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Original Issue


The late, unlamented strike has made this NFL campaign a forgettable one

Regularly scheduled programming will not be seen at this time so that we may bring you this special presentation, The NFL 1987. Or, how one sport can be almost as entertaining as a two-hour episode of She's the Sheriff.

(Cue music. Roll tape.)

Denver. Nov. 16. Mile High Stadium. Chicago Bears versus the Broncos. Monday Night Football. Chicago kicker Kevin Butler has missed two extra points. Bears trail by two. Ball on Chicago's 39. Fourth-and-17. Nine seconds left. Bears quarterback Mike Tomczak drops back. Dumps ball to halfback behind the line. Dumps ball to halfback behind the line? Halfback tackled. Tomczak urges his teammates to hurry and line up. Mike, the game is over. That was fourth down. Must have been the altitude.

Miami. Nov. 15. Joe Robbie Stadium. The Indianapolis Colts versus the Dolphins. Third down. Colts driving. The snap. Flags. Miami has 12 men on the field. Indianapolis gets first down anyway.... Colts driving again. Third down. More flags. This time the Dolphins have 13 men on the field. Indianapolis gets the first down anyway. Do we hear 14? Fish lose.

Cincinnati. Sept. 20. Riverfront Stadium. Bengals versus the San Francisco 49ers. Cincinnati leads by six. Six seconds to go. Fourth down. Bengals' ball on their own 30. Why isn't Cincinnati coach Sam Wyche calling for a punt? Why is he running a sweep? Bengal running back is tackled. Two seconds remaining. San Francisco's ball. Joe Montana throws 25-yard touchdown to Jerry Rice. Bengals lose. Lose next non-strike game, at Pittsburgh, when Wyche tries to get his field goal team on the field without stopping the clock. Wyche is to boneheadedness what Nell Carter is to cholesterol.

America. Living rooms. 1987. Fans scratching their haircuts. Eleven weeks into the season and what have they got? A season Rover leaves in his dish, that's what. The AFC is a bomb. The Dolphins are deadly, the Broncos balky, the Seattle Seahawks skittish, the New England Patriots puny, and the Raiders are the biggest dud to come out of L.A. since Ishtar. If the AFC title game were played now, we might get the San Diego Chargers against the Indianapolis Colts. Be still, my beating heart!

The NFC is also mastering mediocrity. Most of the glamour teams are picking AstroTurf out of their teeth. The New York Giants got off to the worst start ever (1-6) by a defending Super Bowl champion. The Los Angeles Rams lost five of their first six games and then traded the best runner in the game. The Cowboys have set a record for back-stabs. The Bears are 8-2 but had to come up with McMahon McMiracles to beat titans Tampa Bay, Green Bay and Kansas City. The only good news is that the NFL has announced it will expand no later than 1990. Reportedly, it's considering putting an NFL team in Atlanta.

In this, the season for no reason, the players are going at it with all the emotion of the ticket taker down at the Bijou. Anybody seen Howie Long? Tony Dorsett? Walter Payton? Mark Bavaro? How about Mark Gastineau? Jay Schroeder? Louis Lipps? Anybody sent out an APB on Randy White yet? Joe Morris? Al Toon?

Stars are down, penalty yardage is up. In the five weeks since the end of the strike, teams have been assessed 645 more yards in penalties than they were during the same span last season. Touchdowns are down and field goals are up. Teams have settled for 31 more field goals than they did during those same five weeks in 1986. Thrills are down. Yawns are up.

Lukewarm reigns supreme. Beige is the hot color. Last year at this time 15 teams still had a chance to make the playoffs, while 13 had been weeded out. This year, being in the playoff picture is an honor exceeded only by getting mail from Ed McMahon. Twenty-one of the league's 28 teams still have a shot at a playoff berth. The wild-card teams this season will probably be 9-6. Two years ago the Broncos were 11-5 and they didn't make the playoffs. What is this, Sale of the Century?

Asterisks are everywhere. Who's real and who isn't? Let's see, the Houston Oilers are 6-4 and the Minnesota Vikings are 6-4, but Houston won two of three strike games, and Minnesota lost three of three. Or was it vice versa? The AFC-leading Chargers finally have a defense—thanks to three replacement players who are starting. Who's playing better, Gary Hogeboom for the Colts or Randall Cunningham for the Eagles? Well, Hogeboom's numbers are better, but he crossed the picket line. Then again, Cunningham was on strike for Philadelphia's game against Chicago. Can you imagine picking a Pro Bowl out of this mess? To say nothing of trying to get two worthy Super Bowl teams.

Quick, who are J.T. Smith, Barry Wilburn and Robb Riddick? Answer: The NFL's leading receiver, leading intercepter and, until he went down with a broken right collarbone on Nov. 8, leading scorer, respectively. Do you realize that the Atlanta Falcons' current leader in sacks is a man named Buddy Moor, a replacement player who since the end of the strike has been making his living as a plumber in Lexington, Ky.? It's $35 an hour, lady, or I put the swim move on you.

Test your grasp of current events:

1) After being called for pass interference four times in one game, Miami cornerback William Judson was quoted as saying a) "You've got to be aggressive out there." b) "What's pass interference?" c) "Hi. Welcome to Wendy's. Can I take your order?"

2) Who said, "We stink, period"? a) Chicago coach Mike Ditka, b) the ESPN Sunday night NFL team, c) the AFC East.

3) Scott Campbell, Randy Wright and Bill Kenney are all a) starting NFL quarterbacks, b) figments of your imagination, c) next in line behind Judge Kennedy.

4) The shiniest thing that belongs to Tampa Bay quarterback Vinny Testaverde, the highest-paid rookie in history, is a) his $150,000 speedboat, b) his Heisman Trophy, c) the seat of his pants, because he's still riding the bench.

5) The two teams in Tinseltown a) are 5-19 since Dec. 14 of last year, b) have made fewer hits than the Fox Network, c) have given up more points than the Lakers.

Coast to coast, this has been the year without the most. To wit:

In Dallas the strike, like the oil derricks, has left folks low and dry. "There are some deep wounds in this town," says Dallas Times Herald sports columnist Skip Bayless. "I don't think people are going to forget them for a while." The fans haven't. The biggest crowd to attend a game this season has been for a strike game against the Washington Redskins. Not even Dan Marino, the league's premier passer, could sell out the Hole in the Sky.

Not that there's much to see. Dorsett ran for a career-low three yards on 14 carries in one game and five yards on one carry in another. Now he's Tony Dor-sit. Against Miami on Sunday night he had zero yards on zero carries. Randy White had more tackles in three replacement games than he has had in six regular games. Quarterback Danny White has been benched in favor of Steve Pelluer, which won't make Dallas's fans happy. They didn't want White or Pelluer. Hooted one banner, WHITE'S A WEENIE, WE WANT SWEENEY. Kevin, that is. The Cowboys' Tex Schramm is even making unveiled threats against (gulp) Tom Landry. "Some of the things we're doing are frankly mystifying," said Schramm recently. "There's an old saying, If the teacher doesn't teach, the student doesn't learn."

In New York literary agents for the 3-7 Giants will have a slow off-season. A representative sampling of the way New York has played could be seen in its Nov. 2 Monday night game in Dallas. After taking a 24-17 lead in the fourth quarter, the Giants had two passes deflected, two intercepted (one of which was returned for a touchdown), two false starts and one delay-of-game penalty; they gave up a sack, and lost two fumbles and one quarterback. Final score: Dallas 33, New York 24.

In Los Angeles the Irwindales have lost seven consecutive games. Their new Prince Arming, Rusty Hilger, is just that, rusty. Marino gets Hilger's 55.8 quarterback rating by climbing out of bed on Sunday morning. As for the Rams, kids had eaten all their Halloween candy by the time Jim Everett threw his first touchdown pass, on Nov. 1. Everett's 33.3 rating going into that week's game was lower than any other signal caller's has plunged this year. Now you know why players are wearing those dark face shields on their helmets. To protect the innocent.

In Manhattan, ABC-TV executives are fighting over ledge space. Monday night games that looked tasty in February now look like two-month-old meat loaf. Imagine being stuck with a schedule that gives you the Rams three times, the Giants three times and the Raiders twice. As of Sunday, only two Monday night games had been decided by a touchdown or less. Last year seven were.

Across the land the season has been largely forgettable. New York Jets coach Joe Walton accused his players of "stealing money." Parity has gotten ugly in the AFC East, which features a five-way tie for first place. Every team is 5-5. Pay ton is averaging 3.5 yards a carry. Just nine of this year's 28 first-round draft picks are first-string. For the first time in their 21-year history, the Dolphins lost to the Colts and Buffalo Bills in Miami in the same season. Mark (43% completion rate) Malone is going so bad in Pittsburgh that a local deejay hung up a tire in Market Square and invited people to throw footballs through it in hopes of finding someone to replace him. Atlanta is trying to become the first team in 15 years to give up the most points and score the fewest. The Raiders, Dolphins and Tampa Bay Bucs have set team records for penalties. The New York Times's computer lists the New Orleans Saints as the best team in the NFL. How about if we pretend it's August and start over?

What happened is that the strike changed everything. The players were beaten so roundly, so soundly, so run-into-the-groundly by the owners that some people are asking whether the owners' tactics backfired. "Here's a bunch of guys who went out on strike for something they believed in, and all they got for it was a kick in the butt," Ditka told Bob Verdi of the Chicago Tribune. "It's almost like they're coming back here every morning wondering, What was that month of my life for? And it's like they expended so much energy on the strike that they're tired now of the whole scene."

If the players' credo used to be Let's win one for good ol' Mapleville, for the people of Mapleville, for the organization, now, after so much anger between fans and players, players and owners, and players and other players, the credo is simply Let Mapleville go suck an egg. Just give me my check. The biggest mistake the owners made was not allowing the players to play the sixth week of the season when they were back in plenty of time. "The league policy was clear," says Jets quarterback Ken O'Brien. "They were going to ream the players one last time, not only the players, but the fans also. The owners are shoving it down our throats."

And that made the players gag. Somebody asked Jets tight end Rocky Klever if the strike took away some emotion. "Yeah, at least emotion toward liking football," said Klever. "That might be the reason why guys haven't played with emotion."

Emotionless football isn't much of a kick to watch or coach or play. Ditka: "I used to maybe yell at them and get them mad, but they'd go out and play like hell on Sunday anyway. Now I don't know whether to criticize them, offend them or what. It's almost like, when I talk to them, they don't really want to hear me anymore."

It has been that kind of year, a season for no reason. And there may be only one cure for this year: next year. Either that or take that one last, horrible, desperate measure. Yes....

Bring on arena football!



WALTER'S WOES: Payton is suffering one unhappy landing after another these days.



FLAG FOOTBALL: An increase in penalty yardage has sullied the poststrike games.



TONY DOR-SIT: In the last four weeks, Dorsett has run the ball all of 26 times.



LONG SEASON: Long and his teammates are getting shoved around in a big way.



SACKS TO SINKS: Moor has gone a-plumbing, yet he leads the Falcons in sacks.



HAUNTING EXPERIENCE: Halloween was over before Everett treated L.A. to a TD pass.



NO-NAMES REIGN: The little-known Riddick led the NFL in scoring until he got hurt.