.1 2.9 7 5 0
Buffalo Bills 0.7 2.1 2.8 6 6 0
Washington Redskins 4.6 -1.8 2.8 8 4 0
New England Patriots 1.3 1.3 2.6 6 6 0
Philadelphia Eagles 0.7 1.3 1.9 7 5 0
Chicago Bears 2.6 -0.7 1.9 9 3 0
Los Angeles Raiders 1.3 0.6 1.9 4 8 0
New York Giants 1.4 0.4 1.8 6 6 0
Indianapolis Colts 2.0 -0.5 1.6 7 5 0
Miami Dolphins -0.4 0.8 0.4 7 5 0
New York Jets -1.0 1.1 0.1 5 7 0
Minnesota Vikings 2.7 -2.6 0.1 8 4 0
Los Angeles Rams -1.5 0.6 -0.9 5 7 0
Pittsburgh Steelers -2.8 1.8 -1.1 6 6 0
Houston Oilers -1.6 0.2 -1.3 7 5 0
St. Louis Cardinals 0.2 -2.8 -2.6 6 6 0
Green Bay Packers -4.6 1.5 -3.0 3 8 1
Dallas Cowboys -2.4 -1.5 -3.9 5 7 0
Cincinnati Bengals -4.8 0.6 -4.1 3 9 0
Kansas City Chiefs -3.8 -0.9 -4.7 4 8 0
San Diego Chargers -6.6 1.3 -5.3 5 7 0
Tampa Bay Buccaneers -6.8 -0.5 -7.2 2 10 0
Detroit Lions -6.8 -1.8 -8.6 3 9 0
Atlanta Falcons -15.3 0.4 -14.9 2 10 0

  • The Minnesota Vikings went 8-7 in '87, but some have argued that they were actually a very good team. And it's easy to see their argument: with an 0-3 record in the replacement games, the Vikings "really" went 8-4. And, of course, Minnesota beat the two best teams in the NFL in the playoffs (New Orleans and San Francisco) and then led the league in points differential the next season. But putting aside what happened after the 1987 regular season ended, the Vikings really weren't anything special. Yes, they went 8-4, but the Vikes and the Cardinals had the two easiest non-strike strengths of schedule. Adjusting for opponent strength, the '87 Vikings were pretty average.
  • Which teams were most hurt by the strike? The Eagles (7-5, 0-3), Giants (6-6, 0-3), Dolphins (7-5, 1-2) and Bills (6th best SRS, 1-2) were solid teams that had a chance to get 10 wins in a normal season. On the flip side, Seattle, Indianapolis and Houston made the playoffs in the AFC as 9-6 (7-5) teams boosted by the strike over the Dolphins. The Raiders got an indirect assist from the strike. Los Angeles was actually a solid team that season (SRS of +1.9) but lost 6 of their 8 non-strike games by a touchdown or less. They had Bo Jackson, Marcus Allen, James Lofton and Todd Christensen, all still in their prime, and the Raiders were almost always a contending team in those days. In fact, in the first 20 years of the common draft, Al Davis' team had only one losing record, and capitalized on it by taking Heisman Trophy winner and future HOFer Marcus Allen. But bad luck in their regular games in '87 and a 1-2 strike record gave the Raiders another rare chance to pick early in the first round. Los Angeles went back to the well and selected Heisman Trophy winner and (likely) future HOFer Tim Brown.

Part II: Week 3

Much of the focus on how the 1987 could have turned out focuses on the replacement games. However, it's often forgotten that a whole week's worth of games were canceled, lost forever from the NFL record books. Here's the slate of games scheduled for original week 3 of the 1987 season:

Atlanta Falcons @ New Orleans Saints
Buffalo Bills @ Dallas Cowboys
Chicago Bears @ Detroit Lions
Cincinnati Bengals @ Los Angeles Rams
Green Bay Packers @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Indianapolis Colts @ St. Louis Cardinals
Los Angeles Raiders @ Houston Oilers
Minnesota Vikings @ Kansas City Chiefs
New England Patriots @ Washington Redskins
New York Giants @ Miami Dolphins
New York Jets @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Philadelphia Eagles @ San Francisco 49ers
Seattle Seahawks @ San Diego Chargers
Denver Broncos @ Cleveland Browns (MNF)

One game really stands out. The prior season's epic AFC Championship game between the Browns and Broncos, and the current season's epic AFC Championship Game between the Browns and Broncos should have been sandwiched around a Monday Night battle between the two powerhouses in the conference. Unfortunately, it never happened.

One other historical oddity. In week three, the Dolphins were scheduled to play their first ever game at Joe Robbie Stadium against the Giants. It was also going to be New York's first ever visit to Miami; it never happened. Twenty years later, Miami fans missed another chance when the Giants were scheduled to come to town, when the game was played in London; as a result, the Giants have only traveled to Miami twice in franchise history, and aren't scheduled for another visit until 2015.

Part III

What would have happened if there never was a strike? I don't know. You don't know. I'll never know. You'll never know. But why not indulge in some fantasy? Let's pretend that the strike never happened and all 16 scheduled games were played. We'll assume that what actually happened in the 12 "real" games would have happened again, but that in the other four games, the team with the better SRS will win (unless the underdog was at home, and the HFA was greater than the difference between the team's SRS scores). Obviously, the favorite doesn't always win, and even if they did, certain teams might rest starters in the final week(s) once their playoff seedings are set. But let's ignore all that, and just assume that the favorite, based on SRS scores and home field, won the other four scheduled games during the 1987 season. What would the standings have looked like? I went through and assigned wins and losses in those games; projected standings, along with the record in the "real" 12 games, below:

tm MOV SOS SRS w l t W L T Perc
SFO 12.8 -0.4 12.4 10 2 0 14 2 0 0.875
NOR 8.9 0.4 9.2 10 2 0 14 2 0 0.875
CLE 8.5 -0.1 8.4 8 4 0 12 4 0 0.750
DEN 7.7 -1.0 6.7 8 3 1 11 4 1 0.719
SEA 2.9 0.1 2.9 7 5 0 11 5 0 0.688
WAS 4.6 -1.8 2.8 8 4 0 11 5 0 0.688
CHI 2.6 -0.7 1.9 9 3 0 11 5 0 0.688
MIN 2.7 -2.6 0.1 8 4 0 11 5 0 0.688
PHI 0.7 1.3 1.9 7 5 0 10 6 0 0.625
BUF 0.7 2.1 2.8 6 6 0 9 7 0 0.563
IND 2.0 -0.5 1.6 7 5 0 9 7 0 0.563
MIA -0.4 0.8 0.4 7 5 0 9 7 0 0.563
PIT -2.8 1.8 -1.1 6 6 0 9 7 0 0.563
NWE 1.3 1.3 2.6 6 6 0 8 8 0 0.500
RAM -1.5 0.6 -0.9 5 7 0 8 8 0 0.500
RAI 1.3 0.6 1.9 4 8 0 7 9 0 0.438
NYG 1.4 0.4 1.8 6 6 0 7 9 0 0.438
NYJ -1.0 1.1 0.1 5 7 0 7 9 0 0.438
HOU -1.6 0.2 -1.3 7 5 0 7 9 0 0.438
STL 0.2 -2.8 -2.6 6 6 0 6 10 0 0.375
GNB -4.6 1.5 -3.0 3 8 1 5 10 1 0.344
DAL -2.4 -1.5 -3.9 5 7 0 5 11 0 0.313
SDG -6.6 1.3 -5.3 5 7 0 5 11 0 0.313
CIN -4.8 0.6 -4.1 3 9 0 4 12 0 0.250
KAN -3.8 -0.9 -4.7 4 8 0 4 12 0 0.250
DET -6.8 -1.8 -8.6 3 9 0 4 12 0 0.250
TAM -6.8 -0.5 -7.2 2 10 0 3 13 0 0.188
ATL -15.3 0.4 -14.9 2 10 0 2 14 0 0.125

How would the divisions break down?

The AFC East would end in a 3-way tie for first place among the Bills, Colts and Dolphins. All finished at 9-7. The round robin of games with them went as follows: the Dolphins went 1-3 in real life against these teams, beating the Colts in week 2 but losing to them in week 9; they were swept by Buffalo in weeks 6 and 11. The Bills beat the Colts at the end of the season but "lost" to them during the replacement games; in our simulation, the Bills get a clean sweep of both teams, and win the AFC East. The AFC Central and AFC West go by straight records.

The AFC Wildcard projects as a three-way tie between the Colts, Dolphins, and the 9-7 Steelers. The Dolphins (5-7) had a worse conference record than both the Colts (7-7) and the Steelers (7-5), although I believe the tiebreakers back then worked as follows. Miami would drop out first, as they had a worse AFC East record than the Colts. Then the Steelers and Colts would be decided based on H2H, which happened during the replacement games. The Colts have a slight edge in SRS, but the game was in Pittsburgh, swinging it to the Steelers. Therefore, the Steelers would get the last wildcard.

Here's how the AFC standings would look:

tm MOV SOS SRS w l t W L T Perc GB
AFC East BUF* 0.7 2.1 2.8 6 6 0 9 7 0 0.563 --
IND 2.0 -0.5 1.6 7 5 0 9 7 0 0.563 --
MIA -0.4 0.8 0.4 7 5 0 9 7 0 0.563 --
NWE 1.3 1.3 2.6 6 6 0 8 8 0 0.500 1.0
NYJ -1.0 1.1 0.1 5 7 0 7 9 0 0.438 2.0
AFC Central CLE* 8.5 -0.1 8.4 8 4 0 12 4 0 0.750 --
PIT* -2.8 1.8 -1.1 6 6 0 9 7 0 0.563 3.0
HOU -1.6 0.2 -1.3 7 5 0 7 9 0 0.438 5.0
CIN -4.8 0.6 -4.1 3 9 0 4 12 0 0.250 8.0
AFC West DEN* 7.7 -1.0 6.7 8 3 1 11 4 1 0.719 --
SEA* 2.9 0.1 2.9 7 5 0 11 5 0 0.688 0.5
RAI 1.3 0.6 1.9 4 8 0 7 9 0 0.438 4.5
SDG -6.6 1.3 -5.3 5 7 0 5 11 0 0.313 6.5
KAN -3.8 -0.9 -4.7 4 8 0 4 12 0 0.250 7.5

The Steelers would travel to Seattle in the first round of the playoffs; a Seahawks victory would send them to Cleveland and have the Bills go to Denver, while a Pittsburgh upset would mean the Steelers would face the Broncos and would leave the Bills to face their cross-lake rival.

The NFC was home to the powerhouses. The Redskins would win the East, with the Bears, Vikings, 49ers and Saints joining them in the post-season. But with ties in both the Central and West, which team would be the wildcard and which the division champ? In the Central, the Vikings were swept by the Bears, once in real life (well, twice if we really count real life) and once via projection during the replacement games. The NFC West was more complicated, as the Dome Patrol and The Genius led their teams to 14-2 records. Both teams were projected to go undefeated during the replacement games; head to head doesn't help, either. In week 6, the 49ers won in New Orleans by 2; in week 9, the Saints won in San Francisco by 2. The 49ers' other loss came in week 1 at Pittsburgh, while the Saints other defeat was at the hands of the Eagles in week two. As a result, the 49ers win the West thanks to the better conference record.

tm MOV SOS SRS w l t W L T Perc GB
NFC East WAS* 4.6 -1.8 2.8 8 4 0 11 5 0 0.688 --
PHI 0.7 1.3 1.9 7 5 0 10 6 0 0.625 1.0
NYG 1.4 0.4 1.8 6 6 0 7 9 0 0.438 4.0
STL 0.2 -2.8 -2.6 6 6 0 6 10 0 0.375 5.0
DAL -2.4 -1.5 -3.9 5 7 0 5 11 0 0.313 6.0
NFC Central CHI* 2.6 -0.7 1.9 9 3 0 11 5 0 0.688 --
MIN* 2.7 -2.6 0.1 8 4 0 11 5 0 0.688 --
GNB -4.6 1.5 -3.0 3 8 1 5 10 1 0.344 6.0
DET -6.8 -1.8 -8.6 3 9 0 4 12 0 0.250 7.0
TAM -6.8 -0.5 -7.2 2 10 0 3 13 0 0.188 8.0
NFC West SFO* 12.8 -0.4 12.4 10 2 0 14 2 0 0.875 --
NOR* 8.9 0.4 9.2 10 2 0 14 2 0 0.875 --
RAM -1.5 0.6 -0.9 5 7 0 8 8 0 0.500 6.0
ATL -15.3 0.4 -14.9 2 10 0 2 14 0 0.125 12.0

In the NFC playoffs, the Vikings would travel to New Orleans... just like they did in real life. And with a win, the Vikings would move on to San Francisco, which is exactly what happened. The Redskins would go on the road against the Bears... just like they really did, thanks to a worse conference record (8-4 vs. 9-3). That would set up the Vikings heading to the nation's capital for the NFC Championship game, another Redskins win.

And who would Doug Williams and his Redskins face? Pittsburgh would be forced to travel all the way to Seattle, against a better team; that would probably result in a Seahawks win (of course, years later, Pittsburgh got the upper hand when it really mattered). In the second round, Seattle and Buffalo would both be big underdogs against the Browns and Broncos, respectively. Elway vs. Kelly would have been a fantastic matchup, while Bernie Kosar and Dave Krieg would have been a very worthy appetizer. Most likely, though, we'd end up with exactly the matchup in the actual 1987 AFC Championship Game, a rematch (or based on our simulations, the rubber game) between Cleveland and Denver. And based on the Browns' victory over the Broncos in the Monday Night Football showdown, the game would be in Cleveland. Of course, the 1986 AFC Championship Game was in Cleveland, and that didn't stop Elway from pulling out some heroics, either. But the Browns fielded perhaps their best team since the merger in '87, and home field advantage may have been enough to send them to the Super Bowl.

Take a step back and imagine the hype for a Cleveland-Washington Super Bowl. The Redskins, the team of George Preston Marshall and his overt racism, were about to become the first team to ever have a black quarterback play in a Super Bowl. The Browns, the dominant team of the '50s, were finally making it back to the pinnacle of pro football. And we could have remembered how 25 years ago, these two teams were involved in one of the most famous trades of all time: following the 1962 draft, the Browns traded future Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell (inducted in 1983) to the Redskins for Ernie Davis, the first black Heisman Trophy winner. Davis' tragic death, followed by the retirement of Jim Brown and the battle between Art Modell and Paul Brown, were the key links in the chain of events that transformed the Browns from winners to losers. The Redskins would also be seeking revenge against the city of Cleveland, whose former team (the Rams) defeated the Redskins in the 1945 NFL championship game.

Part IV

The Browns were the better team, and it's easy to envision them winning Super Bowl XXII. What would have happened next in our alternative universe? Here's how history might have unfolded. First, following the Cleveland victory, defensive coordinator Dave Adolph returned to Ohio State (he previously coached there under Woody Hayes) to become the Buckeyes new head coach, following the recent firing of Earl Bruce. Schottenheimer then promoted from within, making secondary coach Bill Cowher the team's defensive coordinator in 1988. That season, the Browns defense continued to play at an elite level, guiding Cleveland to the AFC Championship Game, where they fell at the hands of their in-state rival. Meanwhile, in the other conference, general manager George Young had seen enough: furious that his Giants missed the playoffs in the final seconds of the final game of the season -- against the New York Jets, no less -- he fires Bill Parcells. Convinced that a roster with Leonard Marshall, Carl Banks, Pepper Johnson, Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, Phil Simms, Mark Bavaro, Jumbo Elliott, Bart Oates and Joe Morris shouldn't have missed the playoffs two seasons in a row, he snatched the up and coming Cowher from Cleveland and named him the Giants new head coach. Young announced that he'd never met anyone like Cowher before, and was confident would become the next great NFL coach. Two years later, Young was rewarded when Cowher brought the Giants their second Lombardi trophy in four seasons.

Schottenheimer, without a DC for the second year in a row, hired newly available Bill Belichick to coach the Browns' defense; Belichick had been extraordinarily impressive with his knowledge of defensive schemes during his interviews with Art Modell and Schottenheimer. The Browns had another terrific season in '89, making it again to the AFC Championship Game. There they faced the Broncos, who were an easy match considering Belichick (in the '86 Super Bowl) and Schottenheimer (in the '87 AFCCG) had Elway's number. The Browns' suffocating defense, led by Michael Dean Perry, Clay Matthews, Mike Johnson, Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon, shut out the Broncos at home, 21-0. Meanwhile, in the NFC, the 49ers looked invincible, and some were calling them the greatest team of all-time. They won their first two playoff games by a combined score of 81-16. They boasted the league's number one offense, including the league MVP (Joe Montana) and the three most recent Offensive Players of the Year (Montana, Roger Craig and Jerry Rice). No one gave the Browns much of a chance against this dynamite, innovative offense.

But against all odds, Cleveland pulled the upset, defeating the 49ers 20-17 on a last second field goal by Matt Bahr. Years later, it's revealed that someone on the Browns staff dispatched a video assistant to the Super Bowl stadium to tape the 49ers walkthrough practice the week of the big game; Joe Montana acknowledged that he always wondered how the Browns always seemed to know what plays they were going to call in crucial situations. Following their second Super Bowl title in three seasons, the city of Cleveland showed their appreciation for Modell and the Browns, and agreed to build a brand new, state of the art stadium in Cleveland. Modell later claimed that without the city's support, the team might have been forced to move, which nobody believed.

After a tumultuous 1990 season, Schottenheimer decided he needed a break from football to avoid burning out; Modell promoted from within, naming Belichick the Browns head coach and GM in 1991. After some up and down seasons, in 1995, Belichick was given an ultimatum: remain as head coach but give up GM duties, or be fired from both positions. Belichick chose to stay with the Browns, while Modell promoted former tight end Ozzie Newsome to become the de facto GM and vice president of player personnel. In his first draft, Newsome selected LT Jonathan Ogden and LB Ray Lewis, both of whom went on to have Hall of Fame careers for the Browns. In 2000, Lewis wins the AP Defensive Player of the Year award and guided his team to the Super Bowl; star rookie running back Jamal Lewis, another Newsome pick, became the team's main weapon in the post-season. There, the Browns crush Belichick's old team, the New York Giants, giving the franchise its third Lombardi trophy.

Belichick then announced he was going to go out on top, although the real reason he left was he saw cap hell for the Browns. He was right: Cleveland went through a bit of a rebuilding process over the next three seasons, and bottomed out in 2003. Following the '03 season, Cleveland selected hometown boy and Miami of Ohio product Ben Roethlisberger early in the '04 draft. Roethlisberger, in his first interview after the draft, talked glowingly about his childhood and how he he loved watching Bernie Kosar guide the Browns; Big Ben said how it was always his dream to play for Mr. Modell. Cleveland, with a nucleus of Lewis, Lewis, Ogden and Roethlisberger, re-emerged as the dominant team in the NFL. In '05, the Browns beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, and Roethlisberger was named Super Bowl MVP. Three years later, Roethlisberger and Lewis again led Cleveland to the promised land, beating the Cardinals in the Super Bowl on a last-second pass from Roethlisberger to Derrick Mason. The Browns join the Cowboys as the only team to win five Super Bowls. And Roethlisberger, in 2009, was awarded the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year award. And while this might not seem like big news, no one on the Browns roster ever came down with a staph infection. In other football news...

  • The Steelers were relegated to second class status as their neighbor 133 miles to the northeast became the crown jewel of the NFL, winning championships in '87 and '90. In 1991, Chuck Noll retired; the Steelers hired Dom Capers, defensive coordinator for the Giants under Cowher. Capers was in over his head as head coach, though, and ws fired after four seasons. The Steelers replaced him with Dick LeBeau, who was also a terrible fit as the main man; he was fired after three seasons. Faced with diminishing team revenue in 1998, the Rooneys asked the city of Pittsburgh for $230 million to help build a new, football-only stadium to replace the dilapidated Three Rivers Stadium. The city balked, but gave money to the Pirates to build a new baseball park. Two years later, the Rooneys asked again. Again, the city said no, as the Browns had obliterated the Steelers in both regular season games en route to their championship season. With a heavy heart and an empty wallet, Dan Rooney moved the team to the city of Baltimore, which had offered to build a new stadium fully funded from proceeds generated from the sale of tax-exempt revenue bonds and debt service paid by lottery proceeds. Pro-football-reference opens, Doug creates the franchise code "sra" for the Steelers-Ravens franchise, and the "oti" code bothered no one.
  • Belichick, in his final draft in Cleveland, selected QB Tom Brady from Michigan in the sixth round; Brady never got into a game, and was released from the team when the new regime was hired in 2001. He never took a snap in a regular season game.
  • Joe Gibbs, following his brutal loss in Super Bowl XXII to the underdog Browns, dropped his Super Bowl record to 1-2. He was labeled too cocky for his own good, and was fired when the Redskins collapsed under him three years later.
  • Bill Parcells, after being fired by the Giants at the conclusion of the '89 season, chose to get right back on the horse. He checked the league's standings -- in reverse order, of course -- and found a perfect match. The team with the league's worst record in 1988 was the Cowboys, and new owner Jerry Jones was looking to make a splash. On February 25, 1989, Jones fired Landry and hired Parcells. Parcells and Jones were a perfect match; in the '89 draft, he selected Troy Aikman with the first overall pick. Over the next four seasons, Parcells and Jones built one of the game's greatest dynasties, winning three Super Bowls in four years in the early '90s. Parcells became the first coach to win Super Bowls with different teams, and joined Chuck Noll as the only coach to win four Super Bowls. After Parcells' Cowboys failed to win another Super Bowl in 1996, Jones fired Parcells. The Tuna checked the league's standings, and became the new head coach of the 1-15 New York Jets.

Part V

On the other hand, it's probably more realistic to think that Cleveland would have just been Cleveland, and would have lost in heartbreaking fashion in '87 to either the Broncos or Redskins.

This entry was posted on Friday, April 2nd, 2010 at 7:31 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.