FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- As if on cue, the NFL's meanest player, and some might say the league's dirtiest, livened up a ho-hum May practice a few weeks back by doing something he does a lot, which is to brawl.
Atlanta Falcons guard Harvey Dahl is a nasty player who pushes the whistle on almost every play, so it wasn't surprising to see him in the middle of a violent practice fight that ended with Dahl getting eight stitches across his nose, courtesy of a helmet to the face.
|Dahl has a knack for getting under the skin of opposing players. (US Presswire)|
Face cut, helmet off, blood rushing down his nose, Dahl kept swinging. And swinging. And swinging.
"You roll with the punches," Dahl said the next day, a bandage covering his stitches, his forehead purple with bruises. "No big deal. Just a practice fight."
Dahl has his share of them, so many that when the fight started, those on the sidelines without a clear view of the number of the offensive player pretty much knew who it was right away.
The chorus was easy to hear: "Harvey."
Dahl is the modern-day Conrad Dobler. Back in the 1970s, Dobler was a mean offensive guard who was considered dirty by many of those who played against him.
Dahl has the same characteristics. Players don't like playing against him. In discussing him with some league personnel, all mentioned that he pushes the limits -- sometimes too far.
Dahl sheepishly admitted it, and thanked me for the comparison to Dobler.
"I push the whistle," he said. "Yeah, definitely. It frustrates guys. But I'm going to go hard all the time. It gets under guy's skin. But I just try and stay focused."
It's how Dahl earned his job in the league. He's not going to change now. He's the classic self-made player. He played at the University of Nevada, but he wasn't drafted. The Dallas Cowboys signed him as a free agent, but he got cut on June 3, 2005 -- several weeks before training camp.
The San Francisco 49ers signed him and he spent most of the next three seasons on their practice squad, although he was activated for a few games. It was there that his brutish style got him noticed.
"I remember I fought [49ers linebacker] Derek Smith in practice one day," Dahl said. "He had just signed a new contract and I was a practice-squad guy, so that was kind of a big deal."
The Falcons signed him to their active roster off the 49ers practice squad in October 2007 and he won a starting job last season. His play last season helped put running back Michael Turner into the Pro Bowl.
Who's the meanest NFL player? Cast your votes now!
"That's my man," Turner said. "He's one of the nasty boys. He's tough, hard-nosed and plays hard. He came from the bottom, so he plays hard all the time. Don't make him mad. That elevates his game even more."
Dahl's teammates say you can see the rage in his face in the huddle when he gets set off. It makes him play better, they say.
"I wouldn't want to line up against him," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "He's nasty. He's relentless. He plays through the whistle. That's what you want from those guys. He keeps making blocks late in the play."
Is he dirty? The Falcons players all backed their teammate and said no. Opponents might differ.
It was Dahl's tactics in a preseason game last summer against the Tennessee Titans that led to some nasty, chippy stuff that had Titans coach Jeff Fisher screaming across the field at Atlanta coach Mike Smith. Several players from another team agreed that Dahl pushes the limits, and might cross the line. The league office thought he did so three times last season and fined him all three times for it.
"Most of the time I don't go over the line," Dahl said. "Those times, I guess I did."
Dahl isn't just a nasty player -- he's also a good one. His ability to drive block in the run game makes him one of the best guards in the league. His pass protection needs improvement in part because he is so aggressive. The Atlanta coaching staff is trying to get him to improve his footwork in pass protection and keep him from merely attacking on every play. If he does that, this self-made player just might be on his way to the Pro Bowl.
For now, he seems to accept being one of the league's nastiest players as a badge of honor, even if it brings up questions about going too far.
"That's OK by me," he said.
As he said that, Falcons line coach Paul Boudreau walked by to ask what was going on.
|Ravens enforcer Ray Lewis remains a lock for nasty lists. (Getty Images)|
"Glad we got something," Boudreau said. "We'll take it."
Memo to anybody lining up against the Falcons this year: Keep an eye out for No. 73, even if the play is over.
You might hate him, but the Falcons love their brutish guard.
Here are nine other nasty boys who play the game with ferocity, some who even cross the line on an occasion or two.
Ray Lewis, LB, Baltimore Ravens: He is a violent player who never backs down. Of all the nasty boys, he's by far the best football player. I would take 11 of him on my defense all day long.
Hines Ward, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers: Some say he's dirty -- I say he's close -- but he plays with a passion. If he's on your team, you love him. If he's not, you hate him. He does take his share of cheap shots.
Troy Polamalu, S, Pittsburgh Steelers: He's a big hitter who always seems to take the big shot. He flies to the football. Receivers and runners have to keep their eyes open for him.
Richie Incognito, G, St. Louis Rams: He's a candidate for the league's dirtiest player. He goes nuts on the field, too much in fact. But he insists he will be calmer this season. When he's focused, he can be a good player.
Cortland Finnegan, CB, Tennessee Titans: He's a Pro Bowl corner, but he's also a feisty player whom opponents hate. Watch him as the whistle blows -- he's usually in some kind of fracas. For a 5-foot-9 corner, he sure doesn't back down.
Joey Porter, LB, Miami Dolphins: Some say his bark is bigger than his bite, but he has a heck of a bite. Porter plays the game relentlessly and won't back down from a scuffle. Count on him to be in the middle of most scrums when the Dolphins are playing.
Adrian Wilson, S, Arizona Cardinals: He's a fierce tackler who doesn't back down from anyone. Two years ago, he got flagged for eight personal fouls. Did you see him getting into it with Ward in the Super Bowl? I love the way he plays.
James Harrison, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers: He's meaner than his pit bull, and that's saying something. This guy plays all out all the time. Even some of his teammates are scared of him. In Steelers lore, he is right up there with the meanest, including Mean Joe Greene, Greg Lloyd and Jack Lambert.
Bob Sanders, S, Indianapolis Colts: He's a missile playing safety. He has no regard for his body and none for those he plays against. That's why he's hurt a lot. He's small, but never backs down from a fight or a tackle. It's too bad he has missed so much time in his career.
Runners-up: Chris Snee, G, Giants; David Stewart, T, Titans; Olin Kreutz, C, Bears; Atari Bigby, S, Packers; Marcus Stroud, DT, Bills; Marc Colombo, T, Cowboys; Shawne Merriman, OLB, Chargers; Darnell Dockett, DT, Cardinals; Shaun Rogers, DT, Browns; Andrew Whitworth, G, Bengals; Vince Wilfork, NT, Patriots; Logan Mankins, G, Patriots; Steve Smith, WR, Panthers.