Just who are the top locker room cancers in NFL history?
Naming these players will give football fans not only a trip down memory lane, but also a greater appreciation for their own teams. Even if their squads haven’t lived up to expectations for a long time, they should be thankful they don’t get to read headlines of their players acting like a prima donna in the locker room.
The formula is downright simple: Bad teams with no locker room cancers are easier to build and root for than a talented team with one or two players who are so full of themselves, they divide team loyalty. We all know that if cancer is left unchecked, it can spread like wildfire. It is these headcases who make a name for themselves for all the wrong reasons.
Love them or hate them, players such as Keyshawn Johnson and Percy Harvin have made locker room issues just as interesting as on-field ones. Without them, the NFL simply would not be what it is today.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has zeroed in on drug users in the league. Just this year, he also promised to crack the whip on players who are guilty of domestic violence. Who knows? Perhaps he will also lower the boom on locker room cancers, players who are malcontents on their own teams and bad role models for everyone watching them.
For the purposes of this article, we will define a “cancer” as a certain player who sets his team off course with outrageous and unnecessary locker-room antics. We will also rank the players according to the gravity and long-term effects of their antics.
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15 Steve Smith, Sr.
Steve Smith, Sr. showed the naysayers he still has it as a Batimore Raven during the 2014 NFL season with his six touchdowns and 1,065 yards on 79 receptions.
There’s no doubt he’s arguably the best player to ever don a Carolina Panthers uniform. After all, he spent 13 seasons with that team and went on to become their all-time leader in receiving yards (12,197).
During his Panthers tenure, Smith was known to be very outspoken. In just his second season with the team in 2002, he got into fights with teammates Guilian Gary and Anthony Bright. The latter incident resulted in him getting charged with misdemeanor assault.
Six years later, Smith got into it with another teammate, Ken Lucas. The former was suspended two games.
According to NFLcom’s Kevin Patra, one of the reasons Carolina released the 35-year-old veteran in 2014 because the team feared he “would continue to be a divisive force in the locker room, particularly with quarterback Cam Newton.”
14 Tiki Barber
Former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber stirred several controversies within the organization during his NFL career.
First, he criticized defensive end (and future Hall of Famer) Michael Strahan for balking on a $17 million deal the Giants dangled to him during the 2002 NFL season. Barber told The New York Post that Strahan was greedy and "thinking about himself." Their teammate, Keith Hamilton, later sprang to Strahan's defense saying, "Who is Tiki Barber to shoot his mouth off?"
Barber was also a harsh critic of head coach Tom Coughlin's style. The former was vocal about this during the 2005 and 2006 seasons. The two met to iron things out.
Shortly after he retired from football in 2007, Barber also singled out Giants quarterback Eli Manning's leadership abilities. Barber said Manning's pre-game motivational speeches sounded "almost comical." Manning downplayed Barber's comment, telling The New York Daily News that he's "not going to lose any sleep about what Tiki has to say." Eli also led New York to a Super Bowl title that same season.
13 Andre Rison
Who can ever forget Andre "Bad Moon" Rison?
As successful as he was (he is only the fifth player to record 60 touchdowns during his first six NFL seasons), he gained the reputation of being a headcase. When he played for the Cleveland Browns in 1995, he had a well-known feud with fans stemming from the team's impending move to Baltimore. That year, he cussed out fans who hated his guts.
His reputation as a troublemaker continued when he signed with the Green Bay Packers in 1996. He shrugged this off, in a 1997 interview with The Associated Press (via The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette):
"They were saying I was a troublesome guy when I got to Green Bay. But I thought I was the best receiver on that team. People say I am a distraction to a team, but I want to know when did I distract Green Bay? After I got there, we won every game. If I didn't go there, I don't think they would have won the Super Bowl."
Rison was a great talent, but sometimes he let his emotions get the better of him.
12 Keyshawn Johnson
There's no question that Keyshawn Johnson's best years in the NFL were with the New York Jets.
Johnson, the first overall pick of the 1996 NFL draft, averaged almost eight touchdowns per season from 1996-1999. More impressively, he never fumbled the football in his 62 games as a New York Jet.
The pinnacle of his career was when he won a Super Bowl ring with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the 2002 NFL season. However, he had a massive falling out with his head coach, Jon Gruden. Johnson wasn't comfortable in Gruden's system, with the former's antics (he was caught on camera yelling at his head coach on the sidelines) resulted in him being deactivated for the Bucs' final seven games in 2003.
In a 2011 interview on Sunday NFL Countdown (via NBCSports.com), Johnson voiced his displeasure about playing for Gruden:
"I didn't want to be there. I didn't want to be in the environment. No matter we had just won a championship, and I was playing fine the year that I got deactivated, I was doing great. In fact, we had a chance to go to the playoffs. But it was just something about the way I was being coached, talked to, dealt with. Just didn't want to be there."
The Bucs finished just 7-9 after that tumultuous 2003 season. They wouldn't make the postseason for two straight years.
11 Brandon Marshall
There's no question Brandon Marshall, a former fourth-round draft pick by the Denver Broncos in 2006, has emerged as one of the league's best wide receivers.
However, he's also had a questionable locker-room attitude.
Marshall wasn't the least bit happy about his contract prior to the 2009 NFL season and demanded to be traded from the Broncos. According to Bleacher Report's Steve Clarke, Marshall "refused to run in team drills, punted footballs across the field, and purposely batted down passes." Clarke also adds Marshall "also stayed out of team drills because he did not know the playbook."
Marshall's poor behavior prompted then-Denver head coach Josh McDaniels to suspend him for nine days leading up to the 2009 NFL regular season. The Broncos eventually missed the postseason for the fourth straight year.
Marshall eventually reversed course in terms of his locker-room behavior. He called out his Chicago Bears teammates on Oct. 19 after a 27-14 home loss to the Miami Dolphins, which dropped their record to 3-4 on the season.
10 Bill Romanowski
Before there was a quarterback named Tony Romo, there was a ferocious, bad-ass linebacker nicknamed "Romo."
This man is no other than Bill Romanowski.
NFL fans should know by know that Romanowski was at the forefront of the controversial BALCO scandal that rocked the sports world in 2003. He admitted to using steroids and human growth hormone he obtained from BALCO.
Although Romanowski was involved in numerous skirmishes with opposing players, it's his attack on former Oakland Raiders teammate and backup tight end Marcus Williams in 2003 that grabbed its fair share of headlines.
Romanowski ripped off Williams' helmet and punched the latter so hard he almost destroyed his eye socket and forced him into retirement. Williams later sued Romanowski for $3.4 million in damages, claiming 'roid rage provoked him to attack. A judge dismissed the claim, awarding Williams $340,000 instead.
In spite of his PED use, Romanowski has four Super Bowl rings.
9 Randy Moss
Randy Moss is a four-time First-Team All-Pro, a six-time Pro Bowler, a Pro Bowl MVP and the record holder for the most touchdown receptions in a season (23).
With a slew of accolades, Moss certainly has made a case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The only thing that eluded him was a Super Bowl ring.
As good as he was on the field, he was also a cancer in the locker room.
His teammates would always defend Moss despite his numerous indiscretions with the Vikings, but the tipping point happened in a game versus the Washington Redskins. With the Vikings attempting an onside kick, Randy Moss was seen walking to the locker room.
The Minnesota Vikings traded Moss to the Oakland Raiders prior to the 2005 NFL season. While Moss was stellar during his seven-year stint in Minneapolis, he hauled in just 11 touchdowns in two seasons in Oakland. After playing poorly in Oakland and moping while doing it, his trade to the New England Patriots in 2007 resuscitated his career. That was when he caught for 23 touchdowns.
A league source told NBC Sports' Gregg Rosenhtal in Oct. 2010 that Moss was "pissing" head coach Bill Belichick off. Several teammates were also none too pleased with him. ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss confirms Moss and then-Patriots quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien figured in a heated shouting match during a game against the Miami Dolphins.
8 Chad Johnson
Whether he's known as Chad Johnson or Chad Ochocinco, the former Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver is a known locker-room cancer.
Johnson's best days were with the Bengals, whom he played for from 2001-2010. During that span, he amassed 10,783 receiving yards and 66 touchdowns on 751 receptions. He denied ever being a malcontent in a Jan. 2008 interview on ESPN's Mike & Mike:
"I was labeled selfish and a cancer, and it hurt...Fingers were pointed at me this year. If the team and the organization wants to further itself (make the playoffs), I think you need to get rid of the problem...It hurt me. To do me that way and not to have my back. Things were said, and nobody came to my defense."
Johnson has also played for the New England Patriots. The Miami Dolphins signed Johnson in 2012, but cut him just two months later after a domestic dispute with his then-wife, Evelyn Lozada.
Johnson has been "a distraction in some locker rooms" during his career, per MLive.com's Kyle Meinke. He dropped by Detroit Lions training camp in 2013 and said he's "open" to trying out for the team. However, Meinke says the last thing the Lions want is a potential locker-room controversy involving Johnson.
7 Adam "Pacman" Jones
Adam "Pacman" Jones has a lengthy off-the-field incident record:
- Arrested on charges of assault and felony vandalism in 2005.
- Arrested after an incident outside a Georgia home in 2006.
- Arrested for disorderly conduct and intoxication after allegedly spitting on a woman in a nightclub in 2006.
- A member of his entourage was allegedly the hitman during a shooting incident at a Las Vegas strip club in Feb. 2007.
- NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him for the entire 2007 NFL season for violating the league's player conduct policy.
- Goodell suspended Jones, who was then already a member of the Dallas Cowboys, in 2008 for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy after he got into a fight with his bodyguard in a Dallas hotel.
Since the Cincinnati Bengals signed him in 2010, Jones hasn't been as troublesome.
So why is he a locker-room cancer? Jones' two league suspensions within a one-year span, his trade to and release from the Dallas Cowboys are hard evidence he was a potential distraction who could destroy any team's chances.
6 Percy Harvin
Percy Harvin had so much promise when he entered the NFL in 2009 as a first-round draft choice of the Minnesota Vikings. However, a string of injuries, a temperamental attitude, and an inability to get along with his teammates have jeopardized his potential.
A glimpse into Harvin's persona was captured on national television when he had a heated argument with then-Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier on the sidelines on Nov. 4, 2012. Minnesota eventually dealt him to the Seattle Seahawks in March 2013 for three draft picks.
Harvin fought through hip-injury issues which sidelined him for the majority of the 2013 NFL season. In a move which caught many off guard, Seattle traded him to the New York Jets on Oct. 17, 2014.
According to ESPN's Terry Blount, "the Seahawks were tired of Harvin's act" and "he was more trouble than he was worth." NFL.com's Kevin Patra's sources confirmed to him that Harvin got into fights with both Golden Tate (now with the Detroit Lions) and Doug Baldwin.
This promopted Seahawks radio broadcaster and Hall-of-Fame quarterback Warren Moon to tell 1090 AM in Seattle (via ESPN) in Oct. 2014 that Harvin "upset" Seattle's chemistry.
5 Ryan Leaf
Ryan Leaf could possibly go down in NFL history as the biggest draft bust there ever was.
After the San Diego Chargers made him the second overall pick of the 1998 NFL draft, Leaf declared he was "looking forward to a 15-year career, a couple of trips to the Super Bowl, and a parade through downtown San Diego." The first sign of trouble came during his introductory news conference, where he yawned after he was up all night partying.
A few weeks later, he skipped the final day of the NFL's rookie symposium. The league fined him $10,000.
Leaf stunk up the joint in his third pro game—a 23-7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs—by going 1 of 15 for 4 yards and a 0.0 QB rating. According to The Sporting News' Lisa Olson, Leaf "threw a profane fit in the locker room" the following day. Leaf went on to lose 14 of his first 18 NFL starts.
During his stint in San Diego, Leaf earned the ire of his teammates for his poor work ethic (he was occasionally spotted on the golf course while other Chargers quarterbacks were in the film room). He also had a reputation for blaming his teammates whenever things weren't going his way on the field.
Leaf's forgettable NFL stint ended in 2002 due to a wrist injury.
4 Santonio Holmes
It's hard to imagine a former Super Bowl MVP such as Santonio Holmes being a locker-room cancer.
But he is.
Without question, the pinnacle of Holmes' career was his 131-yard, nine-catch game for a touchdown as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl XLIII. He was named Super Bowl MVP.
When the Steelers traded Holmes to the New York Jets in 2010, it all went downhill from there.
Holmes got into arguments and disagreements with his Jets teammates. His most infamous incident came late in the 2011 NFL season, when he figured in a shouting match with right tackle Wayne Hunter during a loss to the Miami Dolphins.
After he was benched, Holmes was seen looking disinterested. Some Jets players even said he wasn't paying attention to quarterback Mark Sanchez in their huddle when he was on the field.
When Sanchez called for a meeting with his wide receivers late that season, Holmes stood him up. Tired of Holmes' act, one Jets teammate said, "He's a cancer. It's like dealing with a 10-year-old."
3 Albert Haynesworth
From the time he last played a down during the 2011 NFL season, former Tennesse Titans Pro Bowl defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth will forever be linked to the notorious stomping incident with former Dallas Cowboys center Andre Gurode.
After Dallas running back Julius Jones scored on a touchdown, Gurode fell to the turf. Haynesworth then yanked Gurode's helmet off and attempted to stomp on his head and just missed it. His second stomp nearly hit Gurode's right eye and opened up a nasty gash on his forehead. The NFL subsequently issued a five-game suspension on Haynesworth.
Haynesworth's reptuation would take on a new all-time low when he signed a seven-year, $100 million deal with the Washington Redskins in 2009.
He did not take part in offseason workouts and turned up for training camp in poor physical shape. He also refused to play nose tackle in Washington's 3-4 defense.
As the season wore on, teammates and coaches thought Haynesworth was slacking off on the field. He also had several conflicts with members of the Redskins' coaching staff, and was eventually suspended for "conduct detrimental to the team."
When the New England Patriots traded for Haynesworth in Nov. 2011, he continued to be a distraction. "His effort was questioned and his attitude was beginning to sour," per MassLive.com's Nick Underhill.
2 Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito is well-known for his role in the infamous Miami Dolphins bullying scandal involving Jonathan Martin, but his antics prior to that went largely under the radar.
For instance, the St. Louis Rams, his first team, benched him after he drew two personal fouls in the 2009 season opener against the Seattle Seahawks.
He then headbutted several Tennessee Titans players during the St. Louis Rams' 47-7 loss in Dec. 2009. Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo yanked him from the game for the entire second half. Incognito took exception, and the two got into a shouting match on the sidelines.
In Oct. 2013, Martin, an offensive tackle of the Miami Dolphins, abruptly left the team after he alleged several of his teammates bullied and harassed him. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asked Atty. Ted Wells to investigate the matter several weeks later.
In Wells' official release, he singles out Dolphins offensive linemen Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey as the culprits who harrassed Martin, another offensive lineman and an assistant trainer. The guilty party allegedly resorted to "racial slurs," "homophobic name calling," "improper physical touching" and "sexually-explicit remarks," per the release.
Incognito's former teammate, Cam Cleeland, told The Los Angeles Times in Nov. 2013 about Incognito's less-than-stellar reputation:
"I'm not afraid to say that he was an immature, unrealistic scumbag. When it came down to it, he was a locker-room cancer, and he just wanted to fight everybody all the time. It was bizarre beyond belief."
The Dolphins slapped Incognito with a three-month suspension the same month Cleeland stepped forward. They didn't re-sign him for the 2014 NFL season. No other team has signed him, either.
1 Terrell Owens
T.O. is the king of locker room cancers in NFL history.
You've seen his football commercials (the most controversial one being the Monday Night Football one with actress Nicollette Sheridan) and touchdown celebrations (who can ever forget T.O. taking a cheerleader's pom-poms and dancing like crazy after a score?). But to know him as a football player, you have to know his not-so-stellar past.
As a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, he got into a fight with his teammate and defensive end Hugh Douglas in 2005. T.O. then labeled the Eagles as a "classless" organization for not recognizing his 100th career touchdown.
Owens also made headlines during that season when he wanted his seven-year, $49 million contract re-worked. He voiced his displeasure about it as the season wore on. He also called out Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and the team's higher-ups.
The result? Philly suspended him for four games without pay and then deactivated him for the rest of the season. The Eagles eventually released him. T.O. then signed with their NFC East rivals, the Dallas Cowboys. When the Cowboys lost to the Eagles by 14 points in Philly during the 2006 NFL season, Owens flew into a rage in the locker room. He complained bitterly about his lack of receptions during the 38-24 loss.
The LandryHat.com's Brad Austin describes T.O's stint in Dallas:
"There were mixed emotions in Cowboys Nation when the team hired Owens to revive their lackluster receiving corps in 2006. Dallas became the third NFL stop for the highly talented yet known locker-room cancer. Terrell produced well on the field for three years, but as expected his selfish, locker-room dividing antics poisoned the well."
Prior to the Cincinnati Bengals signing him, Owens told the NFL Network (via ESPN) that he blamed the "cancer" label as to why he had yet to agree to terms with any team. He said he's the exact opposite of what people perceive him to be in the locker room.
You be the judge.
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