The super Bowl-Champion New York Giants are 0-5, and the guys with the brooms have already arrived to sweep away the remains. But the Giants aren't dead. No, they're not. Let's just say they're in the character-building stage of their season.
Forget the Super Bowl for now. Let's consider the odds of New York recovering from a lousy prestrike showing and a lousier scab ball showing and still making the playoffs. If it wins its 10 remaining regular-season games to go 10-5, its chances of qualifying for postseason play will be excellent. How's that? Well, in the four years since the strike-shortened 1982 season, eight of the nine teams that have finished with five losses have reached the playoffs. If the Giants drop another game, their chances are still good. Since '82, 10 of the 13 teams with six defeats have made the playoffs.
I know what you're thinking: A game has been lost this season because of the strike, and those teams of years past were either 11-5 or 10-6, not 10-5 or 9-6. O.K., even with two more defeats, New York would still have better than a 50-50 shot. Of the 11 teams that have gone 9-7 since 1982, six have reached the playoffs. Granted, making it at 8-7 would be tough in the NFC East, but it could be done.
Neither the Chicago Bears nor the San Francisco 49ers, my preseason choices to win the NFC Central and NFC West, respectively, hurt themselves during the strike, but after you get past them, where's the power in the conference? Before the strike, the serious wild-card challengers figured to be the Washington Redskins, the Minnesota Vikings and the Los Angeles Rams. The Redskins held up well during scab ball, both on and off the field. Washington was the only team in the league that didn't have a player cross the picket line, and its replacements performed well.
The Vikings were another united strike team, but their scab squad didn't have things together, and it shows in the standings. Minnesota remains two games up on the Giants, but the Vikes face a tougher schedule. Eleven picket-line crossers weren't much help to the Rams, who also have a more rugged schedule than New York.
The hardest team to size up is the Dallas Cowboys, who beat the Giants before the strike but are now a divided and unhappy lot. How much will dissension caused by the strike hurt? Will the memory of the 19 Cowboys who bucked the line haunt the club down the stretch? Or will bygones be bygones by then? Hard to tell, but it could be a pivotal factor, not only in Dallas but all around the league as well.
In Philadelphia, for instance, only three players crossed the line, and none was on the active roster. Vigorously backed by local labor unions, the Eagles' strikers were among the most militant in the NFL, and their coach, Buddy Ryan, supported them throughout the dark days. "We're closer than I ever thought we could be," says tight end and player rep John Spagnola. "Buddy's been fantastic. Guys are ready to kill for him now. He hasn't been the puppet every owner wants for his coach."
The only problem for Philadelphia is that a time comes when talent must take over for emotion. Or must it? If the Eagles play like maniacs the rest of the way and somehow make the playoffs, their turnaround will become a bedtime story that every striking steelworker will tell his kids for the next decade.
But Philadelphia must play two games against the Giants, who are stronger than when they got destroyed by Chicago and edged by Dallas before the strike. Mark Bavaro, New York's All-Pro tight end, was hobbling on a very sore turf toe back then, but when last seen he was walking the picket line without any limp. Adrian White, the rookie safety, missed the Chicago and Dallas games with an injured right knee but, after crossing the picket line last week, put some serious hits on people in New York's 6-3 overtime loss to the Buffalo Bills. Look for the Giants to join Washington, Chicago, San Francisco and Minnesota in the NFC playoffs, with New York scrambling through the wild-card maze of road games to meet—and lose to—the Bears for the conference championship.
The success story in the AFC is the San Diego Chargers, who have the best record in the conference and who were the only AFC team to win all their scab ball games. Further, they won them without the services of a single veteran, though the front office came up with 18 players who had NFL game experience. Now the Chargers must rejoin the real world. Behind them is a murky mass in which seven teams are 3-2 and another four are 2-3. The serious sorting out is still to come. Except for the fall of the Kansas City Chiefs in scab ball, nothing much has happened to change my preseason AFC forecast—the Seattle Seahawks to make the Super Bowl, with the Denver Broncos pressing hard.
In L.A., Al Davis held veteran Marc Wilson, an early picket-line crosser, out of action and used 32-year-old Vince Evans, late of the USFL. Davis figured that in the maelstrom of scab ball a scrambler like Evans would be more effective than the stationary Wilson. For two games the reasoning proved to be sound, and there was some heavy speculation that Evans would make the regular roster when the strike ended. Then on Sunday, Evans returned to earth with an 11-for-31 passing day in a 23-17 loss to San Diego. In short, he was the same old Vince Evans—nimble of foot but erratic with the arm.
Then there's the case of the Jets' Mark Gastineau, once a premier sacker. Spat upon by his teammates for his early picket-line crossing and as ineffective in scab ball as he had been in the first two regular-season games, Gastineau looks like an early trade or waiver candidate. His spot on the roster could be taken by Scott Mersereau, a 275-pound rookie noseguard out of Southern Connecticut State who was cut by the Rams in training camp. His play drew praise even from some picketing Jet veterans.
The success of some teams during the scab season could haunt them in the weeks ahead. Take the Indianapolis Colts. Before the strike no one thought much about them, except perhaps to feel sorry for them. Then they fielded a carefully assembled scab lineup, led by their regular quarterback, Gary Hogeboom, and won their first two strike games before losing 21-7 to Pittsburgh. Now Hogeboom is injured (punctured lung), and Indy must face a slate of opponents with a score to settle. The bitterness generated during this depressing chapter in the NFL's history will not soon disappear.