Football is, first and foremost, a game of human confrontation. It's a bunch of tough dudes doing everything they can to beat the guy across from them. And although we can pretend football is an entirely pure and honorable sport where opposing players play their best, shake hands, and then go share a glass of Gatorade after the game, that would be ignoring the more "emotional" elements of the game.
Trash talk has always had a place in football, but not every player does it for the same reason. Some do it because they want to get into their opponent's head, some do it to psyche themselves up, and some do it because, well, they're arrogant, obnoxious jerks who just can't seem to keep their mouths shut. But that's okay. Because the biggest trash talkers in the league provide some much-needed spice to an increasingly cautious, watered-down game.
Some of these guys are the Muhammad Alis of the gridiron -- backing up their smack talk with a bevy of talent. Others are more like a late-career Mike Tyson, delivering outrageous insults that come back to make them look incredibly stupid a short time later.
15 COULD: STEVE SMITH SR.
Wide receiving great Steve Smith once told a reporter that he "came out of the womb trash-talking." It's tough to say which highlight reel would be longer: his authoritative touchdown catches or his dominant chirping. Some may question whether Smith belongs in the Hall of Fame based on his play alone, but there's no doubt that some of his putdowns should be enshrined in Canton.
Seriously, this guy delivered verbal knockouts on the regular. After a particularly heated on-field battle between Smith and cornerback Aqib Talib -- which featured plenty of chippiness from both competitors -- Smith and the Panthers came out on top. After the game, Smith told Talib to "ice up, son." He called Janoris Jenkins -- who attacked Smith on a personal level, even talking about his wife -- "another notch on the bedpost." And after notching 139 yards and 2 TDs against his former team, Smith told the Panthers to "take your ass back to Carolina. Make sure you mow my lawn too while you're out there. Keep it clean for me."
We'll miss you, Steve.
14 COULD: CHAD JOHNSON
When a guy legally changes his name to reflect his jersey number, you're not dealing with a "normal" football player. And Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson is no average football player. Besides racking up more than 11,000 yards as a receiver throughout his 11 years in the NFL, #85 was as entertaining as they come. He liked to have fun on the field, and he wanted you to know it.
His trash talk wasn't reserved for game time either. Before playing the Ravens, Ochocinco even sent his upcoming opponents gift baskets full of deodorant so they "wouldn't sweat" covering him. And during the '05 season, he made a checklist of defensive backs that he'd be playing. He called it Who Covered 85 in '05, and anyone who failed to earn Johnson's respect got crossed off the list after their game in a very public way. Suffice it to say, after six straight 1,000-yard seasons, plenty of names got crossed off that list.
13 COULDN'T: ANTHONY SMITH
Every football player that steps onto the field needs to believe they're going to win, otherwise they shouldn't be out there. As Joe Namath famously said, "You gotta have confidence in yourself; if you don't have that confidence you can't play football." Like, Namath, Steelers safety Anthony Smith had that confidence. And like Namath, Smith would guarantee a victory to the press. But unlike Broadway Joe, his team just couldn't back it up.
Ahead of a Week 14 matchup with the Patriots, Smith told the press, "We're going to win. Yeah, I can guarantee a win." Keep in mind, the Patriots were unbeaten at the time, and Tom Brady was on his way to becoming the first quarterback to throw 50 touchdowns in a season. Brady picked the safety apart all day long, scoring against him, directly, several times on the way to a 34-13 victory. Brady, his receivers, and even the New England crowd made sure to rub every one of those TDs in Smith's face, too, with chants of "Guarantee! Guarantee!" erupting throughout the stadium.
12 COULD: JOSH NORMAN
If there's a week without Josh Norman in the headlines, you can be sure the Washington CB is either sick, or he's been kidnapped, bound, and gagged by an opposing wide receiver. No defensive player in the NFL right now is as vocal as Norman, particularly when it comes to interviews, and his quotability certainly gives sports journalists something to salivate over in an era of canned, dull answers.
His antics with Odell Beckham Jr. are the stuff of legend -- famously telling a reporter he would "hit him in the mouth" until he "stops crying and b*tching" -- but Norman has had feuds with everyone from Dez Bryant to former teammate Cam Newton. He loves getting receivers all riled up, but he's not afraid to show respect when it's earned. In the same breath, he referred to Roddy White as a "fifth receiver" on the depth chart and praised White's teammate, Julio Jones, calling him "a beast" who "brings out the good in me."
Some have questioned Norman's assertions that he's a shutdown cornerback due to the schemes he plays in, but the stats don't lie. He became the league's highest-paid CB in 2016, and has finished #11 and #59 in the peer-voted NFL Top 100 the last two years.
11 COULD: DEION SANDERS
Prime Time was a one-of-a-kind talent who wreaked havoc on opposing offenses from the secondary with a flamboyance and flair then unheard of for a cornerback. On the totem pole of the greatest players to ever stalk the defensive backfield, Deion Sanders' smiling face sits firmly at the top. He's the original shutdown cornerback, but he was also dangerous as a kick returner, taking 6 punts and 3 kickoffs to the house.
...Which is why he felt so comfortable trash-talking pretty every wide receiver he ever lined up against. Deion didn't just hurt you, he hurt you while dancing and high-stepping around the field like Bob Fosse on steroids. And no one ever played well enough against him to shut him up, allowing Prime Time to trash talk his way to two Super Bowl rings, a Defensive Player of the Year award, and eight appearances as a First-team All Pro. His big personality also landed him lucrative contracts with some of the biggest companies in America. It was only natural that after retiring, Sanders wound up working as a broadcaster for the NFL.
10 COULDN'T: REX RYAN
There might not be a coach in the NFL today with a resume of smack talk as lengthy as Rex Ryan's. He's always willing to get down in the mud alongside his players and sling some of it toward the opposition, and his mouthiness almost seems pathological. Unfortunately, with a 61-66 win-loss record and just two playoff games under his belt, Ryan's hot air hasn't produced much in the way of positive results.
In fact, LaDainian Tomlinson famously lamented that Ryan's bold smack talk -- which included a habit of guaranteeing a trip to the Super Bowl at the beginning of every year -- hurt his team by putting too much undue pressure on them. Although Ryan said he'd try to reign in that aspect of his personality, his good intentions didn't last long, and you'll still see Rex jawing on the sidelines and in press conferences to this day. You know, supposing he can land another coaching job.
9 COULD: JARED ALLEN
Pass rushers need to have an attitude. They play one of the most vicious positions in all of sports, and all the best linebackers and defensive ends seem to have a motor in their mouths to match the one in their legs. Sack artist Jared Allen might take the cake, though. The guy had about as many savage one-liners as he did vicious QB hits.
Whether threatening to beat Michael Oher "like a red-headed step child" or lamenting how he'd sooner drown himself in the Detroit River than live in the Lions' hometown, Allen always knew how to get inside his opponents' head with a well-placed barb. His numbers have dropped off pretty severely during his last three seasons, but the 136 sacks he amassed over his career gave him free reign to smack talk to his heart's content, even in the down years.
8 COULD: SHANNON SHARPE
Before Shannon Sharpe came along, the tight end position was one of the most understated positions on the field. Tight ends didn't catch many balls; they were primarily blockers to help out in the run game. And they certainly didn't consider themselves to be superstars. But that all changed when Sharpe was drafted by the Broncos, and immediately began running his mouth like he was the face of the franchise. But when you revolutionize the position and become the first tight end in history to collect more than 10,000 yards, that's understandable.
Sharpe delivered one of the all-time classic trash talking bits during Denver's beatdown of New England in 1996. Using the sideline phone, Sharpe pretended to call the President of the United States: "President, we need the National Guard. We need as many men as you can spare, because we are killing the Patriots... They need emergency help. Please help these folks!"
7 COULDN'T: MATT HASSELBECK
Despite his decidedly average stats, Matt Hasselbeck put together a strong career as the Seattle Seahawks' quarterback. He guided his team to six playoff berths, including a trip to Super Bowl XL. But he'll always be remembered most for the trash talk he employed in the overtime of his first playoff appearance. After winning the coin toss, Hasselbeck uttered these infamous words: "We want the ball and we're going to score."
It was said with a bit of bravado and a dollop of good humor -- Hasselbeck was clearly trying to rile up his former teammates -- but safety Al Harris wasn't having any of it. In the Seahawks second OT possession, Hasselbeck threw a game-ending interception. Harris jumped an out route and took the ball to the house, securing a Packers win and sending Seattle -- and a visibly embarrassed Hasselbeck -- packing.
6 COULD: RICHARD SHERMAN
Remember the look of sheer terror on Erin Andrews' face when Richard Sherman basically cut a pro wrestling promo on Michael Crabtree after the 2014 NFC Championship game? That's the defining image of modern trash talk in the NFL. Here's the full interview transcript: (Just imagine this being belted out by a hoarse, dreadlocked Ric Flair.)
“I’m the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re gonna get! Don't you ever talk about me! Don't you open your mouth about the best or I'm gonna shut it for you real quick! LOB!"
Can Sherman back up his epic rants and "You mad, bro?" jabs? Well, he was the least-targeted CB in the league in 2013 and 2014, and his 30 career interceptions are no joke. Fans and pundits can talk at length about who the best active cornerback is, but Sherman's name always pops up in the Top 3.
5 COULD: JOHN RANDLE
One of the most "eccentric" guys to ever play the game, defensive tackle John Randle was widely perceived as a genuine lunatic on the field. For starters, he painted his face on game days to look like an evil clown that was really into leather and routinely convulsed, screeched, squealed, and shadowboxed on the sidelines and on the field. And the guy talked nonstop.
Unlike a lot of the players on this list, Randle didn't trash talk as a way of rubbing salt into anyone's wounds. He talked before making the big hit, not after; in part because his constant gibberish was how he psyched himself up, and in part because his play could speak for itself. Brett Favre said Randle was the toughest guy he'd ever faced, which makes sense considering how often Randle planted him into the dirt like a freight train running over a soft pretzel. He also led his team in sacks in nine of his 14 seasons in the NFL, so if he wanted to spew a bunch of crazy nonsense, he'd more than earned the right.
4 COULDN'T: BRIAN BOSWORTH
Brian "The Boz" Bosworth was one of the most colorful personalities the college football game had ever seen. The outspoken linebacker cut a controversial figure during his days at Oklahoma, as his mouth got him into trouble on more than one occasion. But he became a two-time Butkus Award winner, which gave him a longer leash than most at his level. By the time he got to the NFL, his personality was so outsized that he seemed more like a rock star than a football player.
But while his outlandish persona and motormouth may have made the transition to the pros, his playing abilities were stuck at the college level. In his rookie season, Bosworth was given a true "welcome to the NFL" moment at the hands of Bo Jackson. Prior to their matchup, The Boz proclaimed to the world that he would contain Jackson. Instead, Bo absolutely flattened the mouthy linebacker, reportedly telling Bosworth "next time, make sure you've got bus fare." The Boz character died a pretty quick death after that, and Bosworth lasted just three seasons in the NFL.
3 COULD: TERRELL OWENS
"Get your popcorn ready!" "I am the game." "I know you don't want me to shine, but I'm gonna shine anyway!" "I love me some me!" Terrell Owens had a surplus of pithy sayings, and an even bigger arsenal of touchdown celebrations to put the finishing touches on his trash talk. T.O. was the ultimate showman who created a new TD dance every week, each one more elaborate than the last.
Owens may have also drawn more hate from fans, coaches, and pundits than any player to step on the field in the last two decades. People hated his arrogance. They hated that he played football like it was a one-man game. But no amount of personal hatred can erase his sterling career, which includes the following NFL records: The only player to score multiple TDs against every team in the NFL, the oldest player to notch 200 scrimmage yards in a single game, 15 consecutive seasons with at least 700 receiving yards, 11 consecutive seasons with at least 6 touchdowns, and 3rd most career TD receptions of all time. Those stats more than make up for the amount of times he did "The Bird" in the end zone.
2 COULD: TOM BRADY
He may not seem like it, but Tom Brady really likes to run his mouth. By a fairly large margin, both his teammates and opponents consider him the biggest smack talker on the Patriots squad, and easily one of the "feistiest" quarterbacks in the league. Even Richard Sherman -- who famously dropped a "You mad, bro?" on Brady after the Seahawks came from behind to beat New England in 2012 regular season game -- praised #12's gum-flapping abilities.
You know what fuels trash talk? Winning. And no quarterback in the league, past or present, has more career wins than Brady. The guaranteed Hall of Famer might just be the greatest to ever play the game, with five Super Bowl rings, twoMVP trophies, and a gaggle of NFL records to prove it. If any man has earned the right to play the game with some added swagger and extracurricular jawing, it's Brady.
1 COULDN'T: FREDDIE MITCHELL
Wide receiver Freddie Mitchell revered himself as one of the all-time greats of the game. Unfortunately, literally no one else thought the same. But his lack of recognition -- and thoroughly mediocre play -- didn't keep Mitchell from giving himself nicknames like "The People's Champ" and "First Down Freddie" and running his mouth like he was Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. But he took his trash talk a step too far when he bad-mouthed the Patriots before Super Bowl XXXIX.
If there are any active NFL players reading this today, here's some free advice: Don't taunt Tom Brady before a game. It's just not worth the amount of egg he'll fling all over your face. In an interview before the big game, Mitchell pretended not to know any of the names of the defenders on the Patriots squad, and told safety Rodney Harrison he had "something for him." That "something" was apparently just one catch for 11 yards, which is what Mitchell was held to in his final game in the NFL.