The Replacements: How the ’87 player strike led to the three strangest weeks in NFL history

Adam Patrick

If a young person were to look up the results of the 1987 NFL season, it would not seem much different than any other year. John Elway was the league’s MVP, Reggie White was the Defensive Player of the Year, and Jerry Rice led the NFL in touchdowns.

But examined a little closer, one would notice that each team in 1987 only played 15 regular season games that year as opposed to the normal 16 games that are played during the season. The shorter season was a direct result of the league’s players deciding to go on strike following each team’s second game of the year.

Players were fighting for less restrictions in free agency, among other things, so that they would have the freedom to sign with any team of their choosing once their contract came to an end. The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement at the time did not allow this, so the players thought that a labor strike could be the key to solving their problem.

Just two weeks into the 1987 season, NFL players went on strike. (Photo Source: Twitter)
Just two weeks into the 1987 season, NFL players went on strike. (Photo Source: Twitter)

Week 3 of the regular season was cancelled and the leverage for the players seemed to be moving in the right direction. However, NFL owners enlisted in the help of some replacement players and the following Weeks 4, 5, and 6 went on as they were originally planned.

Almost anyone with two functioning legs was able to play for a team during this three week span. Everyone from lawyers to construction workers to police officers got an opportunity to live out their childhood dream of playing in the NFL. A handful of current players from the league remained on their teams, but for the most part, each team’s roster was made up of players that fans had never even heard of.

As one would expect, the quality of play during these three weeks of the 1987 season was not exactly the greatest. But the games were still played and it eventually caused the original players to end their strike without even solving any of their original disputes with the NFL.

NFL fans were not exactly flocking to their team's stadium to see the replacement players. (Photo Source: Twitter)
NFL fans were not exactly flocking to their team’s stadium to see the replacement players. (Photo Source: Twitter)

A few of the replacement players were lucky enough to remain with their teams following the end of the strike. But for the most part, the dream was over for many in the league after just three weeks as their jobs were handed back to the players they had originally replaced.

Following the strike, the 1987 season continued on as if nothing had happened. Dan Marino was back slinging darts across the field, Eric Dickerson was back running by defenders, and Bruce Smith was back chasing down opposing quarterbacks.

For most of the players that got the opportunity to play in an actual NFL game in one of those three weeks during the strike, they went back to being like everyone else watching games at home on their television.

Current New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton got an opportunity to play in 1987 thanks to the player strike. (Photo Source: Twitter)
Current New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton got an opportunity to play in 1987 thanks to the player strike. (Photo Source: Twitter)

To most,  what happened in 1987 does not seem to have any real possibility of ever happening again. Current players have a lot more luxuries than those who came before them, but there are still plenty of issues remaining that could cause a future work stoppage.

It really is hard to imagine a strike ever happening again. But hey, no one thought the New England Patriots would come back from a 25-point deficit to win last year’s Super Bowl either.

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