Coincidence or reality? We'll see.
The NFL was thrilled with the outcome of Sunday's 13 games, in the wake of the tougher guidelines set down by Roger Goodell and his discipline lieutenant, Ray Anderson, during the week. There were no helmet-to-helmet hits of note Sunday, and zero calls for hits on defenseless receivers. The only call I saw that the league might look at was a late spear on a downed ballcarrier in Seattle by Arizona defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. Other than that, it was one of the cleanest weeks I've seen in the league in a long time.
"I've seen a change in behavior in one week,'' NFL vice president of officiating Carl Johnson told me during my NBC prep work last night.
"Knock on wood,'' said Anderson, taking the train home to New York from the Buffalo-Baltimore game, "we had a very good day, from what I've heard from our control center.''
The best thing I saw was players aiming lower but not at the knees -- New England safety Brandon Meriweather going for the midsection rather than a head in San Diego on a first-quarter tackle, Tennessee cornerback Alterraun Verner doing the same against Philadelphia receiver Chad Hall, Titans safety Michael Griffin pulling up instead of blasting Eagles tight end Brent Celek, and Buffalo safety Donte' Whitner hitting the torso instead of shoulder or higher in Baltimore. And James Harrison pulling up instead of going for the big hit against Miami running back Ronnie Brown as he fell to the turf early in the fourth quarter at Miami.
Harrison, of course, took the day off last Wednesday, courtesy of coach Mike Tomlin, to clear his head after being fined $75,000 for a hit to the head of Cleveland receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. So that Harrison eased up on Brown was news. Last week, he likely would have blasted him. "I could have stuck my face in there,'' Harrison told me before the Steelers' left south Florida, "but it would have been helmet-to-helmet. So yes, on that play, I was a little more cautious.''
"I'm not changing,'' Harrison said. "I'm going to play the way I've played this game since I was 10-years-old. Whatever happens, happens. I sat there and thought about the way I play, and I can't readjust. There's still nothing I'd do differently on that [Massaquoi] hit. When I was on my way to hit him, he lowered his head. I can do a lot of things out there, but I'm not Superman. Once he lowered his head, I was going to hit him higher, even though I didn't want to.''
We'll see if players make this a one-week good story or if it becomes rote.
"Coincidence,'' said DeAngelo Hall of the Redskins, when I asked him if he thought the quiet day was sign of a change or just happenstance. "Last week's not going to happen very often. It was kind of a freaky Friday kind of Sunday. I don't see a lot of players changing their games.''
I'm not sure about that. I saw enough evidence Sunday that told me the players heard what 280 Park Avenue was preaching
Well, Sammy Baugh did it once.
In 1943, the year Washington's Baugh had the greatest season an NFL player ever had, he led the league in passing, punting and, as a deft safety, in interceptions. Baugh had 11 that year. And he was the first NFL player to pick off four passes in one game. DeAngelo Hall, 67 years later, did it again for the Redskins.
"I still don't believe it," he said an hour after the game in Chicago, where Washington won one of the ugliest games in recent memory 17-14.
Hall ran into the right offense for him Sunday. Mike Martz likes to throw the ball downfield and Jay Cutler likes to take chances. That gave Hall plenty of opportunities and he took advantage on four of them, one he took to the house, a 92-yard return that turned out to be the winning score for Washington.
"I've never had a day like this on any level," Hall said. "Jay has a lot of confidence in his arm and I thought we had a great defensive plan. We put a lot of pressure on him. Albert Haynesworth played lights out. I knew he came to play today. There's no telling how good we'll be if he plays like that every week."
Hall has the right attitude about the Redskins and their chances in the NFC. Has one conference ever looked this weak? Go ahead. Pick the best team in the NFC. There might be six or seven AFC teams who'd be favored against any team in the NFC on a neutral field right now.
"Why not us?" Hall said. "The NFC is wide open, obviously. We only got blown out once [vs. St. Louis] and I think we are going to be able to play the type of football, especially on defense, where we are going to be in all the games to the end."
If Donovan McNabb can pick up his game and Washington's receivers can stop dropping it so much, the Redskins might have as good a shot as anybody.
Nice guy of the week
We all saw the frightening pictures of the sidelines in the New Orleans-Cleveland game when chain-gang member Al Nastasi was bowled over by the Saints punt-team gunner Courtney Roby. Nastasi was taken to a hospital, had some bleeding in his brain, but was alert and talking to doctors Sunday night.
He had a visitor from the Saints a few hours after the game: Roby, who came in to apologize for the vicious but entirely incidental contact on the sidelines.