Why Vontaze Burfict May Have Been the MVP of the Steelers-Broncos Divisional Game
As I wrote yesterday, injuries were the story of the 2015 season. If I were Coach Tomlin and his staff, I would be sitting down with the list of who went down when and why, with the aim of trying to reduce injuries next season. After all, you’ve only got Ben for so long before he either bows out or becomes ineffective. I’m guessing he hasn’t got a tremendous amount of his prime left, even though, like a Timex watch, he takes a licking and keeps on ticking.
And as I envision Coach T and the staff reviewing the injuries and assigned them some sort of gravity value, one thing would probably stick out like a sore thumb—my best players, the ones who compare favorably with any others in their position in the entire NFL, were all taken down by one man. And unfortunately this one man is on a team the Steelers are going to have to play on a regular basis every single year.
I’m sure you’ve guessed the name of the culprit by now, even if you skipped the title of the piece. Yes, we have Vontaze Burfict to thank for the fact we are sitting around talking about this stuff instead of getting ready for the next game. I trust the Broncos sent him flowers.
After all, he injured Ben Roethlisberger the week before, despite the doubts of some Broncos players on that score. As has been exhaustively discussed by now, the initial tackle was legal, but the extracurricular blows to Ben’s throwing shoulder, which were missed by the official, were not.
Lest we forget, we also have Burfict to thank for the loss of Le’Veon Bell. He also took out AB with a completely unnecessary and illegal hit.
It’s easy to play the “what if” game. If the Bengals had Andy Dalton the Steelers might not have won the Wild Card game, and thus wouldn’t have even been in the Divisional Round. But while Dalton was hurt in a match against the Steelers, it was his own poor decisions which caused his injury, unless you want to blame Stephon Tuitt for being in the way of Dalton’s thumb. Anyway, the Bengals have little cause to complain about injuries, as other than Dalton they were about as injury-free as you can possibly be during the bulk of the season.
Conversely, I think the Steelers have more than sufficient cause to complain about the reckless play of Vontaze Burfict. “Reckless” may in fact not be the mot juste for the calculated attempts to injure as he often displays. The League has spoken, at least for the moment, and he will be out for the first three games of 2016, if they don’t relent and reduce the sentence.
I think the League might want to add the proviso that after he returns the first serious injury caused by his disregard for his fellow players will get him ejected. After all, Fantasy Football, a highly profitable arm of the League, one which heightens the interest (and thus television ratings) beyond their already stratospheric heights, runs on star players. Mainly offensive stars. How many star players go down before the League takes action?
This article on Sporting News notes this behavior isn’t a new thing with Burfict:
Burfict’s history of dirty play dates to when he was at Arizona State. Then-Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson benched Burfict on several occasions because of his penchant for racking up personal fouls.
In 2011, his senior season, he racked up two late-hit penalties against Oregon.
Burfict was benched for the start of the Sun Devils’ game against Washington in October 2010 because he head-butted Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz the previous week.
Later that year against Stanford, Burfict racked up three penalties, one for leaping over the line in attempt to block a field goal, and two personal fouls, one for twisting the facemask of [w]ide receiver Doug Baldwin and one for this helmet-to-helmet hit on Owen Marecic.
It looks pretty innocuous when you can’t see the receivers’ head snap around, rather like the hit from Ryan Shazier that Bengals fans are so incensed about. The difference is, Shazier’s hit was legal. Bernard was established as a runner and had the opportunity to defend himself. Graham was still off the ground after the catch when Burfict’s helmet slammed into his chin.
Luckily for the Texans, Graham was able to start the following week, although the announcers noted he was “slow to get up,” and if it had been 2015 rather than 2012 you can bet he would have started the week in the concussion protocol at the very least.
Personally, I think the league is going to have to eliminate all head hits, including ones like Shazier’s which are currently legal. It won’t take care of the problem, of course, as there will still be times where, with all the will in the world, helmets will collide. But hits on defenseless receivers have been greatly reduced in the past few years, even though old-school players like James Harrison aren’t happy about it, because the onus has been put on the defensive player to avoid contacting the head of the receiver.
Let’s move on to 2013, when Vontaze Burfict achieved a personal best by receiving eight personal foul penalties and one facemask penalty. The Week 6 game against the Buffalo Bills also featured a personal best—two Unnecessary Roughness penalties punctuated by a facemask in a single game.
The first of the Personal Fouls was for a late hit on a quarterback. Imagine that. The second was for a helmet to helmet hit on a receiver in the process of catching the ball—a favorite pastime of our antihero. [I couldn’t get a good enough angle on either to make a picture worthwhile.]
This hit, in a fairly clean 2014 for Burfict, penalty-wise, was vicious. Here’s Pacman Jones, naturally, holding onto Kelvin Benjamin as he catches the ball, and Burfict coming in for the kill, once again when Benjamin’s feet had not even quite touched the ground. But the really nasty part was the elbow with which he finished the head shot, just in case the helmet hit wasn’t hard enough.
Benjamin fell limply to the ground and had to be helped from the field. He was clearly “shaken up,” in the parlance of yesteryear. (In the context of the concussion issue the 2014 season is yesteryear.) After taking off his helmet and shaking his head to “clear the cobwebs,” Benjamin trotted gingerly back onto the field.
This was also the game in which he attempted to injure Cam Newton and Greg Olsen’s ankles by twisting them after he brought them down by one foot. Both Newton and Olsen had ankle issues last season, and I’m sure they didn’t appreciate the additional stress.
As Mike Florio wrote at the time:
The Panthers aren’t happy with Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. The Panthers contend — fully supported by indisputable visual evidence — that Burfict twisted the ankles of quarterback Cam Newton and tight end Greg Olsen at the conclusion of plays during Sunday’s 37-37 tie.
Per a league source, Burfict will be fined a total of $25,000 for the infractions. Burfict wasn’t penalized during the game…
For Burfict, the fines put him a step closer to suspension, if similar conduct occurs in the future. That probably won’t be enough to placate the Panthers — and it definitely won’t do anything to erase the perception that Burfict is a dirty player.
As I looked up some of these hits it was interesting how often Burfict was in the middle of “outside the whistle” activity, even when I hadn’t yet found the bit of the video containing the actually penalized hit. In fact one of the first games I looked at, a game vs. Green Bay in 2013, began the “highlight reel” with a montage of Vontaze Burfict after-the-whistle activity.
Finally there is the shot below. We’ve all seen the Antonio Brown hit in slow motion and excruciating detail. But this one was possibly worse, mainly because the recipient of the hit didn’t have the ball, nor was he ever going to get it. The player who did have it was on the opposite side of the field. The hit, which laid tight end Maxx Williams out lengthways on the grass, was not even flagged.
Which makes you wonder what other flagrant violations of the rules Burfict has gotten away with. We know the shot to Ben’s knees in December wasn’t penalized, although it was fined. Nor were his attempts to injure Cam Newton’s and Greg Olsen’s ankles after the whistle penalized, although again they were fined.
And if you’re wondering about my “anger issues” annotation, I don’t know that Burfict has anger issues. But he had just been penalized for defensive holding on the previous play and was clearly not happy about it. Whatever his problem, something isn’t right, and it is up to the league to protect other players from his version of football. If the way he plays actually is out of his control, it’s all the more important to keep him off the field under he does get it under control.
Here’s a video of the shot:
Finally, Peter King had plenty to say about the Steelers/Bengals Wild Card game the Monday after, and he wasn’t very nice about it. But I notice he didn’t have anything to say after the Divisional game between the Broncos and the Steelers. Like maybe to note it was a clean and sportsmanlike contest. No fights on the field before (or during) the game. No receivers laying limp on the grass. No late hits on the quarterback. Isn’t that odd? Could it possibly be because only one of the two teams who played in the Wild Card game were on the field last Sunday?
Oh, there were a few penalties in the game, for both teams. Alejandro Villanueva had a false start. James Harrison had an offsides after he couldn’t bear to hear “Omaha” anymore. There were a couple of pass interference penalties, and a few more that could have been called. Illegal motion, holding—that sort of thing.
The one penalty of the personal foul variety was a facemask on Marcus Gilbert. I went back and watched it. I understand why they call any contact to the facemask, because the ones where the tackler or blocker wrenches a guy’s head around so it looks like an owl are not good. But not all grabs to the facemask are equal, because what matters in terms of potential injury is what you do with it once you’ve got it.
Gilbert certainly had a good hold of the facemask, but his arm followed the motion of the guy’s head. It wasn’t smart to grab the facemask, but it clearly was an attempt to keep the defender off of Ben, not to injure him. While Gilbert has a laundry list of penalties he has accumulated throughout his career, they are almost entirely of the false start/holding 5 yard variety. This was in fact the first personal foul penalty in his entire NFL career. (Fortunately they don’t penalize players for falling on their own teammates.)
The case is clearly different with Vontaze Burfict. If the league really cares about player safety—if they really care about seeing their offensive stars available to play for their teams—they might want to keep a closer eye on him. He is an amazing player. He is also a ticking bomb, and sooner or later someone is going to get permanently injured.