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Pro Football : The Replacement Games Are Now Looming Bigger and Bigger

November 25, 1987|Bob Oates

For three games earlier this season, the National Football League's club owners employed 28 teams of strikebreakers. The owners called them replacements but their purpose was to encourage the league's 1,500 union players to return and thus break the strike.

Five weeks later--with five weeks remaining of the regular season--the policy is beginning to bear fruit.

Some of the NFL's best teams are running behind in the Super Bowl race because of what their replacements failed to do.

And it seems likely now that some players will lose places in the playoffs only because of the ineptness of the strikebreakers who wore their uniforms.

The real losers are, as usual, their fans.

By vote of the clubs' owners, all games played this season count in the standings. And here are some of the consequences:

--The New Orleans Saints, who beat the 49ers in San Francisco recently, are second to San Francisco in the AFC West this week only because of the union and non-union differential.

Adding in their non-union record, 3-0, the 49ers are now 8-2. The Saints, 2-1 during the strike, are 7-3.

--The Seattle Seahawks, who walloped the San Diego Chargers, 34-3, Sunday, are second to San Diego in the AFC West for the same reason.

Incorporating their 3-0 strike record, the Chargers are a heady 8-2. The Seahawks, 2-1 during the replacement season, are 7-3.

--The effects of the NFL's strike policy are even more striking in the NFC East, where the Washington Redskins and Indianapolis Colts have identical 4-3 records with their regulars.

But because their strike teams went 3-0 and 0-3, respectively, the Redskins are in front at 7-3, and the Colts are all but out of it at 4-6.

--All told, results of the 48 non-union games are influencing five of the six NFL races. The lone exception is in the AFC Central.

The obvious conclusion is that the integrity of the NFL, fragile at best, has been undermined by deliberate decisions made by the league's owners.

To the average fan, the most confusing legacy of the strike may well be that the NFL's publicity office continues to lump together union and non-union statistics.

As of a few days ago, for instance, Steve DeBerg of Tampa Bay had thrown more touchdown passes against real NFL defenses than any other quarterback.

But Joe Montana of San Francisco was the listed leader because he had played with the 49ers' strikebreakers. He had thrown some easy touchdown passes against non-union defenses.

At wide receiver, Montana also has Jerry Rice, who helped him beat DeBerg's team eventually. But that's another story.

The statistics story is that, using the NFL's official numbers, it is impossible for the average fan to compare close teams this season.

"Football statistics are a reflection of the games," Joe Browne, the NFL's director of communications, said this week, stating league policy. "If the games count, the stats should count."

That is undeniable. Next February, when the season and the Super Bowl are in the books, the NFL should issue a complete set of 1987 statistics.

But in the meantime, each week, the league's many fans are entitled to an official NFL statistical picture of how the league's regular players and teams compare right now.

Only the NFL can perform that service. Independent football statisticians make some mistakes. The NFL's publicity office has been remarkably accurate throughout the Pete Rozelle era.

The league has also made a major change in its instant replay officiating machinery, Browne said. The change was announced Sunday morning, too late to explain to the nation's fans.

Henceforth, the NFL's top communicator said, many fumbles won't be reviewed by the instant replay officials upstairs.

In the new system, there are presumed to be two kinds of fumbles, those that are seen clearly by one or more of the seven field officials and those that aren't.

Here's what the league plans to do now in each instance when the ball gets away from any ballcarrier:

--If an official sees that the player is down before fumbling, he must instantly make the down signal--and also blow a whistle.

The down signal? Pointing emphatically at the ground.

The intent of this procedure is to convey plainly that the play was over before there was a fumble.

Such a play is no longer subject to instant-replay review upstairs, Browne said.

--Still subject to review are plays when the ball is loose, when no official points to the ground, when there's no whistle.

In these instances, the officials are indicating either that they didn't see the play clearly or that in their judgment the ball was fumbled.

In the Super Bowl sweepstakes, an outline of the NFC's playoff season next month seemed to come into view with the games of last weekend.

The various results suggested that San Francisco and New Orleans will represent the West, Washington the East, and Chicago and Minnesota the Central Division.

Only two other NFC teams, Philadelphia and Dallas, appear to have a wild-card chance. And one of those may be eliminated Thursday when Minnesota plays at Dallas.

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