Football is a game of physicality, and I dare say, violence. As much as we love it, it is something of a gladiator's arena, with injury and often life-changing ailments as residual after effects. Given that it is a game which filters for the toughest, hardest-hitting players, there is something of an inevitability to the game attracting players with a penchant for violence and physical abuse.
Everyone wants to wag a finger at these players; but truthfully our telling them to keep it clean is something of a hypocritical art. Can we say there is a 'right' amount of violence? After all, we love players that win us games--and if a defensive back launches helmet to helmet on the opposing team's best receiver and takes him out of the game with a concussion, that could win a team the game. There's a reason those players are on rosters across the league.
Now, to be clear, I am not condoning any such intentional violence. I'm merely playing devil's advocate; these players have to survive the trials and tribulations of intense competition to get these roster spots, and some of them know the only reason they did was because of their tone-setting, violent play. However there are a number of players on this list who engage in extracurricular violence after the whistle blows. There's no place for that in the NFL either, it's simply unprofessional and rage-driven. But again, this game is often fueled by hatred of your enemies. The line we ask these players to walk is certainly thin.
I wish there were no players to put on this list; I wish the NFL wasn't marred the by controversy of conflicting rules and practices, and billion dollar concussion lawsuits. But it is, and hereafter sit 10 of the more recent unsportsmanlike players to inhabit the game.
10 Michael Griffin - S - Tennessee Titans
Perhaps dirty player is a little strong for Michael Griffin--he might not be trying to hurt people, depending on what you believe. Either way, his job involves hurtling at high speeds into another man coming in the other direction at high speeds. He's had a few helmet to helmet collisions that have ended atrociously. He was suspended a game this past season for repeated offenses of helmet hits after a crushing blow to Raiders TE Mychal Rivera. He certainly had something of a track record. Griffin was fined earlier in the season for taking out Jets WR Stephen Hill, and has had a number of offenses beforehand as well. He doesn't seem to plan on changing his ways, saying that defensive players are "damned if you do, damned if you don't." So let's just wait and see who else's brains he turns into pudding.
9 Steve Smith - WR - Baltimore Ravens
Lists of dirty players usually start and end with guys on the defensive side of the ball, but Steve Smith's career history of aggressive, physical play and pugnacious tendencies have earned him a spot on this list. He's known for getting into the heads of cornerbacks, and has drawn many a flag for taunting and fighting on the field. In 2013 Smith got in several fights with CB Aqib Talib, whom he had a long-standing feud with from when Talib was a divisional rival in Tampa Bay. After Carolina beat New England 24-20 during the regular season, Smith famously directed the remarks "Ice up, son, Ice up" to Talib after he had to leave the game with a hip injury. In 2012 after Smith and Richard Sherman got tangled up on a play, Smith threw Sherman to the ground which drew a flag. If you look back at his career, the list of stories like these is pretty long. He's probably most famous for breaking the noses of his former teammates Anthony Bright and Ken Lucas. They don't make wideouts like Steve Smith, that's for sure. I wonder where he's going to channel all that rage when he retires. Smith will be suiting up for the Ravens in 2014.
8 Cortland Finnegan - CB - Miami Dolphins
Mr. Finnegan had the dubious honor of being voted the NFL's dirtiest player in 2010, a honor of which he was very proud. Wideout Josh Morgan claimed that "He'll tackle you when you're in a crowd. Try to twist your leg or break your leg. Punch you in the [crotch]. . .Poke you in your eyeball as you get up." That year, Cortland Finnegan was famous for punching Andre Johnson of the Texans in the face on the line of scrimmage-- the two started brawling and ripped each other's helmets off, which eventually led to Johnson throwing Finnegan to the ground and punching him in the head repeatedly. Mike Ditka lauded Johnson's retaliation, calling Finnegan a snake when saying: "Where does it say if a snake bites you, you can't step on a snake?" Finnegan went on in that game to taunt the sideline and the crowd, and would be ejected along with Johnson. To add to his repertoire, he also punched O-lineman Chris Kuper with his helmet off. Class act. And now in 2014, because the Dolphins can't get enough drama, they've gotten rid of Incognito and signed... Cortland Finnegan. So much for lessons learned.
7 Brandon Meriweather - S - Washington Redskins
What, a safety smashing heads and getting fines? What a shocker. This fellow comes with a goodly bit of controversy as well. Brandon Marshall once claimed Meriweather should be "kicked out of the league" and "guys like that don't understand there's life after football." Marshall clearly believed he delivered dirty hits. Indeed he does, as Meriweather managed to receive a two-game suspension following the game in question for the multiple hits delivered in the 45-41 Redskins win. After the suspension, which Meriweather appealed to 1 game, he said publicly he plans on aiming at players' legs, saying he will "...end people's careers." Guys like Dustin Keller may very well have had their careers ended by vicious low hits. Some people just want to be wrong, it would seem.
6 Bernard Pollard - S - Tennessee Titans
The infamous "Patriot Killer" has been responsible for severe injuries to a number of key Patriots players over the years. Pollard has always been famous for delivering hard hits and jarring the ball loose, but this has been directly connected with some absolutely vicious, injurious hits. While he was with the Chiefs he connected this helmet to Tom Brady's knee, tearing his ACL and ending his season. He also caused an ACL tear in Wes Welker while he played for the Patriots, has been connected to a number of Rob Gronkowski's injuries, and most recently knocked RB Stevan Ridley unconscious on a running play. He often launches into the heads of receivers, delivering one such blow to Andre Johnson so hard the NFL fined him $42,000 for the one hit. Despite it all, he maintains he won't change how he plays, so we'll see who will be his next victim come 2014, as it's basically an inevitability.
5 Albert Haynesworth - DT - (Inactive Since 2012)
Aside from being a money-grabbing, whiney, me-first waste of talent, Albert Haynesworth also had a mean streak that would come out in ugly ways from time to time. The most egregious of these offenses has to be his famous head stomp of Andre Gurode. It's beyond the normal vitriol of football--its horrific, unadulterated rage violence. Gurode ended up laying on his side amidst a pile of linemen in the third quarter of a Titans vs. Cowboys matchup in 2006. Gurode's helmet had come off on the play, and Haynesworth stood over him, picked up his massive spiked foot and stomped on Gurode's head. Gurode would need stitches around his forehead and below his eye. Gurode left the field covered in blood, and Haynesworth was ejected. He later would apologize for the act, calling it "disgusting" and a "disgrace." at least he got that right. Nevertheless, his brutality had reached new heights, and he forever cemented himself as a ruinously dirty player.
4 James Harrison - LB - Free Agent
James Harrison has always been known as a menacing, iron backbone of NFL defenses, namely the Steelers where he played much of his career. However, this physicality he imparts, he tends to impart with his head. . . into another man's head. In 2010 Harrison was fined a monstrous sum of $125,000 for illegal hits in that season alone. One of those fines was so strict it cost Harrison $75,000 for a single blow. He also was voted "most violent and dangerous" player in the NFL in 2012 by his peers. It was a landslide 'victory', if you want to call it that, as he amassed 67.5% of the total votes. We all (I would hope) remember his horrific blow to former Browns QB Colt McCoy, who later reported he couldn't remember the game the next day. After numerous fines and refusal to change his play style, he eventually caved, saying he would 'aim low' moving forward. Well, at least you'll be breaking legs, not skulls, James.
3 Dashon Goldson - S - Tampa Bay Buccanneers
What do we have here but another headhunter? What a surprise. Another oft-fined, menacing defensive brute, Goldson managed to get fined $60,000 for his hit on WR Stedman Bailey last year for the Bucs. Part of the reason that led to Goldson not being retained by the 49ers must have been the profuse fines and penalties incurred by having Goldson on the field; with so many enforcers on the 49ers' defense it probably just became a liability. Later in 2013, he was suspended for a game for a hit on a defenseless Darren Sproles, which gave him five such penalties in the last two years alone. Aside from between the whistle offenses, he's also had some extracurricular nonsense like the fist fight he got in with Early Doucet of the Cardinals in 2011. If Goldson keeps going at this pace he might lose more in fines than he makes in salary.
2 Richie Incognito - G - Free Agent
Yep, of course, good ole Richie graces the top of this list. We all know his grievous transgressions against Jonathan Martin and company employees, et al. However, before this scandal ever came to pass, Incognito was long recognized as a dirty player and a bully. Going back to his college days at Nebraska, he was hated by many of his teammates. He was often taken in secret to anger management classes during his time at Nebraska. One former teammate of his said "He's the guy that makes you want to spit in his face." When Incognito played for the Rams, he amassed 38 penalties in four seasons, and after head butting two opponents in 2009, he was voted by his peers as the league's dirtiest player in 2009. Over his career he's been known to sneak cheap shots and often leads players to lash out at him, like Antonio Smith did swinging his helmet at Incongito after he punched him in the facemask. One thing is crystal clear--Incognito is a problem child that we probably haven't seen the last of, knowing how many teams need O-line help.
1 Ndamukong Suh - DT - Detroit Lions
Here's a name just about everyone expects to be on this list. And, well, for good reason. There is a veritable laundry list of awful looking dirty or unsportsmanlike hits Ndamukong Suh has delivered already in his short career. In a game against the Bengals Suh grabbed Andy Dalton by the head, twisted it around until the helmet came off, then while still keeping Dalton in a headlock, drove him into the ground. It looks positively WWE-style on replay. Another such hit he delivered to the back of Jay Cutler's head. As Cutler scrambled for yardage, Suh came up behind him, and rather than shoving him in the back or grabbing him, gave him a double forearm shiv to the back of Cutlers' helmet, rocketing him headfirst into the ground. It's pretty ugly to watch even in slow motion. He would later again rock Cutler in what can only be described as a full-weight body slam, as Suh purposefully cut Cutlers legs out from breaking his fall.
Suh's first dirty play was in a preseason game, against a QB no one cared about, so it went a bit unnoticed-- he manages to facemask Jake Delhomme, then wrench him to his knees by his helmet, then whip him head first into the ground with all his strength. It's so ugly it's a miracle Delhomme still has a spine. And then, of course, there's the kick-in-the-balls he delivered to Matt Schaub and the famous headsmash-to-stomp of Evan Dietrich-Smith. When I say I could've made a list simply of Suh's dirty plays, I'm not kidding. There's a treasure trove of disturbing violence to sift through. Seriously, someone get the damn kid some therapy.