The Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys are a lot like the NFL’s version of Yankees and Red Sox. Their games always have divisional standing implications on top of the decades of bad blood players seem to immediately inherit. During the 1987 football strike, the match-up between a Washington team made up entirely of free agent replacement players (scabs) and nearly the entire regular season Dallas squad would seem to favor the latter. However, the scrappy team that won over Washington fans always played to win. Their underappreciated underdog story is chronicled in John Dorsey’s ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Year of the Scab, which premiered last night at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.
Both Washington and Dallas were proactive planning for the strike, but the approaches differed drastically. While the Redskins cast a wide net for replacement players, Dallas sought to game the system, by using the loss of potentially millions of dollars in future contractual annuity payments to force their star players to cross the picket lines. Yet, thanks to their drive and the leadership of Coach Joe Gibbs, the Redskin replacement players excelled in their first two games (both of which were also in their division). That set the stage for a showdown worthy of Rocky when the Redskins blew into Dallas for their first grudge match of the season.
The Replacement Redskins are widely credited with starting the winning momentum that carried the team all the way to a Super Bowl victory, but they have been largely ignored by sports media, most likely for ideological reasons. That is a shame, because each player’s story has so much to say about the nature of sportsmanship, particularly that of disgraced former Tennessee Vols star quarterback Tony Robinson, who is now a respected small businessman and peewee football coach.
Dorsey introduces viewers to at least half a dozen replacement players, on a very personal level. Some are struggling with the long-term physical effects of their football years, just like drafted full-season players. He scored sit-downs with many of the Redskins players and staff, including Gibbs, Robinson, strike game starting QB Ed Rubbert, and Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams. However, Dorsey is explicitly (and justifiably) critical of the Redskins’ treatment of their replacement players after the strike games, especially considering how much they contributed to the championship season and the extent to which the fans embraced them.