There was a time when I rooted for Vontaze Burfict.
He was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and a first-team All-American at Arizona State in 2010. However, a number of poor decisions both on and off the field caused his draft stock to plummet. Once projected as a first-round pick, Burfict signed with the Bengals as an undrafted free agent after the 2012 NFL Draft. It bothered me to see him waste his tremendous talent, and I knew he could be something special if he matured. I learned about his rough childhood and felt like with a supportive team and proper coaching, he might have a chance to flourish.
That looked to be the case during his first season with the Bengals. Burfict was making the league minimum, but he was working his butt off. Eventually he earned a starting job. During the 2012 season, he racked up 127 tackles and was penalized just four times, only once for Unnecessary Roughness. Coaches, teammates and the media praised his maturation and held him up as an example of how troubled players can change for the better. Fast forward to now. The same questions that haunted Burfict coming out of college are back on the front page.
Yesterday he was suspended for the first three games of the 2016 NFL season for "repeated violations of safety-related playing rules." His hit on Steelers WR Antonio Brown was his most recent and most publicized violation, due to the timing and magnitude of the penalty; but the words "repeated violations" are key.
After Burfict's rookie season, when it seemed he had turned things around, he slowly returned to his old ways. In the last three seasons, he has racked up 25 penalties, 18 for personal fouls (Unnecessary Roughness, Roughing the Passer, etc.). Since Week 3 of the 2013 season, he has accumulated a whopping $204,875 in fines.
To give you a sense of what led to his three-game suspension, take a look at each on-field incident Burfict has been fined for during his NFL career.
2013, Week 3: Hitting a Defenseless Player, Striking an Opponent in the Groin
Burfict later struck tight end Rob Taylor in the groin after an extra point, and those two incidents earned him a $31,000 fine.
2013, Week 6: Face Mask Penalty
Burfict also had a pair of late hits in this game, but the face mask on Fred Jackson is what earned him the fine.
2013, Week 8: Hitting with Crown of Helmet
Burfict racked up nearly $60,000 in fines in a six game stretch during 2013. Here he leads with the crown of his helmet against a defenseless Stephen Hill.
2014, Week 6: Twisting Ankles
Burfict was hit with a $25,000 fine for twisting the ankles of Cam Newton and Greg Olsen in this 2014 game. Olsen hobbled off the field after the incident. Burfict also incurred a Roughing the Passer penalty on Newton earlier in the game.
2015, Week 14: Low Hit, Two Unnecessary Roughness penalties
During a chippy Week 14 contest against the Steelers, Burfict was hit with a massive $70,000 fine for three separate incidents. The one that caught the most attention was this late, low hit on Ben Roethlisberger.
2015, Week 17: Unnecessarily Contacting an Opponent Who Was Out of the Play
Burfict rocked Maxx Williams with this dangerous helmet-to-helmet hit during Week 17, and it cost him $50 grand. He had been whistled for defensive holding on Williams a play earlier.
2016, Wild-Card Round: Unnecessary Roughness
Fined: suspended for 3 games, which will translate to more than $500,000 of salary lost if upheld.
You've seen this hit a thousand times by now. The game was over as soon as that pass glanced off Antonio Brown's fingertips, but Burfict's Unnecessary Roughness penalty gave the Steelers new life.
Keep in mind that Burfict isn't being suspended three games for the hit on Brown. That was just the latest in a long line of offenses. He has now established a history of dangerous play, and fines don't seem to deter him. Hopefully this suspension will be a wake-up call and the talented linebacker will clean up his act. When you can channel your emotion into smart play, it can be used as a weapon. But when you get overly-aggressive and frustrated, your emotions will hurt your team every time.
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