In conversations with several players this week, I got the strong impression that we're not going to see a radically different football game Sunday afternoon. Not at all. What may change is a decrease in headhunting, which is a good thing. The T.J. Ward hit on Jordan Shipley in the Cincinnati-Cleveland game three weeks ago -- despite Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan calling it textbook -- was an egregious shot at Shipley's head. The Brandon Meriweather hit on Todd Heap last Sunday, helmet to helmet, was a disgrace. I'd be surprised if we saw a hit like those on Sunday.
But there will be some big hits. They are unavoidable. And though I admire the league for trying to make the game less violent, it's always going to be violent, and there will come a day when another Darryl Stingley or Mike Utley or Dennis Byrd is in the headlines.
"There is no way you can prevent some of those hits from happening,'' Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking said from Dallas Thursday night. "I know the Competition Committee has guys who know the game. I know [NFL VP of Operations] Ray Anderson, and I respect him. But this, to me, is a political agenda. They're trying to protect themselves. I agree with the emphasis on player safety, but let's face it: It's inevitable that someone's going to get hurt really bad out there. When? I don't know. But it's going to happen.''
I chose Brooking, 34, because I consider him a lover of the game like few others I've met over the years. He plays the game right, similar to many others in the NFL, with ferocity and respect. He's never cheap. In fact, his recollection is he's been fined only once for a cheap hit in his 13 years with Atlanta and Dallas, and that's when he was blocked and stumbled into Jake Delhomme's lower leg several years ago and got whacked $5,000.
I asked him how the NFL's video -- Ray Anderson narrating hits that were in violation of league rules and some that were legal -- went over when the team watched it Thursday. "Of the five or six examples they showed of bad hits, I think I agreed with two of 'em,'' he said. "The Meriweather hit I can see. And the kid from Cleveland. I see where they're coming from on those. The guys in the room agreed, I think. But the other ones ... The hit by James Harrison [on Cleveland's Mohamed Massaquoi coming across the middle], the Cleveland receiver lowered his head. He ducked his head. And you can see where Harrison was going to hit him was in a good place -- in the chest or shoulders, but definitely below his head. And at the last second, the receiver lowers his head, and Harrison lays into him. Sorry. That's not Harrison's fault. The guys, I think, agreed with me. It's subjective. It's not black and white. That's why this thing is so hard.''
Brooking said one thing that "surprised'' him and his teammates was the news from the league -- actually, it should be old news, a point of emphasis all players should have been told about in training camp -- that launching yourself at a defenseless receiver would be a penalty, even if it did not involve contact with the head. "The guys in our locker room didn't know about that whole launch thing,'' Brooking said.
What that says to me is the league has to do a better job informing players in camp about the new points of emphasis each year. The league has to make sure players don't use this time as a sleeping-through-a-league-rules-meeting thing. I doubt sincerely the league skipped Dallas on its official stops last summer. I know this sounds elementary, but I might consider quizzing players on rule changes each year. I'm always amazed how many rules the players don't know. Remember Donovan McNabb not knowing the overtime rules a couple of years ago? Players have to know the safety rules as they change from year to year, and the league has to do a better job of pounding the changes into them.
Brooking mirrors the rest of the league, though. He knows at the end of the day he's not going to have a job if he backs off a big hit of Brandon Jacobs or Ahmad Bradshaw on Monday night. That's why I think we're going to see some suspensions in the coming weeks. Two? Six? I don't know. But the game's not going to change appreciably. The sanctions will, but not the game.
Tony Romo, QB, Dallas.
Romo's completed at least two-thirds of his throws every week this season, a remarkable run of accuracy. But with seven picks, he's on pace to throw the most interceptions of his career, and he simply can't afford to make more than a mistake or two Monday against the defensively voracious Giants. There are times when stats don't matter, and one of those times is Monday night. Romo has to find a way to win a game his team has to have, or risk his team going down in the kind of defeatist spiral he -- and the team -- wouldn't be able to recover from this year.
Charles Godfrey, FS, Carolina (No. 30)
The Panthers, justifiably, have flown far under the radar this year, and they won't be a factor in the playoff chase in the last year of John Fox's reign. But there are a few solid building blocks for the next staff, among them NFL interceptions leader Godfrey, who, at 24, will likely be the long-term leader of this secondary.
Godfrey's an above-average tackler, good ballhawk (four interceptions, five passes defensed) and good return man; he's averaged 23.5 yards on his four interception returns. San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith certainly has been educated on Godfrey's range in film study this week.
St. Louis WR Danario Alexander is 6-foot-5. He's feisty. And he's starting to find a good bond with Sam Bradford.
Here is my prediction for Alexander's stat line against Tampa Bay:
1. Aggression. Or lack thereof. I guarantee many players rolled their eyes at the video they were shown Thursday in team meeting rooms leaguewide, when NFL discipline-man Ray Anderson narrated a four-minute presentation with highlights of both good and bad collisions (from the league's perspective). Everyone in America will be watching to see if players play differently this weekend. I doubt they will -- except for a Brandon Meriweather or two. As the Patriots safety told Rodney Harrison this week, he's going to leave the cheap stuff on the sideline.
2. Jared Allen to be a factor. One sack in five games. Now, he pressured Tony Romo pretty consistently last week, so maybe there's hope for him showing up in Green Bay Sunday night. After all, he did have 7.5 sacks in two games against the Packers last season. Minnesota needs him to torment Aaron Rodgers similarly Sunday night.
3. Favre, Favre, Favre, sort of. I'm sure Brett Favre was really disappointed to see the NFL's screed against big hits this week. He was enjoying the spotlight so much. The pregame shows will highlight the NFL's anti-headhunting mission Sunday, taking more of the heat off Favre for the investigation into alleged harassment of a former Jets sideline host. Speaking of Jenn Sterger ...
4. Will she talk? It's getting old now. Either talk or don't talk. Make a decision.
5. Reunion Week in Chicago on Sunday. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan watches his old quarterback, Jay Cutler, try to beat him. The city of Chicago watches their old high school star, Donovan McNabb, try to make it five wins in six games as a Soldier Field visitor. Should be a fun game between two teams that, in a weak NFC, have playoff shots.
6. Which Chargers will show up against New England. San Diego's playing for its 2010 life Sunday against New England because a loss drops it to 2-5. And their top four receivers all are in danger of missing the game -- tight end Antonio Gates (toe) and wideouts Malcom Floyd (hamstring), Legedu Naanee (hamstring) and Buster Davis (ribs) all missed practice Thursday. But practice squadder Seyi Ajirotutu did get some reps. Now there's reason for hope.
7. Jerry Jones getting serious. Somehow, when the ESPN cameras look for Jones Monday night, I don't expect him to be so jolly. Dallas is 1-4, in a huge NFC playoff hole with a 0-3 conference mark, and the Giants, who owned them last year, are coming to town. On Thursday, as Todd Archer of the Dallas Morning News reported, Jones gave his team a "put up or shut up'' speech. Strong words from Jerral Wayne Jones.
8. Colt McCoy getting a chance to win the Cleveland job for good. What do the Browns have to lose? After McCoy went a surprisingly good 23 of 33 against Pittsburgh last week, I think if he has a competent-to-good game against the Saints at the Superdome he'll be the Cleveland quarterback when the men of Mangini return from their bye in two weeks to face New England.
9. Whether Miami can stop the weirdness. Dolphs are 0-2 at home, allowing 36 points a game; 3-0 on the road, allowing 13 a game. Pittsburgh plays at Miami Sunday but valuable Miami rookie defensive end Jared Odrick is lost with a broken leg. Gloria Estefan had better come with her most inspirational warbling this week.
10. Whether the Colts can stay healthy, and sober, on their bye weekend. Eventful bye week. Punter Pat McAfee got drunk and went swimming in a city canal at 5 in the morning -- in 39-degree weather. Peyton Manning fave Austin Collie had hand surgery and will be gone for two or three weeks. Manning superfave Dallas Clark is out for the year with a wrist injury. Uh-oh. Be careful in everything you do all weekend, Reggie Wayne.