A Former Player's Guide to Dirty Play in the NFL

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A Former Player's Guide to Dirty Play in the NFL
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

As Ndamukong Suh willfully cements himself atop everyone’s list of the NFL’s dirtiest players, let us take this opportunity to examine some concepts of a “dirty” player a bit more.

Using observation, personal experience and examples from around the league, we take a closer look at “dirty play” in the NFL as well as reflect upon the league’s worst offender in Suh.

Suh’s most recent antics where he apparently taunted Colts lineman Winston Justice as he lay on the ground after a big hit forced him out of the game with a concussion, comes on the heels of his infamous “crotch shot” incident against Matt Schaub on Thanksgiving Day.

Suh's block on Winston Justice courtesy of the Detroit Free Press and NFL Game Rewind

Unfortunately for Suh, the rest of the league is quickly beginning to view his brazen behavior as deplorable and outright offensive to both the game of football and the men who play it.

With little, if any, remorse, it appears as though Suh has fully embraced his bad-guy image and has almost called upon this reputation in order to gain any possible edge over his opponents.

More often than not, this motive is the biggest element which can cause even the most respectable men, while off the field, to turn into some of the league's most despised villains.

Suh's "crotch shot" on Schaub courtesy of profootballzap.com

But does dirty play really give players some sort of advantage over the competition?

From an observational standpoint alone, it genuinely seems to have no direct connection with a player’s overall production immediately following acts of dirty play.

Personally, whenever I was the victim of a dirty play on any level, I was always inclined to use that as a significant motivational boost, making it a point to dominate the player who had the audacity to operate outside the rules, specifically in a dangerous fashion.

This would suggest that, if anything, playing dirty serves as more of a disadvantage simply due to the impending wrath one would have to face from opponents.

History of Suh's incidents

My instincts also tell me that a player is far more likely to turn to dirty tactics when traditional methods prove futile or ineffective. But according to Pro Football Focus, Suh actually had perhaps his two best outings of the season during the very games that he was accused of his dirty acts.

In both of those games, he tallied the most hurries and knockdowns on a quarterback of the season thus far, as well as receiving his two highest overall grades for those games. This would suggest either the dirty play was able to reverse his poor play early on, or it was a contributing part to his success all along.

For whatever it's worth, the 2011 Thanksgiving game that included the “foot stomp seen round the world” happened to be one of his poorest-graded games of the season that year, as reported by PFF.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of playing dirty, if there is one at all, might come from a possible psychological edge induced by the individual’s perception of heightened confidence and courage.

Despite the small tidbit of counter-evidence, I remain in favor of my overall observations, which suggest that the dirtier the player, the more likely he is to struggle over time, generally speaking. The logic behind this opinion is similar to the idea of a coach trying to generate successful drives consistently by relying primarily on trick plays and gimmicks.

But that may also mean that some dirty play here and there may be just as helpful as the occasional trick play in scoring drives. But I would still advise against it either way.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

How commonplace are dirty plays/players in the NFL?

For the most part, the "dirty player" label is something that only a select few NFL players have. Cortland Finnegan, James Harrison and a handful of others serve as extreme examples of a dirty player.

But dirty plays themselves are actually more common than many might think. In fact, a great amount of detail and nuance slips past the watchful surveillance of the many television cameras throughout the game. An act of dirty play likely can be found several times over the course of an NFL game.

If you don’t agree, just try being at the bottom of a massive dog pile fighting for a fumble—this is typically a time when lawlessness, vicious name-calling and spit-flying are all more or less a weekly occurrence.

courtesy of hotnewshome.com

As a rookie, one of the first survival lessons is that veterans are equipped with a vast array of dirty little cheats that aid in their ability to thrive.

I found one of the most common and frustrating tactics used during special-teams plays is the sneaky method of keeping up with your opponent as he runs downfield during punt coverage. The dirty secret is to hold and twist the player you’re trying to block just as he begins to run past you by grabbing him around the waist briefly, allowing you to sling yourself around him.

This throws the opponent off balance and allows you to get back in front of him without ever being called for holding, because refs are only trained to call holding when they see jerseys pulled away from the body, usually around the shoulder pad area. But if the pull occurs at the waist by twisting the opponent’s torso rather than visibly yanking jersey away from the body, the refs will never call it.

That technique got the best of me several times against multiple opponents.

But there’s a big difference between small, tactical cheats like the one I just mentioned and the dangerous, overtly violent cheap shots that happen either in play or long after the whistle is blown. Unfortunately, those are the acts Suh has increasingly attached himself to again and again.

Would you want Ndamukong Suh on your favorite team?

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It is those actions which ultimately fly in the face of the NFL’s fraternity-like mentality when it comes to protecting one another. For years now, the unwritten rule amongst players league-wide has been to avoid any and all egregious acts that may unnecessarily risk the livelihood of a fellow player.

When a player operates outside those boundaries, he very quickly finds himself ostracized by fellow players. Such has been the case for Ndamukong Suh.

Yet for whatever reason, Suh quite simply doesn’t get it, and only time will tell where his rogue style of play will eventually take him. As of now, all signs seem to point towards a forceful assimilation process for his adherence to appropriate NFL conduct.

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