It wasn’t so long ago that the Pittsburgh Steelers were the most feared team to play in the league. They were such a ferocious and hard-hitting group that an offensive player, wide receiver Hines Ward, at one point earned the distinction of being called the dirtiest player in the game. His blocks gave birth that informally bears his name.
While the ‘dirty’ tag is sometimes justified, it is also a dispersion that is often bandied about in order to describe players that others simply don’t like, usually due to a confluence of factors, but one of which involves style of play.
Lately the Cincinnati Bengals have been leading the charge of trying to find the Steelers’ next dirty player, with multiple players and coaches singling out Mike Mitchell—unprompted—as such a candidate.
Another having been mentioned is linebacker Ryan Shazier, who admittedly die have some grey-area hits, one of which also prompted a rules change following Pittsburgh’s victory over the Bengals in the Wildcard Round during the 2015 season.
Shazier was recently interviewed on NFL Network addressing a variety of topics—it was literally just hours after the news of Dan Rooney’s passing was made known—but one of the topics brought up was the notion that he was a dirty player, which seemed to be news to the fourth-year Pro Bowler.
“Ooh, I’m a dirty player?”, he answered. “Gosh, that’s crazy. I didn’t know I was a dirty player. Well, I just play my best every game. I’m not trying to hurt people. I’ve been hurt enough, so I’m not out there trying to hurt people. I know how that feels when you’re out and can’t play the game that you love”.
Shazier is not kidding when he alludes to his own injuries, though none of them have certainly come at the expense of a dirty hit—arguably, sans a concussion that he sustained playing on special teams in 2015. He has missed 14 games in three seasons due to injury, three coming last season.
“If people want to call me a dirty player”, he said, “then whatever. But at the end of the day, I just go out there and play my best. If a dude drops his head when I’m going to tackle you, then I can’t control that. I just give everything I got every time I’m out there”.
The sort of scenario that Shazier alludes to is the epitome of the ultimate issue that the league faces during its player safety initiative. There will perhaps always be certain select circumstances in the game in which a player is going to be subjected to an injurious collision that occurs within the typical confines of the game.
The NFL is attempting at the least to utilize penalties and fines in an attempt to discourage players from seizing upon certain opportunities to land particularly injurious hits on opponents in vulnerable positions, but it can only be taken so far. And it could unfairly result in players such as Shazier being labeled dirty, although that is not a new phenomenon.