Why Vontaze Burfict May Have Been the MVP of the Steelers-Broncos Divisional Game

via Post-Gazette/Peter Diana photo


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.

I decided to take a look at some of his extensive rap sheet entries during his time in the NFL. Here is a freeze frame from his very first Unnecessary Roughness (Contact with a Defenseless Receiver) penalty in the NFL.
Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 8.26.42 PM

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.]

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 9.32.56 PMThis 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.

Burfict annotated

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.


  • Burfict is a ticking time bomb in more ways that one. First, he is seriously and permanently injuring players with his illegal shots to the head. Those injuries will manifest themselves later in life, in ways we have seen recently as the CTE issue has become more clear. Second, he is likely to paralyze an opponent or cause some other catastrophic injury. And that’s where it becomes dicey for the League. There will be more lawsuits, and judges and juries will see the video of Burfict’s hits – from many angles and in slow motion. The plaintiffs will argue that the NFL exposed them to catastrophic injury by allowing Burfict to continue to illegally assault them in the workplace. And they will surely argue that this amounted to “willful and reckless disregard” of the players’ safety, amounting to “gross negligence.” In fact, Burfict’s hits will probably be introduced in OTHER lawsuits, attempting to show that the League condoned this type of conduct, and this type of conduct led to Player X’s injuries and disability.

    Burfict got off easy with a three game suspension, but another incident may result in a longer suspension. The League, with its legal liability issues, has much more at stake here than player safety issues. They face an existential threat, and Burfict is Exhibit A against them. I’m not sure how much they care about protecting the players, but I would imagine they do care a lot about protecting their own financial viability.

    Liked by 2 people

  • You probably won’t like some of what I am about to say.

    First of all, I have been on record that if the Steelers lost the Divisional game against the Broncos that team owed Burfict a game ball, and the city a fruit basket at least. He achieved the Trifecta. The only mystery being how did Martavis Bryant escape?

    Here’s the part you won’t like. There was a time when the players would have settled this, in one of two ways. Either take out Burfict directly. It really doesn’t take much effort to end a player’s career if necessary. Burfict has caused the franchise and several of its, and the league’s premiere players a portion of their livelihood. Its brutal justice, but its justice. The other would be tit for tat. Take out Ben, Bell and AB. Fine, Dalton, A J Green and Bernard/Henry go too.

    They have been showing the first Super Bowl on the NFL Network. The Chiefs had a Burfict type in defensive back Fred Williamson. He called himself The Hammer, and specialized taking out receivers. The Packers took him out in that game. Williamson had a very nice Hollywood career after that.

    When I was a player there were some unspoken rules about this sort of thing. Because once the line was crossed where would it stop. The same concept as Mutually Assured Destruction. I won’t use my atomic weapons if you won’t use yours, because once we start down that path..The original James Caan Rollerball movie explored this aspect,

    There was one significant omission in the piece. Willie Colon’s pancake block of..Vontaze Burfict of a few years ago. Reviewing that again adds texture and context to current events. Sometimes there is a value and power to peer pressure that Authority can’t match. Hate to say it, but short of banning him from the game altogether, the best medicine might be a broken jaw or a blown out knee. He’ll either get the message or he’ll be gone.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Honestly, I started to put in a paragraph to the effect that the Steelers needed someone to function in the same sort of role as a hockey enforcer. I took it out because I just don’t think we can go there. But what you’re saying would be exactly what Tunch and Wolf would suggest, were they not forced to keep a lid on it. They frequently talk about the sort of frontier justice with which such matters were handled in their days.

      Which leaves the Steelers in the position of being forced to rely on the league to deal with the problem. This is probably particularly difficult, given that I expect plenty of the Steelers’ staff are still sufficiently imbued with the way things used to be done that this goes against the grain. But if the league wants to eliminate this sort of thing, they need to do so, and not waffle on about player safety while hoping to continue to placate the viewership who likes that sort of thing.


    • I was thinking this right after the hit on Brown. Enough. Sombody chop block this clown and put HIM out for an extended period like he has others. I agree with Rebecca below. This team needs a goon.


  • The NFL has two Steelers-Bengals games coming up in 2016 and a potential for a third. These will be much hyped prime time affairs. If you want to get the leagues attention, you simply take your star players off the field. Ben, Brown and Bell watch, and you give the refs fair notice that if the scumbag Burfict attempts to injure any of your other athletes during the coarse of the game, your entire team will remain on the sidelines until he is removed from competition.

    Would this approach accomplish anything? Absolutely. Would the Steelers ever do it? No way. Unfortunately, apart from cowboy justice, there is simply no other way to protect your guys. And, it’s a very real possibility that doing neither, could be the difference between an historic bid for Lombardi 7, or another season doomed by injury. My solution? Take the punk out!


  • Great headline and piece. ‘The guy with the ball’ and ‘The guy with the anger issues’ captions made me laugh even though it is anything but funny.


  • HawaiianSteeler86

    i believe Burfict may have some serious mental problems. The Bengals should have their medical staff check him out this off season.


  • Pingback: Can This Pro Bowl Be Saved? | Going Deep:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s