Like Bo Jackson in baseball, the National Football League looked at one too many strikes this year. Which leads to the most important league-related question of all: Is this season relevant?


Those of us who preached that replacement-player football was a sham have been forced to admit that the proper teams, after all, are going to make the playoffs. Ask yourself: Who will be part of the postseason that shouldn't?

The Vikings? Although not there yet, they probably deserve a playoff spot more than the Redskins, having mustered a slightly better record (7-2 versus 6-3) in nonstrike games.

Still, the Vikings' claiming that final National Football Conference position would bring a major robbery one step closer to being pulled off.

Minnesota's strike team went 0-3. It contributed absolutely nothing to the playoff push, yet its union-weakening players would participate in NFC championship and Super Bowl money, should the team advance that far.

Nobody except the Broncos in the AFC seems to want, or merit, postseason action. But that's not all that unusual. Two years ago, the 8-8 Cleveland Browns won the AFC Central; the NFC champion has won the last three Super Bowls by a total margin of 77 points.

In the NFC, four teams have won at least nine games; in the AFC, only two teams (the de-energizing Chargers and Broncos) have won eight. The AFC Central has Cleveland, Houston and Pittsburgh tied for the lead with 7-5 records. Each team also was 2-1 in replacement ball.

If all the teams in each conference were grouped together for the playoffs, as they were in '82, and the strike games did not count, the 8-1 Bears would have a one-game lead over the 49ers, Saints and Vikings. At 6-2-1, the Broncos would be the only AFC team with fewer than four nonstrike losses.

"Some organizations gained something {during the replacement games}; what I'd call a booster shot," said Ernie Accorsi, the Browns' executive vice president for football operations. "It was a habit of winning."

Accorsi was referring specifically to Houston, which during the strike beat the Browns for the first time in four years, and Indianapolis, leader by a game in the AFC East.

"But I don't think you could call the Colts a fluke," Accorsi argued. "They've got six or seven top picks on defense; they've had a good offensive line for a year or so. Now, they've got {Eric} Dickerson."

The only team with a legitimate won-lost gripe after the strike would be the defending Super Bowl champions, the Giants. They did not have the chance to recover from an emotional season-opening loss (to the Bears) and right themselves, as others have done in normal times.

"Our opener against the {defending champion} Bears last year worried me," Accorsi said, "because you wonder how it'll carry over. We played great, but lost. Then we hit a downspin.

"All of a sudden, though, we caught fire. We beat Minnesota {in the eighth game of the season} and lost only once after that {until John Elway drove the Broncos past them in the final minutes of the AFC title game}."

The 9-3 Saints are a surprise only to those either unfamiliar with the track records of President/General Manager Jim Finks or Coach Jim Mora, or those who had not seen them before this season began.

"It's been topsy-turvy," said Redskins guard R.C. Thielemann, "but then every year seems to go that way. But us {in the playoffs} at the end, Chicago at the end and the 49ers at the end -- the cream has risen to the top."

The same also may be said for individual players. For the season, tainted records such as Anthony Allen's 255 receiving yards for the Redskins during the strike might be matched by dazzling performances by established players that so far have gone largely unnoticed.

In 12 games, the 49ers' Jerry Rice has a chance to grab as many touchdown passes as the Dolphins' Mark Clayton did in 16 three years ago (18). Rice has 15, with three games remaining.

The Eagles' Reggie White also has a shot at the record for sacks (22) set by the Jets' Mark Gastineau in a full season, 1984. White has 16.

And a rare moment of positive surprise and triumph has been Jackson's emergence as a football force. What he did was trot in from the Kansas City Royals' outfield one day and, several weeks later, dash into the Raiders' record book.

By this point in most seasons in the '80s, at least one team has begun to seem dominant: the Giants last season, the Bears the year before, the Dolphins and 49ers in '84, the Redskins and Raiders in '83. In strike-shortened 1982, the Redskins only allowed three touchdowns in their final four regular season games.

Nobody is showing anything close to sustained power just now. The 49ers seem excellent, but the Packers had at least half a dozen chances in the second half to beat them last week. And the Bears?

"When we opened with {and beat} the Giants," said director of administration Bill McGrane, "I thought our team turned up the burner. We played wild, like demons. I had that same feeling Sunday night {in a come-from-behind victory over the Vikings in Minnesota}.

"We really got emotional. It was the first time we'd done that since the Giant game."

The major fans' lament from the regular players, before and after the strike, has been the lack of obvious emotion. It's almost impossible for any thoughtful person to believe such a violent game can be played timidly. Yet few players seem particularly moved by their high-paid work.

Perhaps that is the true residual effect of a strike that left people on both sides wondering why it happened in the first place.

Thielemann is one of the few NFL players who endured both strikes of the '80s.

"We got a little money back {at settlement} the last time," said Thielemann, a Falcon in 1982. "But we were out twice as long. There were no games then, so everything was a lot easier to swallow when we went back in."

If some teams and players are at least starting to smile as they prepare for the playoffs, few are happy. Surprisingly, some in management are angry with the negotiator who seemed to win, Jack Donlan.

"He's 0-2," one team executive said. "Don't forget, we still don't have a {collective bargaining agreement}; we don't have stability. You're supposed to come out with a contract."

Donlan got a contract in '82.

"But we lost {television} ratings and {television} money {because of those declining ratings}," the official said. "The idea is to get the job done with no fallout."

Most public fallout has been from the players toward their union.

"Of course the strike wasn't a good idea," Thielemann admitted. "We could have done that {file a lawsuit against the league} the first week. But hindsight is 20-20."

Hindsight from the last strike might have prevented this one. As Thielemann said of the '82 deal: "Management gave us basically what they'd offered the first week."

This suggests that we should have witnessed the final strike in pro football. Management has shown it will, and can, play without regular players. History seems to have demonstrated the futility of a strike to the players.

Somewhere down the line, assuming the lawsuit brings an agreement in a year or so, as the one in the mid-'70s did, could there be another strike? Yes.

"What you have to remember," a management veteran said, "is the high turnover of players each season {estimated at about 20 percent}. In five or six years, very few players will be around who went through this strike."

There are whispers of a movement to form a new union, but Thielemann and others discount anything radical until the resolution of the lawsuit. Still, a union with no dues checkoff will be struggling.

Yet, despite all the turmoil and however its family and fans may view this unique season, the NFL actually is experiencing what it always tries to sell, without a whole lot of luck, about now: suspense. Every team in contention for the grand prize also seems vulnerable enough to fall a step or so shy of grabbing it.