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May 18, 2017

An oral history of trash talk in the NFL – and why there's less now than ever

It’s fading more now, possibly left behind like the brutal forearm hits to the head, or the way the late Andre Waters would submarine a running back at the knees. Through each decade, it seems, the National Football League has grabbed its dirty laundry, power washed it, shook it dry and ironed it, working out the creases from the 1980s through the current game we have today. 

Offenses are far more intricate, as are defensive schemes. The equipment is cutting edge, with players’ safety first and foremost (as it always should have been). But NFL players are required to do far more thinking on the field than they ever have, not just involving formation and schematic recognition, and the way they block, tackle and catch, but to what they’re allowed to say.

There was a time, as recently as a decade ago, when an NFL field was the Wild West of words, where almost anything could be said to anyone, from players and coaches, to even officials. 

I really don’t have many friends when I’m on the field. Making friends is not my job. Off the field it’s different. On the field, my opponent is the enemy.

It was a landscape strewn with “f-bombs" and “n-words.” Homophobic slurs. Verbal attacks on girlfriends and wives. Even questioning the paternity of an opponent's child. Basically, anything you heard in a street fight, bar or back alley, you heard on an NFL field. 

Today it’s different. There’s still plenty of cursing, but where there were once no boundaries, the NFL and the players themselves have created some when it comes to the fine art of trash-talking. 

Six NFL players, past and present spanning four decades going back to the late 1970s, agreed to talk about where trash-talking is, where it was, and who were some of the prime trash-talkers of their eras. And while their experience differs, all six agreed on one certainty: The inner sanctum of the locker room and the field has been invaded by microphones and cameras. Add the proliferation of cell phones and social media and today’s players have the feeling someone is watching and listening at all times. 

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Malcolm Jenkins is about to enter his ninth season in the NFL. In many ways, the Eagles' Pro Bowl safety is an anachronism. Off the field, you may not meet a more considerate, giving person than Jenkins, 29, whose Malcolm Jenkins Foundation has touched many in the Delaware Valley. On the field, he’s as old-school as it gets. He’ll purposely nudge a wide receiver or running back after making a tackle, or remind them that the middle of the field “belongs to No. 27.” He’s the guy who you love to have playing for your team, and hate if he’s on the other side. He’s endeared himself to Eagles’ fans in the short span he’s played for the Birds because of his attitude and his leadership qualities. 

“I love to be annoying; I’m going to do stuff that will get on your nerves; I want them to know where No. 27 is on the field,” Jenkins told PhillyVoice. “The talk is more sanitized today than it was when I first got into the league. In my opinion, it has far more to do with relationships than anything else. There is a new generation of players where everybody is buddy-buddy, trading jerseys after games and guys hanging out with each other more than in the past. 

“There is a lot more brother-in-law going on on the field, whereas when I came up, there were real, live rivalries. I can remember Eddie George and Ray Lewis going at each other. There aren’t many of those left in the NFL right now. I really don’t have many friends when I’m on the field. Making friends is not my job. Off the field it’s different. On the field, my opponent is the enemy. There is only one guy who’s ever been able to make me like him during the game, and that’s Larry Fitzgerald. Larry is a class act; he’s a really good guy and it makes it hard to get mad at him. Everyone else, I don’t care too much for them until after the game."

And there's the other side of the spectrum as well.

“The most annoying [guy] I ever played against was Steve Smith. He’s kind of bipolar. He’ll lull you to sleep and compliment you on a good job. Then, all of a sudden, he’ll try and choke you out and say all of these things I can’t repeat. Then the next drive, he’ll be completely normal again.” 

Moms around the country run the NFL. You think it’s the owners and Roger Goodell. It’s really youth league moms.

With so many microphones on the field these days, the game seems more accessible to the fans than ever. That includes the vulgar exchanges between opponents, the kind filled with four-letter words that never used to reach the fans.

“So we had to put in rules about certain words that can’t be said and there are actual penalties for certain words,” Jenkins continued. “The intensity hasn’t changed. Trash-talk definitely still goes on. I love to talk on the field. At Ohio State, I used to be a really bad trash-talker. There was no editing or nothing nice about anything I said, but as I got older, and I got to the league, there is respect there. I still like to get into players’ heads. I love to be annoying; I want them to lose their cool. You say something to a guy and maybe bump into him, and they bump back, then you flop.”

Only one time, according to Jenkins, did that blow up in his face.

On September 21, 2014, DeSean Jackson returned to Lincoln Financial Field as a Washington Redskin, playing against the Eagles for the first time since then-coach Chip Kelly cut him. In the first quarter, Kirk Cousins hit “D-Jax” for a 13-yard completion at the Eagles’ 48, when Jenkins bumped into him on the sideline and Jenkins tried his flop routine. 

He nudged Jackson, who bit and pushed back. Jenkins fell, holding his arms up and looking for a penalty. That's when Jenkins’ running mate, Nate Allen, slammed into Jackson. 

“Nate didn’t get the memo,” Jenkins said. “They threw the flag at Nate. DeSean didn’t shut up the rest of the game.” 

Jenkins did attest that wives, mothers and children are taboo subjects, along with anything racial or homophobic. 

“Believe it or not, you know who runs the NFL today?” Jenkins asked, rhetorically. “Moms around the country run the NFL. You think it’s the owners and Roger Goodell. It’s really youth league moms. At that level, kids mimic everything that we do. When you get guys in the NFL that talked trash and how they celebrated, that trickled down to what the kids heard and saw. Moms didn’t like that. So there has been a big emphasis on sportsmanship, but to me, sportsmanship is overrated. 

“There will always be winners and losers. I don’t like to lose. I never have. We play a gladiator’s sport. You have to psyche yourself out to play this game. It’s always that battle of wills. It makes it more entertaining with the rivalries and those clashes of titans. We have watered that down a bit. It’s why we see a different demeanor in which the game is played nowadays. When you think old school, you can’t have any of those guys playing today. 

“Jack Tatum would be fined out of this world. The game has changed so much. I’m not self-conscious about what I say on the field, but I have more respect for everyone. It’s reached a point with me that I wouldn’t say anything on the field to someone that I wouldn’t say off of it. That’s how things have spilled over. I have too much respect for guys. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about making guys mad, but I won’t talk about someone’s wife or mom. That’s like an unspoken rule today; you don’t hear that. That’s what has changed a lot. I still will talk. That won’t change.” 

Regardless of the era, what still stings is when a star player responds, “Who are you again?” 

“That works,” Jenkins said, laughing. “It happened my rookie year. It’s like they don’t even know who you are. That still annoys guys.” 

Jon Dorenbos is the longest-tenured pro athlete in Philadelphia. The Eagles’ long snapper is entering his 15th NFL season — and 12th with the Eagles. As a special teamer, he can gauge the intensity of a game on field goals and by what’s said in those few seconds. 

“Trash-talk is still part of the game. You can’t forget football, at any level, is still an emotional sport,” said Dorenbos, whose broken right wrist in Week 14 against Washington has fully healed. “It’s still a violent, adrenaline-based game, so things will be said. Today, though, it’s not personal. You have to be a wild man to play professional football. Sometimes trash-talking helps guys. It metamorphosizes you into whatever this alter ego is you need to play and perform. It’s like this surreal character you become. Brian Dawkins didn’t talk a lot of trash, but became this surreal hero on the field. 

“The league has really cracked down on a lot of the talk. The NFL is king. You have these big TV deals and there are microphones everywhere, and you’re live on TV. You do have to clean it up. The game itself has cleaned up. I think it is the right thing to do. The NFL puts a great product on the field, and they want to appeal to kids and parents. 

“I have to admit that is an absolutely different atmosphere than it was even 10 years ago. A decade ago guys were lit up going across the middle. There was a five-man wedge on kickoff returns. Guys were getting knocked out. The talk, players’ safety, there were a lot of things that had to be addressed and cleaned up. In my opinion, I think it’s a good thing.” 

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This quartet has heard it all. 

Brian Baldinger played 11 years in the NFL for Dallas, Indianapolis and the Eagles, from 1982 to ’93. Garry Cobb played 11 seasons with Detroit, the Eagles and finished his career with Dallas, from 1979-1989. Hollis Thomas played 14 NFL season with four different teams, nine with the Eagles, ending in 2009, and Ike Reese played nine years in the league, seven with the Eagles, before ending his career in Atlanta in 2006. 

When he was with the Colts, Baldinger had to face the 1980s Chicago Bears and tackles Dan Hampton and Steve McMichael. 

“They were hilarious,” Baldinger recalls. “It was non-stop commentary every game. I laughed. Those two would tell you what every play was and why it didn’t work. We didn’t need John Madden and Pat Summerall on the field, we had Hampton and ‘Mongo.’ Every play they told me I sucked and why I couldn’t block them. I had two older brothers that played in the league, and they would tell me how they must have held me down and pummeled me; how they were so much better than me. It was funny. 

I’m not there to shake your hand at the end of the game. ... The opposition was always the enemy to me. That’s how I rolled. 

“When Drew Pearson said at the draft that he wanted to thank Philadelphia for having a career, that was Drew every day. He was a great trash-talker. It wasn’t just football, Drew saved his best stuff for charity basketball games. I think it’s a little missed today. Trash-talking was part of the game, and it was personal, but not in a nasty way. Hell, Roger Staubach talked trash. It was a competitive thing; it was part of the game. You missed it when it wasn’t there. Today, you have to look at fines and suspensions, and it’s not worth it personally or for your team. Like everything in the league, most things have been pressure-washed to fit what’s right and what’s wrong. Guys are mic’d now and afraid to say things that used to be said.” 

Then “Baldy” laughed, recalling a game in Philadelphia in 1990, when he was the starting right guard for the Colts. Hall of Famer Reggie White was having his way with Indianapolis right tackle Kevin Call. 

“This is a classic example of how you have to watch how things are taken out of context,” said Baldinger, an NFL Network analyst who also works for 97.5 FM The Fanatic. “The first time I heard Reggie White tell Call that he wanted to see him after the game, he was worried. He thought Reggie was talking trash, and that he actually wanted to meet him after the game to fight, not to meet and pray at midfield. I wasn’t about to tell Call that. I needed him to be on edge the whole game. I was hoping it would make him play better against Reggie (who sacked Colts quarterback Jack Trudeau three times that day). He was like, ‘Holy cow, Baldy, you have my back on this?’ I told Kevin he better stop holding or Reggie is really going to come after him.” 

Cobb said that there was one rule that still holds up today: “Anything racial was poison then, and I know it’s poison now. You don’t go there. That was a line no one crossed. Everything else, at least when I played, was open. They’d attack your mom, your dad, your wife. Guys tell me today it is far more sanitized. No one will bring that stuff up anymore. There were some guys that would go into media guides just to look for the name of a guy’s wife, the name of his kids. They were dirty, man. It happened. But it wouldn’t get really bad unless someone gave somebody a cheap shot.” 

Like Jenkins, Thomas was a fan favorite when he played for the Eagles. Thomas, the 94.1 FM WIP host, said there is a problem with today’s NFL.

“The main thing today, which really pisses me off, is everybody wants to be everybody’s friend. I didn’t play that way,” said Thomas, who was an undrafted free agent out of Northern Illinois. “I played to kick your ass. I don’t care how you feel about it. I’m not there to shake your hand at the end of the game. I’m not into where everybody-gets-a-trophy type of crap; I didn’t play the game that way. The opposition was always the enemy to me. That’s how I rolled. 

“You trash-talked while you were kicking someone’s ass. From what I understand, it is more cleaned up than when I played, which isn’t really that long ago. Everything, though, is far different than when I played, from the way guys practice, to how you’re allowed to hit somebody, to even talking trash on the field. It seems like they don’t allow you to trash-talk anymore. There is a zero tolerance when it comes to talking the kind of trash compared to when I played. 

“I think the funniest trash-talking I ever heard came my rookie year. I remember ‘Prime Time,’ Deion Sanders, getting into a bit of a scuffle with Troy Vincent. When we broke them up, all you heard was Prime Time screaming at Troy, ‘Bow down, bow down,’ like he was some sort of god. That made me laugh. Prime Time couldn’t crack an egg with a sledge hammer. No one was going to bow to him. 

The talk, the tactics, it was all about making somebody your bitch. Now ... everybody is buddy-buddy with each other. They’re trying to take the emotion out of the game.

“They have taken a lot of fun out of the game. It’s really like glorified flag football today. You can’t hit; you can’t talk; you can’t do anything. It is true what they say about taking the fun out of the game—and trash-talking is one of those aspects. Still, when you’re in a battle, and you always are on a football field, you’re going to say some s--t.”

Reese pointed out that NFL officials for years had no protection against verbal tirades. There was no such thing as a technical foul in the NFL. So players and coaches belittled refs for decades because their hands were tied.

“They had to clean it up,” said Reese, WIP’s afternoon drive co-host with Chris Carlin. “The refs had to be protected. You hear certain buzz words, anything racially charged, or a homophobic slur, you get penalized. That cleaned it up, because officials for years heard it and we as players took advantage of it. I’ve been out of the league for 10 years, but just being around Eagles players, trash-talking still does go on, it’s just not as vicious as it used to be. We used to get away with murder. These guys today may trash-talk like, ‘Dude, I’m killing you over here,’ or ‘They better not throw another ball over here.’ Kiddie stuff; respectful trash-talk.

“There was no filtering when I played, and I was one of the bigger trash-talkers. I had to be heard, primarily because I was only out there maybe 25 plays a game. I wanted somebody to hear me. I remember one time I was out there coming off the field after a punt or kickoff, and we were playing Tampa Bay. I remember Warren Sapp walking by me saying, ‘Ike, you don’t ever shut the f--- up. Actually get on the field before you start talking.’ That cut me deep. The first time someone calls you a back-up player, you’re like ‘Motherf---er, I’m no backup.’

“I used to try to get all of my trash-talking in whenever I was out there; Sapp and Michael Strahan were two of the best when I played. Strahan talked trash to our whole sideline one game. ‘You better get this boy some help out here,’ talking about Jon Runyan. ‘I’m going to kick his ass all day.’ Strahan never shut up. When receivers talk trash, no one pays attention, because they’re wide receivers. They aren’t going to hurt anyone. That rule still applies. The only wide receiver you had to watch for was someone like Hines Ward, because he liked to blindside people—and then after, he’d let you know it.”

Reese agrees with both Dorenbos – that cleaning up the trash-talk is a good thing – and with Jenkins – that the reason why there is less trash-talk is because everyone is “buddy-buddy.” 

“When I played, the game was about intimidation,” Reese said. “The league today doesn’t want their players to have that mindset, because it’s all about protecting ‘the shield’ and its ‘brand.’ You have a throwback like Malcolm Jenkins on the Eagles, who could play and talk in any era. They’re emotionally invested in the game. I came up off the 1980s and 1990s, where there were rivalries—team rivalries. Today, everyone is thinking about their individual brand. The talk is far more sterile today, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing. We made the league so accessible to our fan base that they hear everything. The players are forced to be more creative.

“I do miss it. It was a lot more fun in my day. After I made a tackle, when I could, I’d find a way to stick my fingers through your facemask, and poke you in the eye like the ‘Three Stooges.’ The talk, the tactics, it was all about making somebody your bitch. Now we have this everybody-gets-a-trophy world. Everybody is buddy-buddy with each other. They’re trying to take the emotion out of the game.”

Follow Joe on Twitter: @JSantoliquito