DAVIE, Fla. To many, he is this centurys Conrad Dobler.
A Sporting News poll of 99 NFL players three years ago deemed guard Richie Incognito the leagues dirtiest player. If you ask Houston defensive end Antonio Smith, nothing has changed.
A dirty player being let to play dirty (is) Richie Incognito, Smith said after the Texans beat Incognitos Dolphins 30-10 Sunday. Everything thats illegal that can be done on the football field, he does it. He was hitting people after the play, sliding down on your leg, grabbing your ankle and trying to twist to break your ankle. And he was doing it right in front of the referees and he was still in the game,
Incognito was given a chance to respond Monday at Miamis practice facility. His defense?
Hes a reformed football felon.
Incognito admits he used to be dirty and said that label has stuck. But Incognito, who said his transgressions occurred when he played for St. Louis from 2005-09, claims hes been a changed man in his three seasons with the Dolphins.
Every so often it crops up, Incognito said of what Smith said. Someone on an opposing defensive line calls me a dirty player. And I understand it. I play a physical brand of football, and I get after people between whistles . Ive been called a lot worse (than what Smith said).
Its a label thats been with me since I was a young player. Quite frankly, I did play dirty and go after guys in frustration . So I think back then the tag was deservedly so. I think my game has definitely evolved. I have evolved as a person, and I think that label still sticks. Once youre labeled with it, its very hard to shake.
Incognito had quite a rap sheet while with the Rams. For an Oct. 12, 2008, game against Washington. he was fined 35,000 for an illegal chop block, a severe face-mask penalty and verbally abusing a game official.
In a Dec. 13, 2009, game against Tennessee, Incognito got two personal foul penalties for head-butting foes and engaged in verbal confrontation with then Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo. The NFL fined 50,000, and St. Louis waived him two days after that game.
I was playing frustrated football, Incognito said. I was in a situation where I wasnt mature enough to handle the situations that we were in in St. Louis. We were doing a lot of losing.
If you ask Smith, the 6-foot-3, 319-pound Incognito is still going after guys.
Its the referees job to stop him from doing it, because everything that I would do to stop him I would get a penalty for,'' Smith said.
Replacement officials flagged Incognito on Sunday for two holding calls. But he was whistled for nothing unsportsmanlike.
I told myself youve got to humble yourself and keep playing, Smith said. There were so many times that I would have to loved to just be like hockey. Drop the helmets off, drop the gloves, go fisticuffs. Were men. Let's go at it.
Smith apparently was displeased with a play in the final minute of the first half when Dolphins running back Daniel Thomas fumbled. The ball eventually was recovered by Texans safety Danieal Manning.
It was a play where we fumbled going into the half, and he was getting up and he was trying to go for the ball, said Incognito, who accused Smith of whining after the game to the media. So I just pretty much tackled his legs. He was going after the fumble. Thats a situation where we were scratching and clawing to try to be in that game and everyones yelling ball. I didnt see where the ball was. So I was just grabbing everybody near me so that they couldnt get to the ball.
The more Incognito grabs, the more hes going to be called dirty. But he insists it doesnt bother him.
Ive learned to embrace it, said Incognito, who withdrew from Nebraska in 2004 due to some transgressions, including a misdemeanor assault charge. Ive learned I really cant have it determining how I play my game. I play physical.
Incognito also claims he does so now with his mouth shut.
Thats the one element of my game that Ive taken out, Incognito said. I dont talk any trash. I dont talk at all.
One guy who didnt keep his mouth shut was Dobler, the St. Louis Cardinals guard whose heyday was in the 1970s. Dobler not only talked a lot, but his dirty play included biting opponents.
At least Incognito never has been accused of that.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson