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Dan Daly: Headhunting honchos

- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2008

The best and worst of the NFL were on display Monday night, when the Cowboys outwrassled the Eagles 41-37. For twists, turns and touchdowns, the game was hard to top ... in every respect but one.

Too bad more hasn't been made of the latter. Too bad more attention hasn't been called to Dallas' dirty, reckless play, to the Cowboys' repeated tugging on Brian Westbrook's facemask. By my count, Westbrook's head swiveled around, dangerously, three times during the course of the evening. The officials caught two of them and assessed 15-yard penalties; the other, on the fourth play of the game, was a freebie.

If that had happened to a quarterback, we'd never hear the end of it. If it had been a QB whose neck was constantly contorted on national television, Roger Goodell would have had a conversation with the guilty parties - perhaps even flown them to New York for a face-to-face - and several wallets would have been lightened.

The commissioner also might have put the coach and defensive coordinator on notice, told them he'd be watching the Cowboys closely in the future to see whether they were using proper tackling technique. After all, three facemask-grabbings in one game is way too many, and having the same player on the receiving end of all three is ridiculous, almost mathematically impossible.

What a coincidence, too, that he's the Eagles' best offensive player, a back who led the league in yards from scrimmage last season (2,104) and gained 299 of those yards in two games against Dallas. It couldn't possibly be that the Cowboys' defensive coaches spent the week telling their players, “We have to be physical with this guy if we're going stop him. [Wink, wink.]” I mean, when has a football coach ever suggested that?

If you ask me, the Cowboys are taking this "Hard Knocks" business a little too literally. Football is a nasty game, sure, and people are going to get hurt, but there's never been any place for trying to yank a guy's head off.

And make no mistake, there was nothing inadvertent about any of the episodes, nothing incidental; if there had been, the defenders (Jason Hatcher, Pat Watkins, Jay Ratliff) would have released the mask sooner. No, this was just good, old fashioned Street Ball - Oakland Raiders, circa 1976.

Fortunately, Westbrook lived to play another day. Maybe the Cowboys will resort to a different form of, uh, discouragement next time - the clothesline, say, or the horse collar. Clearly, he was foremost in their defensive thoughts Monday night, No. 1 on their Most Wanted list. And their roughhouse tactics had the desired effect; he was held to 58 yards rushing and 103 overall.

Of course, it was a tough weekend for the NFL. That might be why the league closed its eyes to the extracurricular activities at Texas Stadium. Goodell and his trusty damage controllers were still dealing with referee Ed Hochuli's botching of the Chargers-Broncos game -the Inadvertent Whistle Heard 'Round the World - when the Cowboys started brass-knuckling Westbrook. The last thing they needed was another screaming 72-point headline.

Still, watching the Cowboys' leg-breakers in action was like going back in time - to the 1950s, before the NFL got serious about cleaning up its act. In those days, pro football was largely self-policing. If a team started working over an opposing player, a fight would almost certainly ensue (and possibly spill into the stands). At the very least, the perpetrators would be retaliated against - and in the '50s, NFL law was about as forgiving as Islamic law.

So the league was lucky the Eagles didn't respond in kind, lucky the game didn't disintegrate into a prime-time punch-a-thon. (Heck, old-time Eagles like Chuck Bednarik must have wondered why it didn't. Bednarik's teams, for goodness sakes, used to get in free-for-alls in exhibition games.)

But it does the NFL no good that the largest cable television audience ever (18.6 million, according to reports) witnessed this kneecapping of Westbrook. A certain element - the Ultimate Fighting crowd, maybe, and other devotees of the extreme - might enjoy such antics but not the true fan, the one who cares about The Game.

This is a season, let's not forget, that has already seen Tom Brady and Shawne Merriman go down - and Ben Roethlisberger narrowly miss separating his shoulder. (It's "just" a sprain, the club says.) The Seahawks are so depleted at receiver they're signing people off the street. The Colts' offensive line is such a patch job you'd have trouble naming two starters. LaDainian Tomlinson is hobbling around on a sore toe; Roy Williams has a broken arm - and it's only Week 3.

So by all means, Cowboys, put out a contract on Westbrook. Grab him by the facemask - once, twice, thrice - and make no apologies for it.

"We had a couple of facemask penalties," Wade Phillips said the next day. "We need to clean that up."

See? Problem solved.