Being a football player always involves some extent of physicality. You ultimately can't avoid it unless you're one of the less physically active positions on an NFL team, like a kicker or punter (or I guess if you never actually tackle anyone in your entire career like Deion Sanders). But to be named one of the dirtiest NFL players takes some skill and a long resume of questionable hits.
But while most NFL players can be a bit dirty, a few achieve levels never seen in leagues like MLB and the NBA. Once in a while, a dirty play can happen, just ask Mac Jones. Maybe a few NHL guys can match it (Darius Kasparaitis existed, after all), but short of swinging your hockey stick at a guy's head like Marty McSorley, even most of them aren't coming close to the degree of cheap shots that exist in pro football. Indeed, it is a world unto itself.
But who were the dirtiest NFL players in history? Who were the guys ready and willing to end a tight end's NFL career in the preseason just for the sheer sadistic joy? It's not just safeties, linebackers and offensive linemen; there's even a wide receiver on this list.
You can't qualify for standings like these based on one hit: Anthony Barr's hit that broke Aaron Rodgers' collarbone was dirty as heck, but until Barr does stuff like it a whole lot more, he's not going to make this list. And while Bernard Pollard may be considered a "Patriot killer" for his massive hit on Tom Brady, the former Ravens defensive back credits the hit to his hard-nosed mentality.
No, you have to back up your dirtiness with a vast number of below-the-belt moves over time, and these guys certainly did. This is especially true of the top guy, who put up dirty player numbers that future players will never top. You won't find these faces on the cover of Sports Illustrated anytime soon.
20. Jon Runyan
Startign our list of the dirtiest NFL players is Jon Runyan, who might be the stealthiest dirty player in NFL history. He made one Pro Bowl in what I have to assume must have been some cruel joke. The Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle could only be considered "skilled" if you think holding on to every play (and somehow getting away with it) counts as a skill. Still, Runyan didn't set out to injure guys, so at least he's a leg up on many of the players on this list.
19. Deacon Jones
I'm incredibly conflicted about putting Deacon Jones, the inventor of the term "quarterback sack," and one of its most prolific artists (the league didn't record sacks during his career, but NFL historians have tracked 173.5 of them using old game tapes), on this list. Unlike many defensive players from his era, the Los Angeles Rams defensive end didn't set out to injure guys.
Jones didn't even do anything illegal during his career. He created one technique that wouldn't work today: he used to slap opposing linemen in their open earhole to disorient them. He's only a "dirty player" in the same way Gaylord Perry was a dirty pitcher because he threw a spitball. At a certain point, you have to respect the hustle.
18. Albert Haynesworth
Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth was dirty for virtually his whole career, but never more so than the 2006 messy play incident. Haynesworth ripped Dallas Cowboys' guard Andre Gurode's helmet off, then stomped on his head and required 30 stitches. His five-game suspension is still the longest in NFL history for an in-game incident. Oh, yeah, he also kicked his teammate in this chest. That's an easy way to become one of the dirtiest NFL players.
17. Ray Lewis
Sorry, Ravens fans, but it's true. There's no doubting Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis is one of — if not the — best middle linebackers ever, but he didn't get there by being a clean player. He never changed how he played either: he was fined twice at age 35 in 2010 for illegal hits. Lewis also went on trial for murder in 2000, though that's probably not germane to this discussion.
16. Hines Ward
If you have a rule enacted to prevent cheap shots named after you, it's safe to say you were a pretty dirty player. Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward was a skilled player with six 1000-yard receiving seasons. Still, he was mainly known as an exceptional blocker for his position.
Unfortunately, many of those blocks were questionably legal at best. In particular, Ward was known both for chop blocking and for the now-extremely illegal blindside block, where you hit an unwitting defender in the head from an angle he can't predict. Ward cost Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers the entire 2008 season, and that was far from the only injury he ever caused.
15. Brandon Meriweather
Many players are dirty, but very few combine it with the staggering level of recklessness displayed by safety Brandon Meriweather. Meriweather was repeatedly suspended for helmet-to-helmet hits and refused to learn his lesson in increasingly creative ways.
Later in his career, he was suspended for two games for illegal hits and responded:
"I guess I just got to take people's knees out. That's the only way. I would hate to end a guy's career over a rule, but I guess it's better other people than me getting suspended for longer. You just have to go low now, man. You've got to end people's careers. You got to tear people's ACLs and mess up people's knees. You can't hit them high anymore."
Underrated dirty quote!
14. Joe Greene
"Mean Joe" didn't earn his nickname by accident. Spitting at Minnesota Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton was a minor dirty thing he did during his Hall of Fame career.
Joe Greene was known for screaming at opposing QBs that he would kill them, punching opposing players and kicking an opponent in the groin as he lay prone on the ground. Greene is unquestionably a Hall of Famer and one of the best defensive tackles in NFL history. Still, he didn't win four Super Bowls thanks to his sparkling personality.
13. Dick Butkus
When your name is Dick Butkus, maybe you become extra violent and unethical purely as a self-defense mechanism. Chicago Bears linebacker Butkus was perhaps unusual among dirty players. He didn't explicitly set out to take cheap shots.
He had no regard for anyone else's well-being on the field. You always got the vague impression he was about to haul off and pile-drive the nearest cameraman. He was the Ivan Drago of football.
12. Mark Schlereth
Ahhh, the '80s and '90s. An era when offensive linemen could chop block, and people thought it was just peachy keen. Of every chop blocker from that era, maybe nobody was more proficient at going for a guy's knees than Washington Redskins/Denver Broncos interior lineman Mark Schlereth.
What's more, he was proud of it. Speaking of the Broncos chop blocks compared to opposing teams, he once said, "they were throwing 15-16 cut blocks a game. We were throwing 40." He won three Super Bowls, so it worked, but what cost his soul?
11. James Harrison
If you played in the Steelers' front seven for an extended time, you were guaranteed to show up on this list. The 2008 Defensive Player of the Year earned it, too. If you came across the middle against Pittsburgh, he would do his best to remove your entire spinal column. His 80.5 sacks are the most in Steelers history, and at our liberal estimate, maybe 10 of them were clean hits.
10. Rodney Harrison
There may have never been a more proficient head hunter than San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison. He went after everybody's head, and it didn't matter how big a legend you were or had been. He was suspended in 2002 for a headshot against Jerry Rice, who universal consensus holds as a generally blameless, friendly guy who everyone liked.
Harrison has the distinction of winning the NFL's dirtiest player award three separate times (2004 and 2006 from fellow players and 2008 from NFL coaches).
9. Cortland Finnegan
Many guys are dirty players, but very few seemed to revel in it like Tennessee Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan did. You have to do a lot to get voted the dirtiest player in the league like Finnegan did in 2010 as a cornerback; they're typically more minor, faster guys who guard wide receivers and aren't known for big hits.
But Finnegan lived to get under his opponents' skin and repeatedly goaded opponents into fistfights with grabs and trash talk. We can't forget the iconic fight with Andre Johnson.
8. Roy Williams
Before injuries claimed his career, Dallas Cowboys safety Roy Williams made five straight Pro Bowls. But for all his skills, he was better known for a particular maneuver: the now-illegal horse-collar tackle.
That tackle is when a defender reaches into an offensive player's pads and hauls them down by it. It might not look as bad as a spearfishing expedition. Still, it's nearly as dangerous as yanking on a guy's facemask for the potential for long-term injury. Not great, Bob!
7. Chuck Cecil
Chuck Cecil of the Packers might not be entirely as well known as a lot of these guys, partly because he was out of the league by age 31. Oh, but why, you ask? Because he was a human spearfishing operation disguised as a free safety.
Cecil was the king of helmet-to-helmet collisions, leading with his head more often than one of those dome-brained dinosaurs. He even wore a special uniform to brace his head during his hits—though it didn't help him long.
6. Jack Tatum
A guy nicknamed "The Assassin" wouldn't make it in today's NFL. At 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders was one of the more undersized safeties in the league. His solution to this issue was to become the meanest guy on the planet.
Tatum was a helmet-to-helmet guy and didn't stop playing that way even after he infamously paralyzed New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley from the chest down. He never apologized for the hit. Unlike many of these guys, Tatum had skills — he made three straight Pro Bowls — he just chose to use them to hurt opposing players. In NFL history, Tatum might be one of the most cold-blooded players to ever take the field.
5. Richie Incognito
When you play for four teams over 14 seasons, you know something about you was disagreeable. Former Buffalo Bills, St. Louis Rams, Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders guard Richie Incognito was bad enough on the field; he was once fined three times during one game.
Incognito stands out, though, that he was a complete jerk to his teammates and his opponents, exemplified by the bullying scandal involving fellow offensive lineman Jonathan Martin that nearly ran him out of the league, cementing Incognito's legacy as the one of the dirtiest NFL players.
4. Ndamukong Suh
The Detroit Lions drafted Ndamukong Suh second overall to be a dominant force on the interior line. He's accomplished that during his career, making five Pro Bowls and earning 70.5 sacks for the Lions, Dolphins, Rams and Buccaneers thus far during his career. That's what sets Suh apart from everyone on this list: he doesn't need to engage in cheap shots to dominate a game, yet he still does.
He's widely regarded as the NFL's dirtiest player for his frequent escapades stomping on opponents and his gleeful ability to start fights on the field. At least most of these guys need to play dirty to contribute. Suh does it because he enjoys it. Running backs, beware.
3. Conrad Dobler
Cardinals, Saints and Bills offensive guard Conrad Dobler isn't someone modern audiences are familiar with. Still, there's no question whether he was the dirtiest offensive player. Like the next guy on this list, nothing was out of bounds for Dobler.
In addition to the usual offensive lineman repertoire of chop blocks and stomping, Dobler was known for punching and kicking guys, spitting on them — he even allegedly bit someone during one scrum. Dobler also never denied trying to injure opposing players. Hey, points for honesty, I guess?
2. Bill Romanowski
Before the top guy on this list took his throne, Bill Romanowski was the dirtiest NFL player in history. You name it. The Oakland Raiders linebacker did it: stomping, spitting on wide receiver J.J Stokes, late hits, helmet-to-helmet hits, facemasks, ripping Eddie George's helmet off, kicking Larry Centers in the head and punching former teammate Marcus Williams during a post-whistle dust-up and ending his career.
Romanowski took steroids for his entire career, which probably explains his excessive anger. That doesn't excuse it, though.
1. Vontaze Burfict
There was no other choice as to who would sit at the top of our list of dirtiest NFL players in the history of the game. Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict is best known for his cheap shots against the Pittsburgh Steelers, particularly quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and one unbelievably unconscionable, career-altering hit against wide receiver Antonio Brown in the 2016 playoffs, but Burfict went after everybody.
The proof is in the numbers: Burfict somehow earned $4.2 million in fines during his career. Players will never top this record because if anyone reached even half that number now, they'd expel them from the league. Indeed, he'll never be beaten.
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