With deflategate breathing new life into the NFL’s troubles, the modern gladiator domain remains a magnet for villainy. Every passing week brings another public relations disaster for the league of extraordinarily ungentle men. It’s important to remember that, of the 1,696 players milling about, there are bound to be a few bad apples.
As a thought exercise, let’s turn a blind eye to any extracurricular delinquency in the NFL here and temporarily redefine “dirty” as deplorable on-field behavior. With that as your metric, here are the dirtiest NFL teams to ever put on pads.
1970s Oakland Raiders
Coach Madden’s Raiders are widely regarded as the most fearsome group of dirty bastards to ever haunt the gridiron. Madden himself was criticized more than once for letting the grass grow untamed in the days leading up to games, but his players didn’t need the help. In the ’76 season opener, defensive back George Atkinson knocked receiver Lynn Swann unconscious (for the second time) with a forearm to the back of the head on a play where Swann wasn’t even the intended receiver. Steelers coach Chuck Noll responsively told media the Raiders were “the criminal element of pro football.”
After getting mauled by the Raiders for a second time in the AFC Championship game that season, Steelers coach Noll sued the team for playing too rough. Two years later, Raiders safety Jack “The Assassin” Tatum would paralyze Patriot Darryl Stingley with one very unnecessary hit after the receiver missed an uncatchable pass in a preseason game. The ‘70s Raiders remain the standard for gratuitously violent football to this day.
1980s Oakland Raiders
The golden age for steroids in the NFL ended in 1987, when the league started testing after an increasingly apparent epidemic of rage and muscular foreheads swept the sport. Coach Madden, Skip “Dr. Death” Thomas, George Atkinson, and Jack “The Assassin” Tatum were all gone by the ‘80s, but Al Davis’ Raiders kept a lingering taste for blood. Leading up to the inevitable testing for steroids was an era of fearsome tempers.
The undisputed king of anger remains defensive end Lyle Alzado, who joined Oakland in ’82. Alzado once described his father as “a drinker and a street fighter,” and from this abusive childhood, he says, grew one of football’s most menacing linemen. Add Steroids, which Alzado later admitted to, and you have the man who inspired the NFL’s Alzado Rule, which deems that players are, in fact, not allowed to rip off an opponent’s helmet and use it as a weapon.
2007 New England Patriots
Before deflategate there was spygate, when Coach Belichick’s staff was caught videotaping opponent’s signals. With the first perfect regular season since the 1972 Dolphins, the Patriots were heavy favorites going into Super Bowl XLII (which they totally blew). Fans still regard this team as one of the greatest ever, but the record is marred by cheating and profound hypocrisy.
Sports Illustrated calls the ’07 Patriots the “NFL's Miss Manners, with delicate sensibilities that could be offended by the most innocuous sources.” This team was the hypersensitive sort that took offense to the mildest of verbal slights. After former Chargers Coach Mike Vanderjagt noted that the Patriots were inhibited by injuries, Tom Brady roared back, “You don’t talk about our team.” By the end of the season, everyone was doing just that.
Current Detroit Lions
This season has shown a shameful lack of dignity from one of the dirtiest teams to ever play professional football. The Lions may have been seventh overall in the league for personal fouls, but their fouls were certainly the most egregious. After the Pats ran the score up in November, resentful center Dominic Raiola chop blocked the opposing tackle on the final play, a simple quarterback knee. The center was later suspended one game after stomping his 310 lbs. frame on a fallen opponent’s ankle.
Raiola may just be taking after teammate Ndamukong Suh, the team’s almost cartoonish on-field villain. Suh was voted dirtiest player in the league two years in a row by a Sporting News’ survey of over 100 fellow NFL players. The Washington Post reports that Suh has been fined eight times throughout his four-year career for a total of $216,875. He has stomped, punched, and groin-kicked other players. Last month, Suh was suspended for a third time after stomping on Aaron Rodgers injured calf twice in losing effort against the Packers.
If the Lions have anything to say about football ethics, it’s “If you can’t beat ‘em, beat ‘em.”