Cincinnati's timeline for Vontaze Burfict's recovery is not unlike cloudy skies turning into beautiful sunshine just before mid-afternoon storms saturate the Queen City. Whereas one February afternoon, writers and coaches were expressing optimistic tones, the all-but-certain expectation now is that he'll open the regular season on the team's Physically Unable to Perform list.
"The first month or so of camp, I was just like, 'He's not a factor.' It's just not a part of my thought process," Bengals linebackers coach Matt Burke said via ESPN. "Now as we get closer and we have to make a hard decision on him in the next week. It's tough."
Burfict suffered his injury against the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 29 and underwent arthroscopic surgery soon after. When his knee wasn't responding to rehabilitation, he was placed on season-ending Injured Reserve on Dec. 9. The Pro Bowl linebacker contemplated surgery at the end of the season to repair what wasn't fixed in October.
Burfict underwent microfracture surgery earlier this year. The procedure is designed to correct cartilage damage on the side of his knee, which involves drilling tiny fractures in bone to develop new cartilage.
Cincinnati will be forced into a decision soon. Like all NFL clubs, the Bengals are tasked with reducing their active roster to 75 players by 4 p.m. EST on Tuesday and then to 53 by 4 p.m. EST this Saturday. If Burfict is unable to play (and play well), Cincinnati can place him on Reserve/PUP, opening a roster spot for a productive player who is able to contribute. However, it also prevents Burfict from playing in the first six regular season games.
"Now as we get closer to having to make decisions, then now [the questions] start creeping in a little more," Burke said. "'Hey, do we do this? Can we keep this guy if we don't do this? Where is Burfict? Is he on the roster? Is he PUP if he's not part of this mix?'"
There are other concerns. Even if or when Burfict returns, should we expect similarly subpar seasons like we saw from Geno Atkins and Leon Hall, both of whom entered last year coming off major injuries? Is Injured Reserve on the table? And what about IR with a designation to return -- if that's the plan, Cincinnati has to put him on the 53-man roster following final cuts, and then place him with that designation a few days later (though this doesn't make much sense if he's already eligible for PUP).
Burfict entered this season as the team's leading tackler in 2012 and 2013, during which he totaled 204 stops, 94 more than the second-place finisher (Rey Maualuga). Burfict earned a roster spot on the Pro Bowl team and a second-team mention on the Associated Press All-Pro team. The Bengals signed Burfict to a contract extension (four-year, $19 million with $6.9 million guaranteed) on Aug. 27, 2014, keeping him in Cincinnati through 2017.