The sideshow battle that took place on Sunday afternoon between Odell Beckham Jr. and Josh Norman was great theater, but we all can agree it doesn't belong in the NFL, right? That was amateur stuff, a bootleg version of WWE's "Monday Night Raw" minus the folding chairs and the table-matches. But when the refs allow this to go on and fail to put an end to the shoving, the haymakers and the body slams early in the game, it can spiral out of control. And that's exactly what we saw when Beckham eventually launched his helmet into the ear hole of Norman. It was a dirty play, a premeditated hit that clearly didn't sit well for a league under fire on head injuries and player safety.
But while the gravity of Beckham's hit was amplified with constant replays, slow-motion angles and various opinions, there are plenty of situations on an NFL field that can be labeled as dirty or cheap. From blatant chop-blocks to twisting ankles in the pile, there is nothing nice about the NFL on Sunday afternoons. Let's get into some of the most common tactics I saw in my seven years in the NFL.
These don't always get caught by the TV cameras, but trust me, it can get nasty out there.
Running backs have a short shelf life in the NFL because they take shots to the knees, the ribs, the head, etc., on off-tackle plays. Those are car accidents at the point of attack, with defenders legally using the helmet as a weapon. Skill players -- running backs in particular -- will take punishment at the bottom of the pile, with guys grabbing a player's ankle and giving it a solid twist. That quick, snapping action hurts and the effect can hinder a running back for the rest of the game. Plus, this tactic takes another step forward when a running back comes into the game with a banged-up ankle or has to get re-taped during the game.
Defenders are drawn to that new tape job like a magnet. It's now a visible target to grab, twist and pull on the ankle after plays. Cheap? Yes. Dirty? You bet. But it happens. A lot.
The legal cut block is part of the NFL game. Defenders can see it on the film, and they also prepare for it throughout practices. Get the hands down and defeat the block. Drill after drill. Hey, it's on the defender if he can't recognize the cut block. But when talking about a true chop-block, I'm focused on an offensive lineman cutting a defender from behind, a wide receiver cutting a defensive back from the side (helmet on the knee) or a high-low situation in which a defender is held up before getting chopped down like a tree. Is it called? Yeah, sometimes. But there are plenty of situations where an offensive lineman is going to take out the knee -- and the defender isn't in a position to protect himself. It's a dirty tactic, one that will lead to busted-up knees and angry defenders. Texans LB Brian Cushing tore his ACL in 2012 on a chop-block where he couldn't defend himself.
Grabbing a player's groin
Yes, this happened to me -- and it hurt bad when they started to squeeze. You usually see this at the bottom of a pile. Maybe it's a fumble situation where a guy is trying to get a player to let go of the ball, or it could just be that the dude is dirty as heck. I don't know. But while blatant kicks/jabs to the groin are caught by the TV cameras most of the time, the bottom of the pile lends itself to guys who are willing to cross over into an extremely dirty territory.
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has been caught a couple of times stepping or literally stomping on opposing players after the play, but he's not alone here. In fact, I bet there isn't a player in the NFL who hasn't had a hand, shin, arm or knee stepped on intentionally during his career. It's probably not going to lead to a true fracture of the bone, but it stings. I mean, it really stings -- especially in the cold-weather games. Getting a random cleat to the shin is brutally painful. Now imagine a guy who steps down with force. And I'm talking about the big boys on the line of scrimmage -- 300-plus-pound guys who step down and grind that cleat a little bit into the hand. It won't knock a player out of the game, but it can impact how he plays. And that cleat mark doesn't go away.
The clothesline has a WWE feel to it because it can be associated with a guy coming off the ropes in a pay-per-view event, but don't kid yourself here, because it does happen in the league. There are offensive linemen, both past and present, who patrol the interior gaps. They are gatekeepers to blitz schemes. You want to blitz the A or B gap? Be careful that you don't catch an arm across the throat. That will put any blitzing defensive back on the ground. Usually, it's a standing eight-count until he starts to breathe again. "Illegal hands to the face" is a call we see every Sunday, but the quick jab to the throat can go unnoticed in a mess of bodies. And once it's on tape, you won't find many defensive backs who are going to blitz at full speed through those inside gaps.
Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib already served a one-game suspension for eye gouging this year when he went after Colts tight end Dwayne Allen. That was caught on camera, and it was also pretty obvious. But what about the situations we don't see, the pileups with guys sticking their fingers inside the mask (and the ear hole)? There's a reason we see players wearing visors and Terminator-like face masks in today's game. Sure, they look sweet, but they also prevent opposing players from using this tactic to play dirty. A finger to the eye will put a player on the sidelines for a minute.
Tripping the gunner
Playing at the gunner position on special teams is always an adventure. You get doubled off the line, thrown into the sideline (or the Gatorade coolers) and fight to get back in bounds. Every snap on the punt team becomes a battle of basic survival skills, as players have to navigate through players, coaches and trainers to find a sliver of daylight to get back on the field. This gets even trickier when a group of players on the opposing team -- usually guys who are not dressed for the game -- form a "human wall" on the sideline. Why do they do it? To get in the way of the gunner or to try to trip him up. The Jets got caught doing this in 2010, but trust me, they aren't the only ones.
The leg whip
The leg whip -- when a player's shin gets taken out -- often shows up when an offensive lineman gets beat on an inside move or on the edge. It literally can break a bone given the size of these guys up front. You also see it from linemen who want to send a message with a dirty shot. Take a leg whip to the knee, and you are done for the day. Take one to the shin? That might be it for the season if you end up in the X-ray room under the stadium. It's a dirty play, but like all of the tactics listed here, it's not going away anytime soon.
ESPN.com NFL analyst Matt Bowen played seven seasons as a defensive back in the NFL.