On a Monday night in 1987, a group of Washington replacement players stunned the Dallas Cowboys while God watched through the hole in the roof.
In the year of The Fumble, The Scab, the 15-game schedule and Doug Williams’ Super Bowl, nothing in 1987 eclipsed the heroics of Washington’s replacements in a seemingly insignificant mid-October defeat of Dallas.
That’s what the NFL called the 1,500 players who represented the league during that season’s 24-day strike. The union called them scabs, and they were targets of insults, resistance and, occasionally, violence as they crossed picket lines to report to work.
But they were unforgettable.
In fact, 13 years later Warner Bros. produced a film loosely based on those events and entitled it … The Replacements. The picture centered on a mythical Washington pro football franchise, with the team having a quarterback controversy and replacement players – OK, scabs – lifting the club to victory.
It should. There was a strike that season. Every team was stocked with walk-ons, scabs, strike breakers, whatever you want to call them, during three weeks of replacement games. Washington did have a quarterback question (Williams or Jay Schroeder?) as the season wound down. And the Redskins went on to win Super Bowl XXII.
But take a deeper dive into the season, and you find one of the greatest … and most overlooked … upsets in NFL history. I’m talking about Washington’s 13-7 shocker over the Cowboys on Monday Night Football – the last replacement game of that season.
And, in all likelihood, ever.
To understand its significance, let’s backtrack to the beginning. After the NFL and its players’ union failed to produce a new collective bargaining agreement by August, the NFLPA authorized a Sept. 22 strike deadline — with unfettered free agency at the core of a raft of unresolved issues.
Essentially, players wanted it, and NFL owners didn’t.
Now, before we go farther, let’s get something straight: The NFL did have a free-agency system at the time, but it required compensation to a player’s former team (see Wilber Marshall to Washington) that was so steep it restricted movement and held down salaries. Players wanted a change and were so determined to get it they walked out prior to Week 3.
Their determination, however, didn’t last long. Where the 1982 strike lasted 57 days, this one didn’t make it halfway there. And there’s a reason: Replacements.
Say what you want about the ploy – and there’s been enormous criticism from all sides – but it forced striking players back to work for what would become the NFL’s only 15-game season. The NFL applied pressure on the union by playing games with replacements, many of whom were left out of work by the folding of the CFL and USFL, and counting the results.
Result: Midway through the walkout, striking veterans began crossing picket lines to return to work.
In New York, star defensive end Mark Gastineau reappeared. In San Francisco, Joe Montana and Roger Craig went back. So did center Mike Webster in Pittsburgh, Steve Largent in Seattle and Howie Long with the L.A. Raiders. Ten of the L.A. Rams’ veterans were there for all three replacement games. So were a passel of St. Louis Cardinals.
Then there was Dallas. By Week 6 – or the last of the replacement games – 21 Cowboys were back on the job, including quarterback Danny White, running back Tony Dorsett and defensive linemen Randy White and Ed “Too Tall” Jones. By contrast, no veterans in Washington – none — returned until the strike ended.
I mention that because the two teams were scheduled to play each other in a Monday Night strike finale that had all the suspense of a Globetrotters-Washington Generals laugher. The Cowboys were loaded, and Washington – or “Scab Skins,” as they were called – were not. Plus, the game was at Texas Stadium.
Dallas had Hall of Famers Randy White and Dorsett. The “Scab Skins” had a former prisoner, 7-Eleven security guard and a kicker who missed a field-goal try so badly in practice on afternoon that he broke a window. According to former beat reporter Rick Snider of the Washington Times, the conditioning of Washington’s players was so dreadful that then-offensive line coach Joe Bugel once put his fist in an overweight player’s stomach and couldn’t pull it out.
So the fix was in. Dallas had the stars. Washington had the walk-ons. A dumpster fire was expected, with the smart money on the Cowboys.
Except … well, except this was no ordinary Washington team. It was 2-0 during the strike – with all replacement games counted – and outscored the Cards and Giants 66-33, surrendering just three offensive touchdowns. Plus, Washington had something the Cowboys did not: player unity. The return of striking veterans polarized the Dallas locker room, with neither side trusting the other.
Washington, on the other hand, wasn’t fractured at all. Essentially the team was just that: A team. And that’s the theme that then-coach Joe Gibbs preached prior to that night’s game, reminding players that this was their chance to prove to a national TV audience they belonged in the NFL.
And they did.
In one of the most improbable upsets of all time, Washington’s replacements humiliated the Cowboys’ hybrids with a 13-7 decision that Redskins’ Craig McEwen called “our Super Bowl.” The victory was complete on both sides of the ball. Dallas didn’t cross the 50 in the first half. Dorsett fumbled twice in the first quarter. White was intercepted once and sacked five times.
Washington’s Ed Rubbert was hurt early and replaced by former University of Tennessee star Tony Robinson. A one-time Heisman Trophy candidate pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Robinson was on parole when Washington’s then-general manager, Bobby Beathard, found him digging holes for fire hydrants and signed him.
It was a smart move. Forced to play the last three quarters, Robinson guided Washington to victory. Granted, he threw two interceptions. But he was also 11-of-18 for 152 yards, with four of his completions — including passes gains of 30 and 42 yards – on third downs.
But a check of the final score tells you that Robinson wasn’t the story. The Washington defense was, checking Dallas on everything but a third-quarter White-to-Kelvin Edwards touchdown pass. Plus, when the Cowboys threatened in the final seconds, it held fast again — with White’s pass for Edwards deflecting off the replacement player’s hands at the Washington 5-yard-line.
With that, delirious Washington players celebrated on the sidelines and hoisted Gibbs to their shoulders, carrying him off the field. Goliath never fell so hard.
When Washington’s veterans returned later that week, only a handful of replacement players remained on the roster. Nevertheless, what they and their teammates had done the prior three weeks was critical – no, essential — to the team’s success that season. With a 4-1 record, Washington was comfortably ahead of the defending division (and Super Bowl) champion New York Giants and would go on to finish 11-4.
Then it would beat Denver in Super Bowl XXII, producing 35 second-quarter points as Williams bested John Elway to become the first African-American quarterback to hoist a Lombardi Trophy. But let’s be honest: Washington would not have been there without its replacements.
Sadly, it took the franchise three decades to acknowledge that. It wasn’t until the spring of 2018 that Washington decided to award its 1987 replacement players Super Bowl rings – a move that accelerated after an ESPN 30-on-30 film entitled Year of the Scab debuted at the TriBeca Film Festival in April 2017.
Joining them was Super Bowl hero Williams, who – along with former Washington defensive lineman Dexter Manley — had his photo taken with each player after they accepted rings.
“Sometimes,” he said, “it’s not when it comes; it’s the fact that it came. I thought it was a good opportunity to show them we appreciated them.”
But Charley Casserly, Washington’s assistant GM in 1987, knew it was more than that. It was an opportunity to show how much they needed them, and, yes, anyone who was in or around that football team one evening in Dallas knows the difference.
“If they don’t win that game,” Casserly said after the ring ceremony, “we’re not here.”