A 24-day players' strike was called after Week 2. The games that were scheduled for the third week of the season were cancelled, reducing the 16-game season to 15, but the games for Weeks 4, 5 and 6 were played with replacement players, after which the union voted to end the strike. Approximately 15% of the NFLPA’s players chose to cross picket lines to play during the strike; prominent players who did so included New York Jets defensive end Mark Gastineau, Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Randy White, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, 49ers running back Roger Craig, New England Patriots quarterback Doug Flutie and Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Steve Largent. The replacement players were mostly those left out of work by the recent folding of the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes and the 1986 dissolution of the United States Football League, as well as others who had been preseason cuts, had long left professional football or were other assorted oddities (such as cinematographer Todd Schlopy, who, despite never playing professional football before or after the strike, served as placekicker for his hometown Buffalo Bills for three games). The replacement players, called to play on short notice and having little chance to jell as teammates, were widely treated with scorn by the press and general public, including name-calling, public shaming and accusations of being scabs. The games played by these replacement players were regarded with even less legitimacy – attendance plummeted to under 10,000 fans at many of the games in smaller markets and cities with strong union presence, including a low of 4,074 for the lone replacement game played in Philadelphia) — but nonetheless were counted as regular NFL games. Final television revenues were down by about 20%, a smaller drop than the networks had expected. The defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants went 0–3 in replacement games, ultimately costing them a chance to make the playoffs and to repeat their championship. The final replacement game was a Monday Night Football matchup on October 19, 1987, with the Washington Redskins at the Dallas Cowboys. Along with the Philadelphia Eagles, the Redskins were the only other NFL team not to have any players cross the picket line and were surprising 13–7 victors over the Cowboys who had plenty of big name players cross the picket line.
The 2017 film Year of the Scab, which aired as part of the ESPN series 30 for 30, documented the story of the replacement players who crossed the picket line to play for the Redskins. A fictionalized account based on the 1987 strike formed the basis of the film The Replacements.
The eight-year old ESPN cable network became the first cable television broadcaster of the league, with its program ESPN Sunday Night NFL (subsequently rebranded as ESPN Sunday Night Football) debuting on November 8, 1987, broadcasting a series of Sunday night games during the second half of the season.
If a defensive player commits pass interference in his own end zone, the ball is placed at the 1-yard line, or if the previous spot was inside the 2-yard line, the penalty is half the distance to the goal line.
Except for the first onside kick attempt, if a kickoff goes out of bounds, the receiving team takes possession of the ball 30 yards from the spot of the kick or the spot it went out of bounds.
During passing plays, an offensive player cannot chop block (block a defender below the thigh while the defensive player is already engaging another offensive player).
Illegal contact by a defensive player beyond the 5-yard zone from the line of scrimmage will not be called if the offensive team is in an obvious punt formation.
During kicks and punts, players on the receiving team cannot block below the waist. However, players on the kicking team may block below the waist, but only before the kick is made. On all other plays after a change of possession, no player can block below the waist.
Revenue sharing was changed so that NFL players received a portion of the ticket revenue, while the owners kept the revenue generated by skybox rentals. This led to many teams pushing for new stadiums which lowered many skybox suites from the less-desirable outer rim of a stadium to more desirable locations closer to the field (typically, the midsection or lower) so that the owners could charge more money for the suites, while similarly reducing the ticket revenue by replacing the higher-priced seats with lower-priced “nose bleed” seats. Overall, the number of available general admission seating was also reduced in favor of larger suites.
Chuck Heberling retired during the 1987 off-season. He joined the NFL in 1965 as a line judge before being promoted to referee in 1972. Games that he officiated include the Hail Mary Game and The Drive. Fred Silva, who was a swing official in 1986, was given his own crew again.
Houston was the #4 seed in the AFC, winning a tiebreaker over Seattle based on better conference record (7–4 vs. Seahawks' 5–6).
Chicago was the #2 seed in the NFC, winning a tiebreaker over Washington based on better conference record (9–2 vs. Redskins' 9–3).
New England finished ahead of Miami in the AFC East based on head-to-head sweep (2–0).
Dallas finished ahead of St. Louis and Philadelphia in the NFC East based on better division record (4–4 to Cardinals' 3–5 and Eagles' 3–5), and St. Louis finished ahead of Philadelphia based on better conference record (7–7 to Eagles' 4–7).
Tampa Bay finished ahead of Detroit in the NFC Central based on better division record (3–4 to Lions' 2–5).
Indianapolis Colts: Ron Meyer begin his first full season as the Colts' head coach. After Rod Dowhower was fired after the Colts lost their first 13 games in 1986, Meyer promptly led the team to three straight victories to finish 3–13.