1987 NFL strike still haunts ex-Giants coach Bill Parcells

Bob Glauber

Bob Glauber has been Newsday’s national football columnist since 1992. He was Newsday’s football writer covering the Jets and Giants, as well as the NFL, from 1989-91. He was selected as the New York State sportswriter of the year in 2015 and 2011 by the National Sports Media Association.
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Thirty years later, Bill Parcells still can feel the disappointment over what happened the afternoon of Sept. 20, 1987.

“Lost it on a fourth-quarter field goal against the Cowboys,” Parcells said Friday from his home in Saratoga Springs, revisiting Roger Ruzek’s 28-yard field goal at Giants Stadium that proved to be the deciding kick in a 16-14 loss. “That was a tough one. Didn’t play well enough to win, so it put us in a very tough spot.”

Little did Parcells know the wild turn of events that was about to happen as he attempted to defend the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history. The Giants started the season with back-to-back losses to the Bears and Cowboys, knowing full well that no team in NFL history had ever come back from an 0-2 start to win a Super Bowl.

But after the Week 2 games, the NFL Players Association had made good on its threat to strike. Unlike a previous strike in 1982, when the players also walked out after two games for what would become a 57-day work stoppage, the NFL decided to continue the season with replacement players until the strike ended.

The league canceled its Week 3 games in 1987, but the schedule resumed in Week 4 and continued for three games until the 24-day strike had ended.

By the time all the regular players had returned to work — several big-name players, including Lawrence Taylor, Joe Montana, Randy White and Tony Dorsett, crossed the picket lines before the strike ended — the Giants’ season essentially was over.

Playing with a rag-tag group of players hastily organized by general manager George Young, Parcells’ replacement team lost to the 49ers, Redskins and Bills. When the entire team returned from the strike, the Giants were 0-5.

“I still had a good team, but it was a team without any hope when they came back,” Parcells said. “When you’re 0-5 and you’ve got 10 to play, you almost had to win all 10, and we just couldn’t do it.”

The Giants finished 6-9 and missed the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.

As he looks back on the 30th anniversary of the last time the NFL canceled a game and eventually held replacement games, Parcells laments what might have been.

“It was very hard to [coach the team], especially when you’ve had hope in your recent past and now you didn’t,” he said.

Parcells barely recalls any of the players he coached, and couldn’t even name the starting quarterback for the first replacement game.

“We had a kid from the University of Pennsylvania,” he said. “I forget his name.”

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It was Jim Crocicchia, who participated in the Giants’ training camp that year but was released before the regular season.

It didn’t go well. Crocicchia suffered a shoulder injury in the loss to the 49ers, who ran the wishbone offense and walloped the Giants, 41-21. After Crocicchia hurt his shoulder, Mike Busch, another training camp passer, started against the Redskins, who crushed the Giants, 38-12, behind replacement quarterback Ed Rubbert.

The regular players actually returned after the second replacement game, but not in time to play the following weekend. Even with Taylor and quarterback Jeff Rutledge back with the Giants by then, they lost in overtime to the Bills, 6-3, in one of the most brutal games you’d ever want to see.

By the time the players returned, there was a little to play for.

It wasn’t that way in Washington, however. Unlike the Giants, who didn’t aggressively pursue replacement players, the Redskins were relentless in trying to assemble the best team possible.

“We worked like crazy to put a team together,” said Charley Casserly, a personnel assistant to general manager Bobby Beathard at the time of the strike. “We did whatever we could to get the best players we could.”

After going 1-1 their first two games with the regulars, coach Joe Gibbs won all three replacement games and eventually won his second Super Bowl that season. Rubbert started all three games, but got hurt in the final replacement game against Dallas and was replaced by former Tennessee quarterback Tony Robinson.

With many of the Cowboys’ regulars playing in that game, Robinson led the team to a 13-7 win at Texas Stadium. Robinson had been released from prison earlier that year after serving time for possession of cocaine, and a judge ordered him to resume his sentence the following year.

Robinson’s performance was an inspiration for the 2000 movie, “The Replacements,” which starred Keanu Reeves and was based loosely on the Redskins’ strike team.

Jets coach Todd Bowles was a member of the 1987 Redskins, but missed all three replacement games.

“It was my second year in the league and I was pretty much one of the doughnut guys,” Bowles recalled on Friday. “I got the doughnuts and I picketed, and that was my job. I didn’t know what we were picketing for, but I picketed. They said, ‘Don’t cross.’ I didn’t cross, but I was out there every day.”

Bowles, who played safety on that Super Bowl winning team, felt relieved once the strike ended. “I was glad I was getting some paychecks,” he said. “I was making $85,000 going into my second year, living in an apartment with a roommate. But you don’t know the rules going into your second year. You just follow the other guys. Whatever the leaders said, you did and we stuck together as a team and it worked out for us.”

Thirty years after the last lost weekend of NFL football, the memories — the good ones and the bad — still linger.

With Calvin Watkins

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