A common saying in football is “the best ability is availability.”
For the second season in a row, Vontaze Burfict won’t be available to his team for the first three games of the season because of a suspension.
This is veteran linebacker’s contract year, and when it’s over, the Cincinnati Bengals have to decide whether this lack of availability affects their decision about bringing back Burfict.
It’s the same discussion teams have about oft-injured players, such as Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert, who also is entering a contract year.
The Bengals have difficult decisions regarding extensions for two of their best players, when they’re healthy. In the past three seasons, Eifert has missed 26 games due to injury. Burfict has missed 22 games: 19 due to injury, and three due to suspension. Burfict’s numbers will go up by at least three this season.
Burfict has been suspended six games for on-field conduct, more than any player in league history.
Whether the latest play in question — a hit on Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman in the second preseason game — was legal is dubious. Coach Marvin Lewis and the Bengals contend it was within the rules. The NFL says it was an illegal hit on a defenseless receiver, a point the league wants to emphasize this year.
The league clearly looked beyond that single play when making its ruling. Burfict was suspended last season after the NFL fined him for several questionable hits, including a blindside hit on Ravens tight end Maxx Williams that occurred away from the play, and a hit to the head of Antonio Brown that left the Steelers receiver with a concussion.
Both of those plays were referenced in the league’s letter to Burfict regarding his latest suspension.
“This is not your first offense with respect to illegal hits to defenseless players; to the contrary, this incident is consistent with your pattern of egregious safety-related violations including your hit on a defenseless player during the 2015 Wild Card game and your hit against a Baltimore tight end away from the play on January 3, 2016. When players violate the rules intended to protect player safety on a repeated basis, and particularly when the violations carry with them a significant risk of injury to an opposing player … you must be held accountable for this continuing unacceptable conduct.”
Burfict is a high-risk, high-reward player, but it’s clear the Bengals are better when he’s around.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, since Burfict’s rookie season in 2012, the Bengals have allowed an average of 4.03 yards per rush with him on the field compared to 4.51 without him. The team has allowed opposing quarterbacks a 63.6 percent completion rate and an average QB rating of 54.7 without him, compared to 60.3 percent and an average rating of 47.7 with him.
“His energy is infectious to the whole team, not just the defense,” said linebacker Vincent Rey, who will replace Burfict. “The whole team sees his energy and we all pick up our game. That’s what we’ll miss.”
Added Lewis: “He’s smart like a coach. It’s scary. His recall is … incredible.”
Only one other player has ever received a penalty as severe as Burfict’s for on-field conduct. Albert Haynesworth was given a five-game suspension in 2006 for stomping on another player’s head.
Taken by itself, Burfict’s play against Sherman falls nowhere near the Haynesworth category. At worst, it was an unnecessary hit that occurred away from the play. At best, it was a questionably legal hit to Sherman’s chest that didn’t even get flagged during the Aug. 19 game.
Lewis adamantly said Burfict did not lead with his head on the play, but in the official ruling, the NFL said Burfict “made prohibited contact to the head and neck area of a defenseless player as well as forcible contact with his opponent away from the flow of the play.”
That the NFL didn’t back down on its stance speaks volumes. This will be the new normal for Burfict, who must watch his every move from this point. It’s clear he will not be given the benefit of the doubt.
Lewis said Burfict has proved he’s no longer the type of player he was when he was fined for twisting the ankles of Carolina’s Cam Newton and Greg Olsen in 2014. Lewis used an example of a missed tackle on Buccaneers wideout Mike Evans in Cincinnati’s preseason opener as proof. Burfict told Lewis he didn’t wrap up properly on the play because he was afraid of getting a penalty.
“He said, ‘Coach, I just didn’t want to hit Mike Evans, I was afraid of getting a penalty,'” Lewis said. “And I just said, ‘Wrap up, use your arms, keep your head out of it.'”
Burfict pointed out to reporters that he had only one personal foul last season (he had eight in 2013 and three in 2015). But whether his teammates and coaches think he has changed will matter little to the league office. That means the possibility of another suspension is always around the corner.
When the Bengals plan for their future, they ideally would have their Pro Bowl linebacker at the forefront. It almost seemed possible this summer, when Burfict entered camp having lost significant weight, and he proved Sunday how good he can be when he picked off Washington QB Kirk Cousins and returned it for a touchdown.
Instead, all that progress has been overshadowed once again by a suspension.
At some point, the team will have to decide if the risk is worth the reward. If they decide it’s not, Burfict will be testing the free-agent market come March.