Joe Gibbs’ stomach was rumbling when he emerged from the Washington Redskins coaches’ meeting Saturday night, Oct. 3, 1987. He was, by his own admission, “kind of snarly anyway” because it was the night before a game against the division rival St. Louis Cardinals. On that occasion, however, Gibbs was even more anxious than usual.
In a few hours, he would lead a team of replacement players that had been cobbled together during the previous 10 days in the face of a strike by the NFL players union. Instead of Doug Williams to Art Monk, Gibbs was contemplating Ed Rubbert to Anthony Allen.
The remedy for Gibbs’ pre-game angst was a critical part of his Saturday routine. A hamburger at the team’s nighttime snack was comfort food. The Redskins were a veteran team back then with many players who could afford to eat out on their own. So while players usually noshed ice cream or some such treat before bed, there would be hamburgers left over when Gibbs straggled out of his meeting.
That night, though, all the penny-pinching replacement players turned snack time into a free meal.
“There wasn’t a crumb left in the entire snack room,” Gibbs recalled this week through his characteristic cackle. “It looked like the locust had hit the place. I turned to [assistant general manager] Bobby Mitchell and said: ‘I WANT MY HAMBURGER!’ And he took off running.”
The Redskins’ burger supply was just one of several team elements tested during that 24-day strike. Unity and leadership were others, as Redskins union members picketed outside team headquarters and RFK Stadium while replacement players from off the street took their jobs.
And although the use of replacements in 1987 resulted in some significant differences between that work stoppage and the current NFL lockout, the Redskins’ survival and eventual Super Bowl title that year provide some lessons applicable to today’s team.
“Especially in Washington, D.C., that was one of our goals, to stay solid, to stay as one,” former Redskins guard R.C. Thielemann said. “You saw some of the stars that crossed the picket line in Dallas and other teams. It’s tough to do, but we did it. I think in the long run that kind of stuff pays off. Football is a team thing, and it always has been.”
Message of unity
On the morning of Sept. 21, 1987, players reported to Redskins Park to clean out their lockers. Before they left there and went to union representative Neal Olkewicz’s house to vote on whether to strike, Gibbs gathered everyone for some parting words.
Former offensive tackle Joe Jacoby recently recalled Gibbs’ message, which served as a mission statement of sorts when nerves inevitably frayed and tempers flared.
“Guys, whatever you all decide to do, do it together,” Jacoby remembered. “Do it, everybody. If one crosses [the picket line], that breaks everything.”
Players took that to heart. Gibbs had their ear after guiding them to the Super Bowl in two of the previous five seasons, including the championship after a strike-shortened 1982 campaign.
On the strike’s first day, almost every player on the roster picketed outside team headquarters. Some wore sandwich boards and others held signs promoting the players’ causes. At the core was their desire for a less restrictive free agency system.
“We needed the choice to work where we like, just like every American,” Jacoby said. “We did not have that.”
Players eventually divided picketing duties into shifts scheduled around position group workouts. There was a different dynamic, though, to informal practices back then compared to those the Redskins have held this offseason.
The 1987 team already had gone through training camp and was in season. Their workouts were intended to keep players sharp and in shape so they could immediately step back in when the strike ended. Also, there were several veterans of the 1982 team, such as Jacoby, who knew how to approach the situation.
“We didn’t have as many cars as some of these guys got and places to go and things to do because we couldn’t afford it back then,” said Williams, who earned Super Bowl XXII MVP honors after quarterbacking the Redskins to victory that year. “So we stayed, and we stuck together and worked out and got ready for work to begin.”
George Mason University was the Redskins’ main workout location. Quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs gathered to run routes. Linemen ran to maintain their conditioning, but there was never contact.
“There’s really nothing we could do without the pads,” Jacoby said. “We got together mostly to hang around. I hate to say it, but we were left having to shoot cold beers and talking things over. But as long as we stayed together, that’s all Joe was worried about.”
Planning for replacements
Even before the players walked out, the wheels were turning in the back rooms of Redskins Park. General manager Bobby Beathard and assistant general manager Charley Casserly had long anticipated a strike and fully expected NFL owners to play games with replacement players. They had lists of names and a few scouting reports ready to go.
The Redskins’ preparation put them ahead of the rest of the league. While some teams struggled to fill their starting offense and defense, Washington quickly signed about 50 players.
However, there were pitfalls during those wild, unprecedented times. Take the story of cornerback Eric Jeffries. He signed with Washington, while an impostor using his name signed with the New York Giants. The fraud knew everything about Jeffries’ background when quizzed about such information as where he went to college, but he was exposed when the Giants saw he ran with a piano on his back.
“You could get an agreement with a guy over the phone, and he might never show up,” Casserly said. “He may get intercepted by somebody who offered him more money, and you wouldn’t know it until he didn’t come to the airport.”
The use of replacement players burned the union Redskins. When the bus transporting the replacement team from a Dulles hotel to Redskins Park rolled past the picket line for its first day of practice, veteran defensive lineman Darryl Grant punched a window and cracked two panes.
“These people would steal the shoes off a dead man,” Grant told The Washington Times that day.
Replacements stepped up
Attendance at replacement-player games plummeted around the league, but the “ScabSkins,” as they were called by some, were a hit. That Rubbert-to-Allen combo? Allen’s 255 receiving yards against St. Louis still stand as the franchise’s single-game record.
By the time the non-union Redskins pummeled the Giants’ replacements the following week, the players union obviously was splintering. Big-name veterans were crossing the picket line in just about every NFL city. Joe Montana, Mark Gastineau, Howie Long — even Jim Zorn — were among them.
The union Redskins struggled to stay together, which is to say, they worked hard to convince defensive end Dexter Manley not to cross the picket line.
“Dexter was his own union,” Thielemann, the former guard, recalled with a chuckle. “I’m sure Gibbs had his hands full with him his whole career.”
Manley twice during the strike stated he would cross the picket line only to change his mind the following day.
Many veterans league-wide cited financial reasons in justifying their choice to break with the union. Players during that strike lost an average of about $14,300 per week, and Manley’s loss was several times that. Even though his contract included incentives for sacks and postseason honors, Manley said money was not a factor.
“I was just messing with Neal Olkewicz,” Manley recently said through howling laughter. “I’d tell him one minute I’m with him and the next thing they’d read was: ‘Manley is going to cross the picket line.’ I was just really having fun. I talked to Joe Gibbs and told him I was going to cross, and he told me not to do it.”
Said Gibbs: “I talked to Dexter; most of the time he wouldn’t listen. Dexter is the one I had to worry about.
“I think generally what we were saying as coaches was, ‘Look guys, we need to be together on this one. This is eventually going to end, and when it does we all need to be together.’”
When the strike ended Oct. 15, 227 players out of the 1,585 registered with the union had crossed the picket line. The Redskins were the only team in the league without a defector.
“When it got down to us being the last ones who didn’t have anybody cross, we said, ‘That’s a good thing,’” said former quarterback Jay Schroeder, the Redskins’ assistant union representative. “Some of those [meetings] got a little heated. What else? Guys wanted to get back to work. I was proud of those guys for coming together.”
Missing out on Dallas game
The union capitulated and pursued its mission through litigation after the owners refused to bargain. The Redskins, meanwhile, had voted the previous day to cross the picket line as a team, but they didn’t immediately report to work. And because they missed the Wednesday 1 p.m. reporting deadline that week, they had to sit out while the replacements visited Dallas on Monday night.
The Redskins were eight-point underdogs because seven Cowboys starters, including quarterback Danny White and running back Tony Dorsett, had crossed the picket line. Washington, however, won 13-7. The replacements carried Gibbs off the field on their shoulders.
“When I look back on it now, I felt that we truly had the advantage because when those [Cowboys] crossed the line, that’s a nightmare,” Gibbs said. “We all know in football you have to be together, and our group was together.”
The replacement team’s 3-0 record put the Redskins in first place in the NFC East when the veterans returned and positioned them for their playoff run. And while veterans on other teams returned to confront teammates who broke with the union, the Redskins were free of such drama.
“Beating the Cowboys took the wind out of their sails, I’m sure,” Casserly said. “I gotta believe that was a divided locker room after that.”
It wasn’t all smiles and handshakes in Washington, though. If Gibbs’ masterwork during the strike wasn’t impressive enough, he then had to incorporate the few replacements the front office opted to keep with the returning union members.
“It was obviously awkward,” Thielemann said. “We called them scabs and all that like we were a coal mine union or something. We really weren’t. But at the end of the year we realized they just wanted to play like we did. The few that were left that made the team, we were glad they were there.”
Added Gibbs: “That was rough. I think that’s why today this is going to be much different. Players and owners know once they get this thing negotiated, they’re going to come in together.”
The lessons learned that season about the importance of unity and leadership still apply, though.
They’re part of what Gibbs shared with New York Jets coach Rex Ryan when Ryan sought his counsel earlier this offseason. And they’re why current Redskins leaders such as London Fletcher and Lorenzo Alexander have stressed the importance of offseason workouts during the lockout.
“They stuck together and had their workouts as a group,” Gibbs said. “They had good leadership in there and they had veteran guys who were real Redskins. The Redskins meant a lot to them. When you get real leadership, that probably had a lot to say about what happened that year.”