The 20 Most Bitter Player Rivalries in NFL History
Okay, I’ll be honest here—I’m going to need some help.
Below is a list of the top 20 NFL player rivalries that I could think of and/or could find. (Plus an additional list of ten that I’d originally included, but had since removed when I determined them to be more feuds then rivalries.)
The list is good. It’s got old school, it’s got new school, it’s got substance and it’s got filler…but there’s no way it has it all.
I’m 100 percent absolutely positive that I’ve left something out.
Probably quite a few somethings. So, please, please, please…if you know of anything, can think of anything, or want to make up something that I left out…add it to the comments!
Because I’ve been researching all night, and I’m now legitimately curious.
Help me help you…um, help me again. (Selfish, Ryan. Selfish.)
Rules Of The Road
The most important guideline I used in compiling this list was the most difficult to follow--it's a list of bitter rivalries between players, so that means we can’t have a player vs. an individual team. Or a team vs. a team.
The Ravens and Steelers have a rivalry, but there’s not so much any particular player who stands at the forefront of that. Ray Lewis and James Harrison lead those teams, but they don’t necessarily try to outduel each other.
Also, no feuds, and no isolated incidents. These are tricky. My initial list was chock-full of them. An isolated incident is self-explanatory, but what’s the difference between a feud and a rivalry?
Ryan’s dictionary describes a rivalry as competition-based, while a feud could stem from pure dislike in no way related to sport. Does that make sense? No? Well, I think you’re an idiot.
And see, now we’re feuding. We don’t have a rivalry.
The following are the feuds.
10. Cortland Finnegan Vs. Andre Johnson
Cortland Finnegan must be one annoying dude, because Andre Johnson seems like the most levelheaded guy this side of Marvin Harrison.
Score one for Andre Johnson. While Finnegan is probably the type of player you’d like to have on your team, he also once publicly stated his intention to develop into the dirtiest player in the league. Which he achieved.
9. Greg Lloyd Vs. Keenan McCardell
This one was actually pretty stunning. More so for the explanation than the incident.
In a 1997 game, Lloyd, the Steelers' Pro Bowl linebacker, absolutely belted McCardell away from the ball on the first play from scrimmage.
“After the game, he told me, ‘Be a man. Own up to it.’” Said McCardell. “I had no idea what he was talking about.”
Apparently, Lloyd was under the impression that McCardell had been making threatening phone calls to his house.
McCardell insinuated a Steelers coach was responsible, in what would have to be the most ill-conceived motivational ploy in history.
The moral of this story? I’m thinking it’s never call Greg Lloyd.
8. Hines Ward Vs. Keith Rivers
If you’re wondering where Hines Ward got his reputation as one of the dirtiest, nastiest players in the league, look no further.
A staple of the All-Dirty teams, Ward blindsided Keith Rivers to the tune of the left side of his jaw.
Rivers missed the rest of the season.
7. Terrell Suggs Vs. Tom Brady
Terrell Suggs doesn’t like Tom Brady. Terrell Suggs does like Ben Roethlisberger. That is my first and only piece of evidence to suggest that Terrell Suggs is dating Bridget Moynahan.
Regardless, Suggs has gone out of his way to invalidate Brady’s accomplishments. After calling the Patriots Super Bowl wins “questionable,” Terrell mused: “He’s got the tuck rule incident and you got the videotaping of other teams’ practices. It’s like ‘Oh, okay, what’s going on here?’”
I was curious as to the source of this vitriol, so I dug further.
Courtesy of the USA Today: “The bad blood between them stems from an October 2009 game when Brady received the benefit of two roughing-the-passer penalties—one against Suggs—that the Ravens bitterly contested.”
Apparently, Terrell Suggs has the memory of an elephant. An angry elephant.
6. Peyton Manning Vs. Mike Vanderjagt
After the Colts lost in the 2002 playoffs, kicker Mike Vanderjagt famously went out of his way to criticize Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy for their lack of emotion and leadership.
Which led to this classic Manning diatribe: “We’re talking about our idiot kicker who got liquored up and ran his mouth off.”
Vanderjagt, at the time the most accurate kicker in NFL history, played three more years for the Colts, then one for Dallas before retiring. The year Vanderjagt left, Indianapolis won the Super Bowl.
As feud punctuation goes, Peyton Manning eviscerated him.
5. Terrell Owens Vs. Jeff Garcia
After a mutually beneficial run in San Francisco ended, Terrell Owens resorted to the type of petty name-calling my six-year-old cousin would find immature.
He called Jeff Garcia gay.
And that was big news at the time. In 2004, the sociopolitical landscape was much different for gay people than it is today.
Which made me wonder...
Could Terrell Owens have aimed to bring about change in America by faux-outing his presumably straight quarterback in an attempt to advance gay rights by manipulating the public discourse?
Yep. Yeah, that’s what happened.
4. Terrell Owens Vs. Donovan McNabb
McNabb and TO had a terrific season together in 2004, one that culminated in a Super Bowl appearance.
Sadly and predictably, it was all downhill after that.
Owens criticized McNabb’s performance in the championship game, insinuating that McNabb was out of shape and ultimately cost the Eagles the title.
The controversial receiver played all of seven games the next season before the Eagles shut him down and eventually traded him to Dallas.
3. Terrell Owens Vs. Tony Romo
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
So yeah. I think I’m sensing a pattern here.
Clearly, there is something wrong with Tony Romo. (I think he’s gay.)
Funnily enough, this feud escalated as a result of the blossoming relationship between Tony Romo and Jason Witten.
The QB and the TE, close friends and road roommates, had been holding private meetings to create new plays and otherwise talk about Owens behind his back.
Or at least that’s what TO reportedly suspected.
So if you’re keeping track, Terrell Owens: superior gay-dar, fat-basher, conspiracy theorist.
2. Terrell Owens Vs. Himself
This slide is for the good of TO.
It’s not your fault, Terrell. It’s not your fault.
1. Steve Young Vs. Joe Montana
This is as close to a rivalry as you can get without actually being one. Instead, it’s the greatest quarterback controversy of all time.
Montana was a legend, a Super Bowl winner and already one of the all-time greats. Young was entering the prime of his career, had shown flashes of brilliance and was hands-down the better athlete.
After serving four uneasy years as a backup (during two of which Young saw substantial time due to a Montana injury), the 49ers reached a crossroads.
In 1994, Montana—after an off-season that saw him lose, regain, then angrily turn down the starting position—was traded to the Chiefs.
Steve Young took over the job, having been the NFL’s highest rated passer for the past two seasons, but with no Super Bowls to Montana’s four.
I believe it’s the only time in history where what turned out to be two of the top quarterbacks of all time were competing for the same job.
Rivalries: The ‘Off The Top of My Head’ Division
You’ve managed to navigate the vapid, slide-y terrain of feuds and incidents to get to the heart of this entry: the rivalries. (BTW, that’s The Great Valley from ‘The Land Before Time’ in the picture. I don’t know if I would’ve gotten that in your shoes.)
The rivalries are split into two sections: rivalries that I could remember ‘off the top of my head,’ and rivalries I had to look up. The following are the former.
(Honorable mentions for the OTTOMH division go to: Jay Cutler vs. Philip Rivers, and Adrian Peterson vs. Chris Johnson.)
20. Darrelle Revis Vs. Randy Moss
Short, but sweet, this was as close to a personal battle at the WR-CB positions as we’ve had for a while.
Of note during Revis’s breakout 2009 season was his performances against Randy Moss, during which Revis held Moss to a cumulative nine catches for 58 yards and a touchdown. Which led to this back and forth:
“All week he was talking about being a shutdown corner, but there are really no shutdown corners in the league, because they get help most of the time.”
Revis took exception and called Moss a “slouch.” He claimed he could break Moss’s will early and then, as required by the designation ‘slouch,’ Moss would give up.
“I prided my offseason on staying off Revis Island,” said Moss. “Words don’t really hurt me.”
One, let me point out that Moss’ last sentence is dangerously close to a famous first-grade idiom, and two, I like how they’ve adopted each other’s terminology.
Could you imagine this matchup if Moss was five years younger? Or, you know, wasn’t traded out of the division?
By modern standards, this one was pretty good while it lasted.
19. Brett Favre Vs. Warren Sapp
The pre-penis-pic Favre was the leader of a perennially strong Packers team, while Sapp was the motor-mouthed engine of the rising Buccaneers.
To see a quarterback brazenly jawing across the line with a 300-pound tackle, each challenging the other to keep up?
Rarely does that opportunity present itself.
18. Brett Favre Vs. Aaron Rodgers
It’s Aaron Rodgers vs. Brett Favre’s career.
This differs from the Montana-Young feud in that Favre’s waffling prior to leaving was not just a nuisance for Packer fans; it was an insult to Rodgers as well.
For three seasons, Aaron Rodgers waited for an opportunity to get on the field, and unlike Montana, Favre never came off it. Rodgers soured on Favre and his sense of entitlement, and the rift remains today.
Because of both Favre’s lengthy tenure and tedious departure, Aaron Rodgers will always be compared to him who came before.
17. Ray Lewis Vs. Eddie George
George was the premier power back in the league at the time, and Ray Lewis was at the peak of his powers.
Every time the Titans and the Ravens met, the two of them sought to assert their dominance, as if falling the other one would somehow empower the victor’s team.
And you know what? It worked.
After knocking George out of a 2000 game with a vicious hit, the NFL defensive MVP waxed poetic on the laws of the jungle: "To change the tide of our season, I had to dethrone him" says Lewis.
"If I did, I knew I would shift the momentum to our team. Their heart was gone; you could see it on the sidelines. That tackle changed the fate of Eddie George, of Ray Lewis, of the Ravens. From then on, Eddie has had a hard time dealing with me on the football field."
The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl that season, essentially on the back of that play. Watch what happened the next time they met.
16. Peyton Manning Vs. Tom Brady
The biggest rivalry of the present will also go down as one of the greatest of all time. (It might even be re-listed below.)
In 12 regular season matchups, Brady has gone 8-4 against Manning, 2-1 in the playoffs. And while Peyton is 34, just one year Brady’s elder, that’s where the similarities end.
Manning was the No. 1 pick in the draft, Brady the 199th. Manning continues at an unmatched statistical pace, while Brady has won three Super Bowls.
Manning married his high school sweetheart; Brady married supermodel Gisele Bundchen in an effort to create the world’s first completely aesthetically proportionate baby.
Their collective accomplishments are staggering: Six MVPs, four Super Bowls, a combined winning percentage of .718, and, again, Bundchen.
We could ultimately be looking at two of the top five quarterbacks of all time; neither has shown any sign of slowing down.
Rivalries: The 'Yeah, That's Right, I Had To Look These Up' Division
And that’s where my reservoir ran dry. At Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
Historian, thy name is Ryan.
So, panicked and on a deadline to get this done, ‘ol history boy called in the big guns: his computer and his dad.
And I’ll tell you what I learned:
Whether they're real or emboldened by their history, the old-school rivalries seem like they kicked ass. It seems like there's no comparison.
One honorable mention for the premiere category: Deion Sanders vs. Jerry Rice—which by name sounds like the best rivalry in NFL history—but it's really not.
The rest begin, in order, on the next slide.
15. Bruce Smith Vs. Reggie White
Very similar to the upcoming Sanders-Smith battle, this one was all about production.
Bruce Smith is the all-time sack leader (200); Reggie White was two behind (198) and played four fewer seasons.
What’s particularly astounding to me is that Bruce Smith played in a 3-4 scheme, in which an 8-sack season by a defensive end would be impressive. In that scheme, he averaged over 10 a year for nearly 20 seasons! That’s incredible.
Reggie White, on the other hand, made famous a devastating swim move, and was probably the pest pure pass rusher in the history of the sport.
The both entered the league in 1985, which is now known to offensive coordinators as the year that shall not be named.
14. Jim Brown Vs. Sam Huff
I have my dad to thank for this one.
Whenever the Giants played the Browns, Huff’s job was to shadow Jim Brown, a job he did better then anyone else in the league.
During one stretch in the late 50s, Huff and Giants managed to hold Brown under 50 yards in each of five consecutive games.
Though as Richard Hoffer of Sports Illustrated writes, that wasn't always the case...
“The great Sam Huff once taunted Brown after a stoppage (‘You stink!’) only to be rewarded by the diminishing sight of Brown's famous 32 as he scored from 65 yards out on the next play (‘How do I smell now, Sam?’). Huff later described defending against Brown this way: ‘All you can do is grab hold, hang on and wait for help.’"
A few more quotes from the Plain Dealer:
“It was a personal thing. We played a 4-3 defense and Tom Landry said, ‘[Jim Brown’s] your man.’” – Huff
“I always say Sam got famous for tackling me.” – Jim Brown
“S***, Jim Brown walked all over Huff.” – Vince Costello, Browns middle linebacker
I like football in the '50s.
13. Daryle Lamonica Vs. Len Dawson
I started typing a little comedic entry about Dawson and Lamonica, and how old they were. And then I discovered that they’re not that old, and I should probably do my research first before I get cute.
Lamonica, still alive and pictured to the left, had his best years pre-merger in leading the Bills to two AFL championships, and the Raiders to one. (He quarterbacked the Raiders until 1972, when Kenny Stabler took over.)
It was with the Bills that Lamonica’s rivalry with Dawson took hold, as the two split four AFL championships between the years 1962-1966.
12. Sammy Baugh Vs. Sid Luckman
Now these guys were old!
Allow me to recycle my original Dawson-Lamonica column...
Did you know that Sid Luckman basically invented the modern T-formation quarterback? He also didn’t wear shoes, and he walked to the stadium. In the snow. And he liked it.
That was it. Stellar.
The modern-T part is actually true. While Baugh came to the NFL two years ahead of him (in 1937), it was Luckman who became the first modern T-formation quarterback, and it was Luckman behind whose play the Bears destroyed Baugh’s Redskins in the 1940 NFL Championship game.
Flaunting their newly-minted aerial attack, the Bears won the game 73-0. (To contrast, only months before and without use of the passing formation, the Bears had been downed by those same Redskins 7-3.)
The success of Chicago’s passing game served as a revelation to the rest of the league, and immediately most other teams began to adopt the formation.
Sammy Baugh proved a quick study.
He would go on to outduel Luckman the following year, leading the Redskins to a championship game win behind a touchdown pass and some strong punting (Baugh was multi-faceted).
Baugh ended his career with five NFL championships, six passing titles, and having been voted first team All-NFL seven times. He set league records as a quarterback, a punter, and a defensive back.
Luckman retired a five-time All-NFL selection, leading the NFL in passing yards three times, and having won four championships in the '40s.
11. Barry Sanders Vs. Emmitt Smith
It's extremely arguable as to whether this was a greater rivalry then Baugh-Luckman, but it was certainly a greater debate.
Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith, the two most successful running backs of the '90s, also represent the highest non-QB pairing on our list.
One steady, one spectacular, one on the most talented team in the league, the other on a perennial cellar dweller—Smith and Sanders were similarly effective in staggeringly different ways.
Emmitt Smith holds the all-time rushing record. Barry Sanders would have beaten him to it had he not retired at age 30.
With all their differences, in terms of effectiveness, they were interchangeable.
(And if you were playing Madden in the early 90s, either could execute the sweep.)
10. Bill Bergey Vs. Conrad Dobler
In terms of hate and bitterness, this rivalry is one where I feel we’ve really hit the mark.
The following excerpt is from the SI Vault, a source who we’ll come to know well…
“Eagles linebacker Bill Bergey and Saints guard Conrad Dobler developed something of a blood rivalry in the late ‘70s, a passionate hatred that often resulted in cheap-shot contests and verbal altercations.
"Bergey, one of the most ferocious tacklers in the league and a proponent for playing the game the ‘right way,’ could not stand the notoriously ‘dirty’ Dobler.
"Ironically, Bergey’s career-ending knee injury came on a play in which he was lined up against Dobler (though blame goes to the Astroturf, not Dobler).”
Now there’s a bitter rivalry!
One more tidbit, via NFL Network: “Conrad Dobler once got into a casket just to feel how comfortable it was.”
Uh, point Bergey.
9. Kenny Stabler Vs. Terry Bradshaw
Via the SI Vault:
“Stabler first made an impact as a pro when he replaced Daryle Lamonica in a 1972 AFC playoff game against Pittsburgh. Stabler threw the go-ahead touchdown, but the Steelers won in the final moment when a Terry Bradshaw pass landed in Franco Harris’ hands—the Immaculate Reception.”
Stabler and Bradshaw would go on to meet in the playoffs each of the next four years, winning three of the next four Super Bowls.
8. Johnny Unitas Vs. Joe Namath
Again, the SI Vault:
“[Namath and Unitas] would go on to meet in two of the greatest games in NFL history. The first, Super Bowl III, wasn’t a fair battle necessarily, because Unitas didn’t play the whole game, which the Colts famously lost to the Jets.
Then in 1972, Unitas and Namath combined for 872 passing [yards] in a regular-season epic. Thanks to Namath’s 496 yards passing and six touchdowns, New York won 44-34.
Symbolically, both QBs represented their own eras. Unitas, with his flat-top haircut, was the embodiment of old-school NFL, while Namath and his shaggy hair ushered in a new era in the NFL.
Though they may not have met often, there was a deep historic rivalry between the Hall of Famers.”
Thank you, SI Vault—I’m starting to feel inadequate.
7. Bernie Kosar Vs. John Elway
In a rivalry that history has designated Elway vs. Cleveland, the former is a good deal more accurate. The two quarterbacks were at the heart of that rather animus rivalry in the late '80s.
Cleveland and Denver met in the AFC Championship game three times, and, uh…oh, darn, you know what? I can’t find the paper where I wrote down what happened.
Well, let's just say they met in the late-80s three times and it was animus.
Lots of animosity.
Don’t know what happened.
6. Steve Young Vs. Troy Aikman
There were three dominant quarterbacks in the '90s, and Aikman and Young were the only two not to have photographed their penis and sent it to a coworker. Clutch.
Aikman and the Cowboys defeated Young’s 49ers in the 1992 and 1993 NFC Championship games, while Young was able to lead his team past Dallas in 1994.
Oh, one more note—credit for the preceding two entries goes to anagram: SI TAVLU.
5. Dan Marino Vs. Joe Montana
While they only met once (in a 49er-won Super Bowl XIX), Montana and Marino battled their entire careers for the title of the best QB in the NFL.
Eerily similar to Manning and Brady’s respective positions in the current landscape, M&M were premier quarterbacks who occupied the same era in the NFL timeline.
One the most prolific passer in history, the other the winningest quarterback of his generation.
Also, you guessed it—I’m paraphrasing the SI Vault. Jesus, Ryan.
4. Otto Graham Vs. Bobby Layne
So this is pretty much officially the SI Vault section. The SIV. (As in, I’m an emotional-SIV of a writer because the SI Vault knows more than I do.)
Anyway, I LOVE Otto Graham. My favorite quarterback of all time, and it’s not even close.
What do we have to do to get OG some Bill Russell-type recognition?
The Lions and the Browns met in the NFL Championship game each year from 1952 to 1954, during which time they were considered the premier rivalry in the league.
Layne’s Lions won the first two meetings, before Otto Graham and the Browns unloaded on Detroit the following year, winning 56-10.
“Graham is considered the better passer, but Layne was a fierce competitor who excelled with the game on the line.”
3.5. Peyton Manning Vs. Tom Brady
You’re witnessing a moment in time: this slide is literally traveling between the 4 and the 3.
This is the evolutionary Marino vs. Montana.
The only reason they’re this far back is the lack of finality in their respective career arcs.
3. Jim Kelly Vs. Dan Marino
Both from Pennsylvania, both from the quarterback class of 1983, and both in the AFC East, Marino and Kelly had no choice but to compete throughout the better part of the '80s and the early '90s.
Even with Kelly on the superior team, the supremely gifted Marino was able to win 147 career games to Kelly’s 101, although Kelly beat Marino in 14 of their 21 meetings.
Kelly’s Bills also knocked Marino out of the playoffs three times, and they reached the Super Bowl four times to Marino’s one.
Kelly’s Bills employed a hurry-up offense (similar to the one used by Peyton Manning today), and with it created one of the more dynamic scoring offenses of the time.
Marino, on the other hand, had perhaps the strongest arm and quickest release in football.
2. Terry Bradshaw Vs. Roger Staubach
Two of the most successful quarterbacks of the 1970s, Bradshaw and Staubach faced each other in two of the most competitive Super Bowls of all time—both of which the Steelers won.
Overall, Bradshaw won four Super Bowls to Staubach’s two, and two Super Bowl MVPs to Staubach’s one.
1. Bart Starr Vs. Johnny Unitas
And here we are, at the No. 1 spot.
I perused several lists, and gathered together as much opinion as I could...and what I ultimately decided was that these guys set the stage for literally every other No. 1 candidate. Of those who were worthy, they came first.
On that account, on the account of seniority, the final slide goes to Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas.
The two were close friends, but indeed bitter rivals, and they represented the cream of the quarterbacking crop during the 1960s.
Both were coached by Hall of Famers (Weeb Ewbank and Don Shula for Unitas, Vince Lombardi for Starr), and both called their own plays for a cast of Hall of Fame teammates (Raymond Berry and Paul Hornung, to name the bare minimum).
Unitas had the big arm, while Starr was considered the “thinking man’s quarterback,” says scout.com’s Tom Andrews. And throughout the '60s, while Unitas was still considered the superior player, Starr emerged as the superior winner.
Though not by much.
The Green Bay legend won five NFL championships (all in the 60s) to Unitas’s three (none in the 60s), while the two split 16 career meetings overall.