Burfict epitomizes NFL’s existential crisis

Linebacker Vontaze Burfict gets to resume action on Oct. 1, after three games on suspension for a preseason hit on a Kansas City player that was deemed dangerous and unacceptable in today’s evolving pro football.

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We may not have the greatest sports teams here in Cincinnati, but we do a pretty decent job attracting attention with them.

Starting Oct. 1 at Cleveland, our 50th-anniversary Bengals — despite a horrible start that’s expected to reach 0-3 at Green Bay this weekend — will be poised to bring us national notice, and on an issue that can blow up like a powder keg at any moment.

Linebacker Vontaze Burfict gets to resume action on Oct. 1, after three games on suspension for a preseason hit on a Kansas City player that was deemed dangerous and unacceptable in today’s evolving pro football. Burfict also had a notable incident in preseason practice, starting a melee that included a confrontation with a coach when he appeared to take a dangerous dive at teammate Gio Bernard’s recently reconstructed knee.

Scads of people nationwide, including many prominent journalists, have strong interest in Burfict’s return because 1) the NFL is America’s No. 1 sport, 2) pro wrestling isn’t the only entertainment with Bad Guys as stars, 3) Burfict has top-drawer talent, and 4) his dirty-player resume is so long, printing it out is considered environmentally unacceptable by the U.S. Forest Service. (His total of fines, including salary lost to suspensions, is now approaching $2 million.)

And for the optimal mix of factors putting the Bengals on the U.S. sports radar, consider that football is quite literally in an existential crisis in the early 21st century. The game that so many (including me) love is under fire for being too dangerous, both for our kids to play it and for us to continue supporting its play by adults.

The core issue, of course, is brain damage caused by repeated hits to the head, and though Burfict’s violations include actions to all parts of opponents’ bodies, he serves better than anyone as the personification of the NFL’s dangerous-play problem. 

Burfict is not a Bad Guy due to any offenses outside football. He has earned his black hat on the field, dating back to his college days at Arizona State. He entered ASU with the tag of future NFL first-round draft choice, but he eventually was benched for being out of control with personal fouls, and he left with a football reputation so bad he wasn’t among the 253 players selected in the 2012 draft. The Bengals picked him up as a “street free agent,” slang for a player “on the street” with no NFL home.  

But despite his humble NFL beginnings, Burfict is not simply a “goon,” in the mold of old-time hockey players whose only job was to physically bully the opponent. The skills that once made him a top prospect have proven no illusion, and he has been by far the Bengals’ leading tackler when not injured or suspended. In 2013, the last season in which he has not missed significant time, he went to the all-star Pro Bowl game.

Besides having great power, the compact 255-pounder has surprising range and agility. And, most distinctively, he is hailed by people who should know as a football savant. You can’t do defensive damage in this most complex of sports without getting in the right place at the right split-second, and Burfict uses his football smarts — “instincts” if you like — to get there time after time after time.

To coaches continually frustrated by talented athletes who just can’t figure out how to execute, this quality in Burfict is such a gem that they simply can’t give up on it. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, well-known for his dismissals of “knucklehead” players committing “selfish” penalties, stands steadfastly behind Burfict at every minute of the day. And ownership doubled down on Burfict a few weeks ago by signing him to a contract extension through 2020.

Lewis and club president Mike Brown are charged above all else with winning games, after all, and they see Burfict as a rare and precious instrument, even though the sought results have yet to materialize. You may recall that Vontaze played great in an epic playoff game vs. Pittsburgh after the 2016 season, but then was a major factor in losing the game when he was called for a crucial roughing penalty.

Despite that, red-meat Bengals fans adore Vontaze. “Free Burfict” T-shirts were easy to spot in the crowd at last week’s home loss to Houston. I mean, isn’t much of Burfict what being a great linebacker is supposed to be about? Aren’t we talking the very soul of football here? To beat up and intimidate your opponent?

But you have to do that within the ever-tightening rules, and because he has come to personify the league’s Big Problem, no player has less leeway than Cincinnati’s No. 55. One more egregious foul, and he could be back on the shelf for a long time.  

And if Burfict really wants to help the Bengals start winning again, he should also try his mightiest, as one of the team’s best players, to more positively affect locker room chemistry and present a better face as a club ambassador. Vontaze brings tension to the locker room daily, in the form of poor relations with the media people whose job is to interact with players and bring their comments to the fans. He’s thin-skinned — ultra-quick to take offense — and when he isn’t ignoring the media responsibilities that literally are part of his contract, it’s his M.O. to insist that one or another individual in the media crowd be excluded, because someone is always on his Shit List of the Day.

I know, you may view Vontaze’s media relations as a very minor issue in the grand scheme of winning, and maybe as just one of my pet peeves. I was the Bengals’ media relations director for all of Vontaze’s career before retiring last March.

But I’ve come to see cases of star players with consistently nasty media relations as canaries in the coalmine for much wider troubles to come. Though front office and coaches basically looked the other way when former stars Carl Pickens (1992-99) and Corey Dillon (1997-2003) were daily acting the ass with media, their toxic personalities eventually caused much more extensive damage. 

Pickens even once made the Air Force mad, totally bagging a commitment to go to Wright Patterson in Dayton, where the Enquirer had laid elaborate plans to shoot his photo in a fighter jet. And Pickens concluded a few years later by massively embarrassing head coach Bruce Coslet with public words of utter disrespect. He had to sign off on a totally insincere apology and was ushered out on very bad terms. His hoped-for contributions to winning never materialized. And it was virtually the same with Dillon. At one point he famously said he’d rather “flip burgers” than play for Cincinnati, and was shipped out following an ugly post-game display of throwing his shoulder pads into the Paul Brown Stadium stands, another way of expressing his distaste for being a Bengal. 

So we’ll see what happens when Burfict starts playing again soon. Good or bad, it isn’t likely to be boring, and the wider sports world stands ready to take note. 

JACK BRENNAN’s column appears in this space biweekly. Contact him: [email protected]

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