In 1982 and 1987, when the NFL endured work stoppages of major significance, the Washington Redskins turned stoppage into advantage.
While other teams were damaged by the soul-searching that compromises the steely focus of teams once the season has begun, the Redskins overcame cross purposes of loyalty to team versus loyalty to union, and won two Super Bowls.
Maybe it was Joe Gibbs’ genius; the coach that led his team’s esprit de corps would come back stronger than those that vilified their ownership. Yet it was not as if the Redskins were a unified family. One of the finest leaders under NFLPA leader Ed Garvey during the 1982 labor war and 57-day strike that ended in a meager nine-game season was Mark Murphy.
With his broad experience experience as player rep, Murphy later became Athletic Director at Colgate, and now perhaps not coincidentally, is president of the Super Bowl champion Packers.
As fellow player rep, I witnessed Murphy’s diligent style that could not have been less antagonistic toward management, even as he stood strong for his Redskins teammates. Mark was a safety; like a great safety, he saw the full playing field. Yet he did not foresee the post-strike broadside from Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke.
Murphy told me later the flamboyant, curmudgeonly Cooke came up to him after a game when Murphy had been injured, and told him in no uncertain terms he would never play again for that team. One would think remarks like that would have hampered the loyalty and commitment of players who brutally sacrifice themselves to win championships, yet the Redskins endured and triumphed.
Perhaps the lesson lies with a coach who helps players and organization understand never to compromise unity on the field and in the locker-room, no matter the vitriolic rhetoric in the media and inside negotiations. Perhaps the answer will be found with self-motivated players who find ways to stay both in shape and mentally game-ready, because now they can afford to as never before. Salaries are 10-times 1987 levels. Tom Brady and Drew Brees paid for their rookies to stay together and practice with their teammates to lessen their first-year learning curves. The bulk of the veterans have the choice to hire personal trainers and even former NFL coaches who can help them push through the long hours of disconnect. If possible, they can practice together, even if with old playbooks.
Commissioner Roger Goodell and ownership have learned that the Jack Donlan Teamsters-like tough talk from the 80’s only creates longer term issues; Goodell has led unified ownership ranks that are both flexible (witness the phalanx of owners working with players in negotiations last week) and respectful — on the surface.
Whatever the outcome, the teams that stay together, that know that intense, focused professionalism is not anathema to a work stoppage, will have the best chance to endure this lockout, and emerge healthy, wealthy, much the wiser, and witness Joe Gibbs’s Redskins, the winners.