With the 2022 season wrapped up, here’s a look at ten of the best rivalries between individual players in all of NFL history.
In the NFL’s illustrious 103-year history, the league has encouraged football in its most pristine form. In the 1920s, that meant leather helmets and victory formation. In the 1970s, defenders slammed into skill players with plastic helmets, laying them out on the green. And in the 2000s, a fierce rivalry between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts birthed the strict pass interference rules seen today.
The NFL has often brought out the best in its players, but gridiron grit also has a history of bringing out the worst. The closest teammates worked in telepathic tandem, while bitter rivals sized each other up and tore each other down whenever possible.
Rivalries have come in a multitude of forms over the century, from Sam Huff slowing down Jim Brown to Ndamukong Suh riling up Aaron Rodgers with an ankle stomp. Some rivalries were based on mutual respect for a player’s craft, while others bubbled up into forceful shoves, slaps and slams.
There are rivalries between dueling quarterbacks, such as Jim Kelly versus Dan Marino or Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning, and there are rivalries between offensive and defensive players directly facing one another, such as Ray Lewis versus Eddie George.
While there are a multitude of feuds to choose from, the following list was compiled in consideration of diversifying era and position. A list could be dedicated to the numerous quarterback rivalries in NFL, while another could consist of big-name rivalries before 1970. Ranking them is entirely subjective, but this collection features notable rivalries involving a variety of positions, such as linebackers and defensive linemen targeting running backs and quarterbacks.
10 best individual player rivalries in NFL history
10. Bill Bergey vs. Conrad Dobler
In the 1970s, NFL football adhered to fewer restrictions, but there was still a notion of playing with etiquette. Even today, every play has the potential to draw a flag — there’s always an illegal shove or late tackle that goes unnoticed. The players who consistently flout the rules, especially to cause unnecessary harm, garner a reputation for being “dirty.” In the late 1970s, that was Saints guard Conrad Dobler.
Dobler passed away this February, and when the news broke, he was characterized as “one of NFL’s dirtiest players” in a New York Post headline. According to the NY Post, Dobler frequently relied on “illegal tactics like holding, eye-gouging, leg-whipping and biting among them.”
“It is still the only sport where there is controlled violence mixed with careful technical planning,” Dobler once said in an NFL survey. “I’ll do anything to protect my quarterback,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1977.
In his lengthy SI profile, Dobler responded with humor when questioned about his reputation in the league.
“In one game I was called for tripping a guy who was standing up,” Dobler said. “Sure I tried to trip him, but I didn’t succeed, and attempted tripping is not illegal.”
Dobler may have joked, but as his profile suggested, he was considered the dirtiest player in the NFL during that era. Rams defensive tackle Merlin Olsen may have sworn off even saying Dobler’s name, but it was legendary Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Bill Bergey who took issue with Dobler’s questionable tactics.
An excerpt from another article in SI’s Vault delineates the tension that grew between these two rivals:
“Eagles linebacker Bill Bergey and Saints guard Conrad Dobler developed something of a blood rivalry in the late ’70’s, a passionate hatred that often resulted in cheap-shot contests and verbal altercations. Bergey, one of the most ferocious tacklers in the league and a proponent for playing the game the ”right way,” could not stand the notoriously ”dirty” Conrad Dobler. Ironically, Bergey’s career-ending knee injury came on a play in which he was lined up against Dobler (though blame goes to the Astroturf, not Dobler).”
Additionally, a Reddit post on Bergey’s career highlights his feud with Dobler, noting that it is believed to have begun during the 1973 season because Dobler seemed to target Bergey excessively. A blog site dedicated to the NFL in the 1970s claims that Dobler once admitted Bergey was the better football player, so Dobler had to distract him with his antics. In turn, Bergey reportedly said that he “hated everything about him.”
Bergey wasn’t the only player to hate Dobler, but he was the one to forge a longstanding, heated rivalry with him. It’s uncommon to see guards brawling with linemen and linebackers, and it’s even rarer to see one bite an opponent’s ankle. In an earlier time, both Dobler and Bergey developed their principles on the “right way” to play the game, and that’s partially what they battled over every time they faced one another.