This was no ordinary NFL Sunday. This wasn't even the NFL, unless uniforms and helmet insignias are the only criterion. But the National Football League tested its pervasive power yesterday, staging 13 sham games and, in broad daylight, perpetrating its greatest crime ever against credibility.
And now, the biggest question will be: Did we watch?
Those watching yesterday saw an up-and-down performance by CBS and NBC. Both looked for the hard news during their pregame shows, and the winner clearly was CBS -- on the strength of Will McDonough.
CBS' "The NFL Today," which was beaten soundly by NBC's "NFL Live" one week earlier, rebounded nicely. CBS had reporters outside stadiums in Washington, Philadelphia, Detroit and New Orleans talking with player representatives and other union supporters; NBC's stadium coverage was far less wide-ranging. CBS had live interviews, on a split screen, with Cowboys Danny White (who crossed the picket line) and Everson Walls (who didn't); NBC showed tape of White announcing his decision to return to the team. And CBS talked with Steelers President Dan Rooney live, as well.
Most importantly, CBS had McDonough, the Boston Globe's football reporter, on its staff (NBC, on its staff, had Boston Globe columnist Bud Collins, who interviewed Peter Brock of the Patriots). While NBC was saying that reports indicated the players were about to drop their free agency demands, McDonough said a settlement was imminent.
"It's almost over," McDonough told Brent Musburger. "Seven teams, including the Bears, the Raiders and the 49ers, have told the union they want to come back."
NBC's Bob Costas ended "NFL Live" by commenting that the replacement games were "a significant blow to the integrity of the National Football League." Then, as they are contractually committed, the networks took their cameras into the stadiums to chronicle the travesties.
Call it the Almost National Football League. At RFK Stadium, the spectacle was sort of a cross between a USFL game, a USO show and a UFO. It had an eerie, erratic quality to it -- part entertainment, part enigma. Blocking on both sides was haphazard; apparently, you can dress these scabs up, but you can't take them downfield very easily.
Tim Ryan and Joe Theismann called the game for CBS (with James Brown roaming the stands and sidewalks) and pretty much treated it like any other game; after all, it counts in the standings. Ryan curiously referred to "the semi-capacity crowd" of 27,728 at RFK.
CBS wisely used Brown often. Just as compelling a story as the play on the field was the situation in the stands and outside the stadium. Brown interviewed vendors, season-ticket holders and picketers, as well as Redskins player representative Neal Olkewicz and owner Jack Kent Cooke.
Inside the stadium, Ryan and Theismann failed to deal with the broader implications of the action beyond the score, down and yardage to go. Although Theismann talked about different aspects of the game that were lacking -- most significantly, special teams -- he hardly ever discussed the relative quality of the play. How did these fellows compare to the real Redskins and Cardinals? What was the level of play -- comparable to the USFL, semipro football or top-20 college football? If we didn't know that the Redskins' No. 41 was replacement cornerback Dennis Woodberry instead of regular cornerback Tim Morrison, would we really be able to tell the difference?
The game and telecast went off without incident, which the NFL might say proves its theory that players are replaceable parts simply holding time between beer and car commercials.
Yesterday's stadium count was the first test of fan reaction to NFL replacement games, but a more critical barometer will come with the TV ratings. The Nielsen overnight ratings -- based on 4,700 homes in the nine largest markets (including Washington) -- will be released today.
Respectable ratings would help stem an exodus of advertisers and allow the owners to continue collecting most, if not all, of their share of network rights payments. Terrible ratings, on the other hand, could lead to either a swift strike settlement or an end to the sham games -- advertisers would pull out, the networks would balk at continued coverage and the owners would be forced into a move.