It's so funny how a couple of brief, major events in a 60-minute game can become the entire narrative for the contest. In the game of football, adages like it being a "team game" are commonplace, while no one play directly determines the outcome. Yet, a missed field goal like the one Blair Walsh inexplicably missed Sunday afternoon, or the 30 yards of penalties on personal fouls committed by two Cincinnati Bengals players who have quickly become media villains, grab the headlines.
On Monday, FOX Sports Radio personality and frequent Bengals-basher, Colin Cowherd, took the Bengals to task for putting linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Adam Jones in positions of leadership on this team. In his "Opening Rant", Cowherd said that this is "who the Bengals are" and the franchise's shaky foundation is what causes them to fold in critical moments.
Still, Cowherd is wrong about Cincinnati placing those two players on a leadership pedestal. Most understand that Burfict is admired for his big-play ability on defense, as well as Jones' ability to affect a game in a number of different ways, but neither of them don the captain's "C" on their jersey. Andrew Whitworth, Michael Johnson, Cedric Peerman, Andy Dalton and Domata Peko are some of the team's current captains, not Burfict and Jones.
Much has been made about the end of the Wild Card and implosion at the hands of Burfict and Jones, but as we noted, other critical plays weren't made by the Bengals, nor did the officials do any favors for Cincinnati. Regardless of your stance on how things played out, Burfict and Jones remain valuable to what the Bengals do on defense.
Look at their impact from the end of the third quarter up to those final explosive instances. Burfict had a sack of Ben Roethlisberger deep in Pittsburgh territory to help set up a critical touchdown to cut the Steelers' lead to 15-7. Later, with 3:42 left to play in the game, Jones returned a punt 24 yards to set up the go-ahead touchdown. As if both weren't enough, Burfict came up with what should have been a game-sealing interception had Jeremy Hill not fumbled the ball back to the Steelers one play later.
It wasn't just Bengals fans who felt the impact of the players in that Wild Card game. In talking with Bengals.com, fellow linebacker Vincent Rey said Burfict "willed us back in that game. He willed the team. We all see it. He was willing us to that win".
That sounds like a guy you, as a fan or teammate, want on your team.
"I love playing with him. I love being on the field with him. I’ve said it before. He raises my play. He raises our level as a team. It wasn’t the most brutal hit of the game," Rey said. "It wasn’t a helmet-to-helmet hit. It’s tough. The refs have a tough job. Things are so quick. But we have a tough job, too. You’re a step or two away from a guy and you have to determine how to hit him, how he’s catching the ball. Is he catching the ball? Is it going to be a first down? Such a bang-bang play."
Peko also showed some public support of Burfict saying, "I think he was just doing his job. If (Antonio Brown) catches that over the middle they’re going to kick an easy field goal, so what does he try and do he tries to do his job get the ball off him. You never want to take any aggression away from people. That’s how Tez plays, he plays with that aggression and that fire and it’s what makes him a special player. I think he was just doing his job."
How long have Bengals fans been waiting for a physical player on defense to make this team truly nasty? No one wants to support the ankle twists or other poor behavior Burfict has put on his tape, but Cincinnati has also been the recipient of Burfict-like plays over the years from other opponents--particularly Pittsburgh. How long have we seen the Bengals lose games because they were far less intense than other teams they faced? Can you count the number of times over the years Bengals teams cowered when teams were more physical than them?
In speaking on a Los Angeles sports talk radio show with Bill Reiter this week, former Bengals cornerback and media personality Artrell Hawkins defended Jones and Burfict. Hawkins had the unpopular stance of defending Jones because he knows him personally, telling Reiter Jones is simply a very emotional player. He expanded on the thought noting that every team in the NFL has "enforcers", hinting at the fact that Burfict is likely one for the Bengals.
The bottom line is that Jones and Burfict are players fans love when they're on the team they root for, but are hated by nearly every other fan base. Steelers fans have good reason to dislike Burfict and his style of play, but a number of Steelers players, past and present, have exuded a lot of the nastiness we see from No. 55. Jones is an impending free agent, but has publicly stated he wants to come back to the Bengals, while Burfict is under contract, though facing a three-game suspension next year.
I'm not condoning acts like allegedly spitting on opponents, twisting ankles after a tackle and/or head-hunting at all, and I realize this high-intensity style of play can get the Bengals in trouble via penalties. However, their positive contributions to the team in the form of big plays will often outweigh the negatives. We saw it in the Wild Card game when Jones and Burfict brought the team back from a big deficit, but then, played a part in their defeat.