VONTAZE BURFICT - MENACE OR MISUNDERSTOOD?
By Simon Carroll
The Oakland Raiders take on the Chicago Bears at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium later today without the services of their starting middle linebacker. Vontaze Burfict has divided opinion since he entered the NFL back in 2012; Simon Carroll takes a look at his relationship with those who know him best:
“I’m not a dirty player. I can’t go in there playing patty-cake. If I go out there playing patty-cake then I’m going to be getting run over. …I think every team plays a bit after the whistle. It’s just a matter of if the ref catches it, you know what I mean?”
Vontaze Burfict, March 2019.
It was pure brutality.
You will have all seen it by now. Last Sunday, Oakland Raiders linebacker Vontaze Burfict was ejected from the game after a helmet to helmet hit on tight end Jack Doyle of the Indianapolis Colts. Full speed it looked vicious, in slow motion it looked terrible:
Doyle, miraculously, was unharmed. He resumed play after being checked out by the medical team. But as is now standard procedure in the NFL, the play was reviewed in New York and Burfict was given his marching orders. The clip had obviously gone viral, probably before Burfict was caught shaking his head and laughing as he jogged off the field. The reaction was obvious – Burfict is a man with a reputation, and fans of all team colours were outraged. The following day the Raiders hopped on a plane to London, and before they had even touched down the league had suspended him for the rest of the season.
The NFL has a history of fumbling the ball when it comes to player discipline, and they didn’t want to make any mistakes with this one. In a detailed press release, NFL Vice President of football operations Jon Runyan cited his previous warnings of harsher punishment and the unnecessary nature of the hit for the unprecented sanction. The move was roundly applauded by other coaches, the fans and the media. Not so much, it seems, by the Raiders.
This week I attended Raiders practice in the buildup to their game against the Chicago Bears. Between two press conferences I was somewhat taken aback by the ferocity at which, to a man, every one of the Raiders players or coaches defended Burfict. Head coach Jon Gruden stated that he didn’t want to talk about it too much but that he had spoken to the league office regarding the punishment. “It hurts our team. Bad. And I’m not happy about it at all.” Burfict is of course a team captain and calls the plays from the middle linebacker spot, so Gruden’s ire can be understood:
Defensive co-ordinator Paul Guenther has coached Vontaze Burfict before. He was DC of The Cincinnati Bengals for three years and had been a member of the coaching staff there ever since Burfict signed as a UDFA rookie in 2012. He was critical of the league for inconsistency citing numerous other helmet to helmet hits that went unpunished, including Derek Barnett’s hit that forced Jamaal Williams out of the Eagles-Packers game last Thursday:
If the backing from the coaches surprised me, it was nothing compared to what was to come next. Fellow linebacker Tahir Whitehead said the punishment was “extremely disappointing. He’s like my brother and with the misperception out there I know how hard he works to show he’s not that guy “. Then Derek Carr – a guy who is possibly the most diplomatic player in the NFL – came to the podium and pulled no punches:
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “One of my favourite teammates i’ve ever had”?! Was this the same Vontaze Burfict we were talking about here? Carr’s scathing criticism showed the lengths that this locker room were willing to go to bat for Vontaze. Could it be true? Could the NFL world really have Burfict all wrong?
I decided to investigate…
Tales From Cincinnati
There is a reason why Vontaze has a reputation. The former Arizona State star was an undrafted free agent rookie that signed with the Bengals in 2012. Since that time, including this latest transgression, Burfict has been fined fifteen times by the league to the tune of more than $5.3m in forfeited money. He will have served a total 22 game suspension by the time this season is over. He is single-handedly responsible for 43% of the multi-game suspensions for on-field play in NFL history.
It’s difficult to correlate a man with a rap sheet this big with the one that is the epitome of a team leader in Oakland. I reached out to two Cincinnati Bengals beat writers and asked them for their experiences with Vontaze Burfict. Both have covered the Bengals for the duration of Burfict’s time there, and both agreed to help under the condition of anonymity.
'Locker Room Bully'
The first thing I wanted to understand was what kind of a teammate Vontaze was. Beat Writer #1 (BR1) recounts Burfict could be “extremely engaging and fun when he wants to be, and he often is around those he likes (i.e. teammates). He had a lot of friends in the Bengals locker room, and it wasn’t just fellow linebackers. It was all positions and spanned racial lines and geographic backgrounds”. Beat Writer #2 (BR2) recalls Burfict being “very tender when his daughter was around at training camp last season”, and that he “got along with some players in his position group”.
So far so good – Carr & Whitehead’s portrayal of Vontaze seem legitimate. But that was only half the story. BR1 told of numerous accounts of “incredibly inappropriate” behaviour in the locker room. “I’d see him do childish things in the locker room, such as ‘dunking’ on anyone who came through the double doors next to his locker. That’s where he would run and place his hand on your shoulder to get lifting and then rise up and slam a ball down as if he was dunking a basketball”. Because his teammates found it funny the first time, nobody was spared. BR2 described him as a “locker room bully” and the beat writers “loathed him. He was belligerent and uncooperative”.
Burfict was a draft prospect with character concerns coming out of Arizona State in 2012. Ironically, his now General Manager Mike Mayock called him a ‘non-draftable kid’ as a media analyst following his failed drugs test at the NFL Combine. Before the selection process, Burfict blamed his college coaches for his lack of production and likely fall down team’s draft boards.
“Coaches kinda messed me up. I didn’t know if I was going to start a game, didn’t know if I was going to be benched, it hurt me. I tried to fight through it.”
Vontaze Burfict, February 2012.
This, according to both sources, was nonsense. Aside from the failed drug test, the real reason for Burfict going undrafted was his lack of on-field discipline. In 37 games as a Sun Devil the linebacker committed 22 personal fouls. BR1 told me “It’s never his fault, always someone else’s. In Cincinnati he found what he was looking for, coaches willing to excuse and enable his behavior/dirty play”. BR2 corroborates this sentiment, saying that Burfict had a “front office that tolerated his behaviour enough to extend his contract at least twice”. He also added that he liked and respected Paul Guenther a lot, but couldn’t see eye-to-eye with him on constantly defending Burfict’s actions.
Of course, Guenther was reunited with Burfict in Oakland this offseason after his release from Cincinnati. He backed him once again, saying “to take a leap of faith on him was a no-brainer. He’s coming to resurrect his career. He’s coming into a defense he knows, but a new place, a fresh beginning”. And Mayock, who called him undraftable seven years ago? He backed his defensive coordinator to the hilt:
“When your defensive coordinator feels that strongly about something, and it’s a position of need and he’s only 28 years old, let’s go. Vontaze Burfict is a Raider and I’m all-in. When he was in shape, when he was healthy … he was as good as any off-the-ball linebacker in football”.
Mike Mayock, March 2019.
The message to Vontaze throughout his NFL career has been loud and clear: If you can produce, we’ll put up with the antics. And there have been plenty of them…
Many of you will be aware of Vontaze Burfict’s darkest moments on a football field. Robert Klemko catalogues most of them nicely in the video below; numerous helmet to helmet hits, ankle-twisting, standing on opponents, crackback blocks and targeting:
Burfict was also well-versed in the art of gamesmanship – a combination of sneaky antagonistic behaviour and over-reaction to the most innocent of comings together. Here are two incidents from the same game where he attempted to draw flags for seemingly innocuous contact. First with Chiefs offensive tackle Eric Fisher, second with Chiefs offensive tackle Andrew Wylie:
Oddly, it seems that Vontaze also has an affection for hitting his fellow man in the most private of areas. As you can see from his list of fines above, his very first forfeit was for striking Packers tight end Ryan Taylor in the groin in 2013. That stung Burfict $10,000, but his second cup-check could have been even more costly…
I’d seen this clip numerous times and never noticed it until both BR1 and BR2 brought it to my attention; In another game in the 2013 season, Burfict recovered a fumble and took it to the house for a defensive touchdown. In what looks like celebratory delight he continues his run down the tunnel, arms splayed as if he was a plane. As he passes a police officer, he drops his left arm and clips him in the crotch. He made it look so unintentional I’m not even sure the officer knew it was on purpose:
Nobody Is Safe
All of this fits in with what we already know. Burfict was ruthless on gameday. But what I wasn’t prepared for were tales of similar behaviour towards his own teammates. In November 2016 Bengals running back Giovani Bernard suffered a torn ACL that ended his season. He resumed practice with the team in training camp the following year. In a non-tackling drill that a reporter just happened to be recording from the sideline, Burfict hits Bernard around the waist and tackles him to the ground. Then Bengals running back coach Kyle Caskey storms in to berate Vontaze, who subsequently shoves the coach. This sparks a scrum on the field. Here is the uncut footage from the incident:
Much ado about nothing I hear you say. And it’s true – you can watch HBO’s Hard Knocks and see one or two of these incidents every year. But what is interesting is the actions and responses of Burfict and more so his coaches. Both Paul Guenther and head coach Marvin Lewis can be seen on the footage not getting involved, despite Burfict striking a coach. On many other teams Burfict would have been fined, possibly suspended. Once the dust settled you can just about see Lewis instructing Burfict to get off the field.
That, apparently, was the sum total of his punishment. Being removed from a training drill. But the repercussions for others were far worse. For their crime of documenting the incident, BR1 and others were prohibited from filming during 11 on 11 drills. Furthermore, BR1 and some of his fellow reporters were confronted by Burfict and coaches after the incident. Burfict told one member of the media he was going to have him banned, whilst linebackers coach Jim Haslett said they “should know something about football before posting that”.
“It was just ridiculous how they enabled him at every turn”.
Coaches, teammates and even fans have proven to be unapologetic in their support for Burfict, but BR2 dismisses that to be nothing more than a byproduct of a results-based industry. “I think that’s just backing the guy who is wearing your uniform. Some of those Oakland guys went to bat for AB (Antonio Brown) too, when they thought he was going to help them win games”. BR1 concurs, saying “when Tez was good, they defended him the same way the Raiders players are defending him now. ‘The league is out to get him’ was always the cry”.
To some extent this is true. All fans of football accept that there are guys on their team’s roster who are not nice human beings. They justify their support for them by focusing on the team rather than the individual. Vontaze had a mixed relationship with the fans, who put up with him ‘flipping them off’ after he was ejected from a game against Tennessee. They accepted it because, on a good day, Burfict is a phenomenal football player. Being named a second-team All-Pro and going to the Pro Bowl in 2013 attests to that. But the minute they stop being an asset to the team? The backing of the fans as well as their teammates and coaches quickly begin to dissolve.
BR1: “I think most are glad he’s gone. He wore out his usefulness and honestly looked a shell of himself last year when he played”.
BR2: “They loved him when he was here and productive. But he got out of shape badly last season, played terribly, even quit on some plays. His recklessness helped wear out his welcome. And we all as beat writers were more than happy to see him go”.
It will be interesting to see what The Raiders do with Burfict should his suspension be upheld after an appeal. He signed a 1 year, $5m deal at the beginning of this season, so the ban effectively renders his contract with Oakland over. After eight years in the league and with a brutal playing style that has taken a toll on his own body as much as anybody else’s, it’s fair to ask how much he has left in the tank. Reuniting with Guenther seemed to give Burfict a new lease of life. He was in much better shape than his last year in Cincinnati, had been voted a team captain by his peers and was trusted enough to call out the plays on defense. The hit on Jack Doyle doesn’t seem to have dented the team’s opinion of him at all. Could they bring him back next year?
For a franchise that preached character during the draft but also signed Burfict, Richie Incognito and Antonio Brown this offseason, the direction of The Raiders under Gruden and Mayock is hard to define. Like most teams they want to build a culture for long-term success, but the pressure to win now can make what most observers would consider black and white decisions fall into the grey area very quickly. Vontaze Burfict, in a microcosm, is the living, breathing personification of that exact conundrum. However soon his story ends it’s almost guaranteed to be chaotic.
previously the founder of nfl draft uk, simon has been covering college football and the nfl draft since 2009. based in manchester, simon is also co-creator & weekly guest of the collapsing pocket podcast.