CINCINNATI – It was an NFL season like no other.
Thirty years ago, a players strike after the second game touched down like a tornado, snatching Boomer Esiason, Anthony Munoz, Cris Collinsworth and others out of the huddle and dropping them far from where they belonged - on a picket line outside the Bengals’ practice facility.
NFL owners were determined that the games would go on, so inside Spinney Field, a rag-tag team of “replacement players” – the striking players referred to them “scabs”- took their places at practice. They included a prison guard, a farmer, a high school coach and a restaurant worker. For the most part, they were training camp castoffs and unwanted college players chasing a dream.
One writer, borrowing a Superman reference, called them the Bizarro Bengals. But for four weeks, they were the Cincinnati Bengals. They wore the orange and striped helmets and played three “replacement games” that counted in the standings.
The strike quickly enflamed players and fans alike. Conservative Cincinnati didn’t like watching highly-paid athletes carrying picket signs, and they especially didn’t like it when Esiason, the Bengals’ union rep, and two teammates sat in front of a chartered bus on the street, blocking it from entering Spinney Field and taking replacement players back to their hotel.
Teammates Bruce Kozerski and Tim McGee sat next to Esiason while about 15 other striking players stood behind them. Assistant GM Mike Brown came out and Cincinnati police were called in and the players cleared the way without incident.
“It was a move of protest,” Esiason said afterward.
The strike seemed to tear at the relationship between Esiason and Sam Wyche after the coach made negative comments to reporters about the bus incident.
Wyche walked outside the fence to visit the striking players and ask if they had organized regular team workouts like other teams had.
“We don’t have any footballs or pads, how can we work out?” Esiason said.
“I’ll bring you some from home,” Wyche answered sarcastically.
Back inside Spinney Field, Wyche called the bus incident “silly.”
“Look at the scene we have here,” Wyche told reporters. “Look at all of you. Look at what you’re reporting on – a bunch of men laying in front of a bus, a silver coach – and some of them weighing upward of 300 pounds. I mean, they could damage the bus. Doesn’t it strike you as just a little bit humorous? This is a media event and here we all are – caught up in the event.”
More anger resulted when one of the Bengals’ captains, Reggie Williams, crossed the picket line in the second week of the strike to play with the replacement team. Esiason suggested that Williams would have to face the consequences once the strike was over.
It didn't take that long.
Striking players carrying picket signs along the entrance to Spinney Field jeered as Williams drove past them.
Fans who came to Riverfront Stadium to watch the first replacement game taunted the striking players with cheers of “Reg-gie, Reg-gie” while a few labor pickets answered with "Boo-mer, Boo-mer."
One fan wore a bag over her head embellished with the words, ”Boomer Bag.” Esiason bore the brunt of their anger, but Collinsworth and even Munoz felt it, too.
"Obviously, the people who support us are staying at home today," Collinsworth said. "The people who don't support us are here at the game."
Barely 18,000 of the curious came to check out the replacement opener against the Chargers on a sunny and mild Oct. 4 at Riverfront Stadium. (Week 3 games were canceled). Coaches had warned that it wouldn’t be pretty after trying to assemble a team of no-names in 10 days.
“We don’t know if we have the best team in the league or the worst team in the league,” Wyche had said.
But the replacement players were excited, and somebody in Las Vegas decided the Bengals would be two-point favorites.
As it turned out, it could have been a scoreless tie, because the offenses were almost non-existent.
The Bengals’ passing game netted minus-13 yards on 5-of-13 by the college QB tandem of Adrian Breen and Dave Walter. Scott Fulhage tied a club record with 10 punts. The Chargers couldn’t do much better, but they had Mike Kelley, a former United States Football League quarterback, to carry them to a 10-9 victory.
The game was a comedy of errors. It included four fumbles, two muffs, a fumble voided by a penalty and a blocked field goal. But many fans cheered the effort, even though some acknowledged it wasn’t “real football.”
Real or a dream - it didn’t matter to the players, who got a game check and the memory of a lifetime.
“I’m going to get the ball framed,” said Bengals defensive back Daryl Smith, who had an interception. “I’ve got a program, too. I’m going to keep it all. One day I’m going to show it to my grandkids.”
Breen, a hometown kid from Roger Bacon High, might have been the happiest player of all after throwing a 4-yard TD pass to Wade Russell – an NFL touchdown pass, he pointed out - in front of family and friends.
“You can put an asterisk by it or do whatever you want,” Breen said. “It was under different circumstances than what a lot of guys dream about, but it was an NFL game. That’s what I’ll remember.”
The replacement Bengals won the following week at Seattle, 17-10, but they ran into a strike-team buzzsaw when they hosted the Browns in their final game.
Cleveland had 13 regular players who crossed the picket line and a veteran NFL quarterback in Gary Danielson. The Browns won 34-0, and the strike ended - mercifully - the next day.
Losing to the Browns wouldn’t have mattered much, but the regular Bengals knew it put them behind the 8-ball in the AFC Central race. They had been hoping to play that game themselves.
By the time the striking Bengals had missed two games – and two game checks – they had voted to come back for the Browns game. But the NFL forced regular players who hadn’t already returned to sit out another game. The league said they could come back and practice, but they wouldn’t get regular pay.
That just added to the regular Bengals’ hard feelings and frustration - that and the fact that they had gone on strike for nothing. They got no concessions on free agency. Zilch.
It’s no wonder that the Bengals’ season turned into a disaster, especially after the way it started - even before the strike.
Expectations were high after Bengals went 10-6 in 1986, missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker. After a season-opening win at Indianapolis, the Bengals hosted Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and the 49ers and had a 26-20 lead – and the ball – with six seconds left.
How could they lose? The fans were cheering, begging, "Don't strike. Don't strike."
That’s when Wicky Wacky – the nickname Wyche got for outsmarting himself with his sometimes avant-garde play-calling – made the worst call of his life.
Facing fourth-and-25 at the Bengals 30, the Bengals didn’t punt or even run into the end zone for a safety. Instead, Wyche called for a James Brooks sweep to run out the clock.
Brooks got stuffed instantly, the Niners got the ball with two seconds left, and Montana lofted a pass to Rice over rookie Eric Thomas, who had single coverage on the greatest receiver in NFL history.
It was doomsday. Niners win, 27-26.
Wyche took the blame, appropriately so, and his players defended the call at the time. But not once the strike started.
When the striking Bengals gathered for their first workout on a dirt field with a few clumps of grass outside La Salle High School, the first thing Esiason did was line up the offense with Brooks at tailback.
“Be sure the cameras are rolling on this one,” Esiason told TV crews.
Then Brooks took a direct snap, turned and ran in retreat. Teammates counted down: “Six, five, four …” until they hit zero and Brooks was in the end zone, simulating the safety that would have beaten the 49ers.
When the strike was over and the deflated Bengals returned to the field, they immediately blew late leads in their first two games – against the Steelers in Pittsburgh and at home against the Oilers.
After they blew a 15-point lead in the last six minutes against Houston, a fan threw a beer at Wyche as he walked off the field. A few holdout Wyche fans got into a shoving match with the beer thrower. In the locker room, most players were stunned and speechless.
“It’s a combination of errors that just for some reason seems to haunt us. Maybe we need an exorcist or something,” said Esiason.
The Bengals went 2-9 after the strike and finished 4-11. The heat from media and fans was turned up so high on Wyche and Esiason that one or both of them might have been run out of town by any owner not named Paul Brown.
Things seemed to calm down, though, after Esiason went public to support Wyche in a TV interview with WCPO’s Dennis Janson.
“I really don’t think that Sam is the problem. I don’t think that I am either, but if there were those two problems, I would be the one that should go because I think he has worked the hardest and he has gotten the short end of the stick,” Esiason said.
“I don’t think it’s time to give up ship on a head coach that has put together what I consider to be one of the best football teams, in terms of talent, this league has to offer.
“Really, what this is is a rousing endorsement from me as a quarterback, a player representative and a captain for our head coach.”
A year later, without a strike, Wyche, Esiason and the Bengals turned everything around. They went 12-4, won two playoff games and made the Super Bowl.
Unfortunately, Montana and Rice did, too.
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