The hot teams of the 1987 SFL season will be Indianapolis, Tampa Bay, Houston, Washington and anybody else who spent the summer telling the rookies and free agents who hadn't made their teams, "Stick around for later kid. We'll be calling you. And here's a G-note to tide you over." The SFL is the Strike Football League, or Scab Football League, shortened simply to scab ball by the NFL players who went out on strike at the conclusion of the Sept. 21 Jets-Patriots Monday night game.
As the strike deadline approached, there was no drama, no feeling that some last-minute offer could avert or delay a walkout. Management's point man, Jack Donlan, and his union counterpart, Gene Upshaw, met in Washington on Sept. 18, and nothing happened. Talks ended. So the strike was on, and teams were advised to fill their rosters with whatever players they could.
Scab ball could be the way of life in the NFL for two, three, five, who-knows-how-many weeks, and regrettably all the results will count. Which teams get playoff berths may well be determined by a bunch of guys the NFL euphemistically calls replacement players. Franchises that didn't hustle for scab ball talent because they thought they had better things to do, like getting real NFL teams ready for the season, or because of loyalty to their regulars, are going to be the patsies of the SFL. Giants, Seahawks, Vikings, Bears. Pretty good names, huh? Not in the SFL.
"Unfortunately we wouldn't win a spitting contest with our scab team," says Dan Hampton, defensive end for the 2-0 Chicago Bears. "It would be a real possibility for us to come back and be 2-5. That would be a travesty."
No one knows how long the strike will last. And nobody knows how many of today's striking players will be members of tomorrow's replacement rosters, how many will join those who have already crossed picket lines. That number will figure in won-lost records, too.
But right now? Well, who would you pick in a Colts-Giants game—Indy, with Gary Hogeboom still playing quarterback, or the Super Bowl champion Giants, with Jim Crocicchia, recently of Penn, taking the snaps? The Colts, with a roster laden with NFL experience (e.g., two of Hogeboom's receivers, Greg Hawthorne and Clyde Duncan, are former No. 1 draft choices who at one time or another have played regularly in the league), should dominate the early weeks of scab ball. They've worked especially hard to line up talent, and with good reason. Coach Ron Meyer's five-year contract has three years guaranteed. If Meyer, who took over as coach late last year, goes .500 or better in any of those three seasons, the last two years are guaranteed as well. With a pre-scab ball record of 0-2, things weren't looking very bright for a 50-50 season. Now? Anything goes.
The Redskins weren't big on handing out those advance payments during the summer, but all of general manager Bobby Beathard's bloodlines and instincts are in scouting, and scab ball is the scout's ultimate daydream—out-bird-dog the other guys and you get instant rewards. "It was like starting a new league, like starting from scratch," says Beathard. "It's like the high school coach hanging a sign outside the gym, saying, 'All those who want to try out for football report at 5 p.m.' "
Hogeboom wasn't the only veteran to answer that call. With shouts of "Scab!" ringing in his ears, Mark Gastineau crossed the Jets' picket line. He didn't get any sacks during the regular or exhibition season, but he'll be a scab ball terror, lining up against the free agents from Yo Ho U. Randy White is back at Dallas (see following story). Marc Wilson, who couldn't beat out Rusty Hilger at quarterback for the Raiders, should be a passing sensation in the SFL.
Tampa Bay dug up 37-year-old John Reaves, who seems to surface every time a new league shows life. Philadelphia resuscitated Guido Merkens, 32, once Bum Phillips's personal project as a combination wideout-quarterback in Houston and New Orleans. He's the Eagles' No. 1 signal caller, which means that at least Philly is better off than Seattle, a team that didn't try to lure scabballers until the strike was a certainty.
On Thursday, with a game against Miami's scabs 10 days away, the Sea-hawks had 28 players practicing, including only one quarterback, Charles Glaze, who had run South Carolina State's option offense last season and was a defensive back in Seattle's summer camp. Midway through practice another one showed up, David Lindley from Linfield College. Hey kid, ya wanna play quarterback for the Sea-hawks? By day's end, Seattle had 35 players, but only one defensive lineman, three linebackers and no tight ends.
Sixty players took the Raiders' physical, and none failed. "We handed them a mirror and asked them to breathe on it," said trainer George Anderson. "If they fogged the mirror, they passed."
Sure, scab ball won't be semipro football, a bunch of guys off the street, but it won't be pro football, either. It won't be the caliber of the USFL, which got its share of first-line college prospects. Scab ball will be, well, scab ball. And how do you coach something like this? Said Miami assistant David Shula, who was gearing up for a game with the Giants before last weekend's games were canceled, "We've gone from trying to prepare for Lawrence Taylor to showing people how to line up in the huddle."
"We're keeping it pretty simple," says Raider linebacker coach Sam Gruneisen. "We've asked them to learn each others' names and where they're supposed to stand on the field. We don't want to go too fast, or we'll lose some of them mentally. Of course, we've already lost them physically, or they wouldn't be available."
Raider quarterback coach Larry Kennan says, "I figure this will be a passing league, because anybody who could play defensive back and cover man-to-man is already employed."
Some coaches shrug and say they'll do what they're ordered to do. Some almost sound enthusiastic. Then there's Chicago's Mike Ditka. In an interview after the Bears-Bucs game on Sept. 20, he said, "I'm not strong enough mentally to do what they're asking us to do. I'm going to try."
Then the interviewer, sportscaster Johnny Morris, asked Ditka if the networks and fans would buy scab ball. "Would you?" Ditka said.
"No," said Morris.
"You answered the question," Ditka said. "I'd be hitting a golf ball somewhere." By Thursday he had toned down his remarks. "I don't feel like somebody's pulling the carpet out from under me," he said. "For one day I felt that way. Then I realized life goes on."
On Wednesday and Thursday, life along the picket lines got nasty at times, but no one was injured. The more militant tactics seemed to have a sameness to them, as if the strikers were following a directive. Everyone threw eggs—not tomatoes, cabbages, grapefruits or wallets. Only eggs. A few buses carrying scab ball players into practice facilities were waylaid, and a brief scuffle between a striking player, Chiefs linebacker Jack Del Rio, and a team scout, former All-Pro wide receiver Otis Taylor, broke out in Kansas City. In Buffalo a U.S. Postal Service jeep was denied access to the tunnel leading to Rich Stadium. Quarterback Jim Kelly playfully rocked it, but noseguard Fred Smerlas drove a shoulder into the grill and knocked the jeep back a foot. It was as if the players had been told to do some harassing but no real rough stuff.
Then on Friday the injunctions and restraining orders came down. No more than four pickets at once in Indianapolis and Philly, and only a designated area could be used. The lines melted. On Thursday at least 60 members of other unions had joined some 15 striking Colts in a spirited demonstration. By Friday afternoon only two pickets were in front of Indianapolis's practice facility. By Saturday none was there. The Broncos' picket line had disappeared by Friday. "All of a sudden the place looked like Wall Street at 4 a.m.," said Denver media relations director Jim Saccomano.
The NFL's image has been badly damaged by the strike, and scab ball will only make it worse. The reason that the owners kept camps closed during the last players' strike, in 1982, when each club lost seven games, is that they feared subpar games would hurt the league. Some owners wanted to play with pickups back then, but commissioner Pete Rozelle convinced them that was a bad idea. Privately, he's still opposed to playing games during the strike, but he hasn't tried to stop them.
According to Cowboys president Tex Schramm, making money is only one reason that owners agreed to go ahead with scab ball. "Our attorneys have told us that we have a contractual relationship with our players, and we have to be ready to honor it," he says. "If we don't, then legally they might be able to apply to have their contracts voided. What this means is that if we don't give them a team to play for, they might be able to become free agents."
The obvious question: Why wasn't this considered when the owners closed down shop in 1982?
"I don't think we looked at it from that standpoint then," Schramm says.
Free agency wasn't even an issue in 1982, and the players stayed out 57 days. When Donlan and Upshaw resumed discussions in Philadelphia last week, it was the issue. The players have come off their original stand of unlimited free agency and proposed freedom of movement after four years in the league. Even though the average NFL career is less than four years, the owners rejected the proposal. Opening the door to free agency, they say, would destroy a system that has brought prosperity to the players and owners alike. Management offered to reduce what one team must compensate another in draft picks for signing one of its players as a free agent. The players said no, reasoning that the system was wrong, not the numbers.
That's where things stood on Friday, when Donlan and Upshaw broke off talks without scheduling another session. Donlan has maintained that the owners will never grant free agency. Nor will they consider a free-agency system with restrictions, such as one similar to the NBA's, which places a salary cap on teams, or one that limits the number of free agents a team can sign.
The players could play this season without a contract and then challenge the system on antitrust grounds. If they could hold their union together for three years, or however long such a suit would take, they might well crack the system. But by then most of today's players would be gone.
Many players see scab ball as nothing more than a union-busting tactic on the part of management. Player support weakened and finally collapsed in 1974, when the veterans were out for six weeks during the summer, and in 1982. Players now have much more to lose financially than they did in the previous walkouts, but they've never been so vocal or militant on the picket line.
At least for the first week.