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Making sense of the drama between Vontaze Burfict and the Patriots

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There’s a lot to unpack, so buckle up.

Cincinnati Bengals v New England Patriots

On January 9, 2016, tensions erupted for the first time in the new year. We all know the story — Vontaze Burfict hit Antonio Brown on a dangerous play, ending the receiver’s 2015 season. Talking heads were quick to point out that it also ended both teams’ respective seasons, as the Steelers would be no match for the Broncos without Brown, while the hit advanced the ball downfield for Pittsburgh. (I still believe the offensive fumble was what ended the Bengals’ season, but whatever. Moving on.)

The sports world immediately caught fire, as Burfict — a guy who had been highlighted in the media spotlight on some questionable and dirty plays in the past — became the Bengals’ scapegoat despite his spectacular performance in that playoff game.

Fast forward to October 16th. Burfict is playing in his third game of the 2016 season after serving a three-game suspension (which I still believe was unprecedented) for, essentially, having a history of reckless play and breaking NFL safety rules.

Early in the third quarter of the Bengals’ Week 6 game against the Patriots, the Bengals looked strong, giving fans hope at a potential victory in Foxborough — a near-impossible feat for any team, to accomplish.

Unfortunately, things eventually unraveled, and as they did, one particular play caught fire on the Internet:

It didn’t seem like much at all. The CBS broadcasting crew erroneously said Burfict appeared to fall on the play, which was simply untrue. Perhaps this is what ignited the spark which eventually caused the flame which ultimately seemed to burn down the Internet.

Even Patriots beat reporter Mike Reiss, who posted the clip above, seemed to eventually understand that the play wasn’t an obvious, unquestioned cheap shot. There was a possibility this was simply a result of attempting to make a tackle on Bennett. And as Burfict was quoted last week as saying, the linebacker understands “going low is a coward’s way” but believes the NFL is giving him no choice but to do so.

Burfict apologized to Bennett after the game — and the tight end seemed to appreciate the linebacker’s intentions:

"Things happen in a game,” Bennett said, per ESPN. “It usually doesn't happen that way, but he apologized. He said he didn't try to do it. It's part of the game."

But as had been done with Burfict’s hit on Brown back in January, a clip of the linebacker’s attempted tackle on tight end Martellus Bennett was eventually displayed in slow-motion, making what seemed like a bang-bang play appear to be a deliberate cheapshot:

The average NFL fan who watched the Bengals’ Wild Card game in January and did not see this play in real time would obviously believe this was a deliberate cheapshot by Burfict. Pro Football Talk and several other websites immediately capitalized on the controversy, publishing hot takes about the linebacker’s “dirty” play.

(Burfict isn’t a captain — just saying.)

But was Burfict’s hit on Bennett an unquestioned dirty play? I don’t think it’s a safe assumption. Brady connected with Bennett on similar routes two plays prior and once during the previous drive. Seeing as though Brady, a player who most (if not all) Patriots fans call the greatest player of all time, pump-faked in Bennett’s direction, isn’t there a possibility the linebacker could’ve bit at the fake and tried to make a play? Personally, I think it’s possible, but at this point, let’s move on.

Rob Gronkowski, as everyone knows by now, is the best tight end in football. He proved his worth on Sunday, relentlessly torching the Bengals’ secondary. But on one particular play, he mouthed off at a Adam Jones when he was down on the ground, after hauling in a deep pass — five plays and a timeout after Burfict’s play in question. Of course, the camera panned dead center to the linebacker, but after the play, Gronk clearly taunted Jones, who seemed to be injured, two plays after the corner showed visible frustration with a penalty called against him:

After a catch on the ensuing drive, the tight end continued to talk, this time taunting cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick — who, for what it’s worth, wasn’t really even involved in the play:

On the ensuing drive, after the Patriots kicked a field goal and the Bengals gave them the ball right back, the action continued. Shawn Williams tackled running back LeGarrette Blount:

This obviously did not bode well for Blount, who appeared to poke at the Bengals safety’s eyes after the play had ended. The Patriots were initially flagged on the play (for something other than the eye-poke), but the referees swallowed the flag. Here’s the play in question:

Blount eventually punched in a touchdown run later on the drive, and yet another controversial play involving Burfict took the Internet by storm:

Here is is from a different angle:

And, another angle:

It’s really hard to tell whether Burfict makes contact (or even intends to make contact) with Blount’s foot, but it obviously appears as though the linebacker attempted to step on the running back’s foot after this particular play. This would explain Blount’s frustration and retaliation, with the shoving of the linebacker.

A few plays and celebrations occurred here and there, but for the most part, that’s the summary of the antics between Burfict and the Patriots on Sunday. But that’s not it.

Will Burfict get suspended?

Based on the linebacker’s history, it seems as though there’s a good chance the NFL could suspend him. But when looking at the evidence, the linebacker has a solid defense: he bit on a pump-fake from a Hall of Fame quarterback on the first play, and there’s no clear video proof his foot even made contact with Blount on the second. With that in mind, there’s a legitimate possibility that the NFL doesn’t suspend the embattled linebacker. In fact, I maintain there’s still a possibility the linebacker doesn’t even get fined — though a fine seems extremely likely, if not just for NFL public relations measures. According to ESPN’s Josina Anderson, NFL VP of Policy & Rules Administration Jon Runyan will decide on discipline for Burfict no later than Wednesday.

Misconceptions

Gronkowski was talking to Burfict about his “hit” on Bennett.

Some people believe that Gronkowski was talking to Burfict about the Bennett play when he got his taunting flag. This isn’t true. As evidenced above, while Burfict was in center focus on the camera, This clearly approached Jones, at least initially. Burfict butted heads with Gronk when he saw the tight end jawing at his teammate, and he did the same thing when Gronk started taunting Kirkpatrick.

Burfict hit Bennett when the ball wasn’t even near either player.

This also isn’t true. As evidenced above, Brady clearly faked a pass toward the tight end. Burfict instinctively ran over and attempted to make the tackle, as the quarterback connected with his tight end on two similar plays within the previous few minutes.

Burfict has “off-field” issues.

I honestly don’t know why people keep saying things like this. Apart from a failed drug test before the 2012 Draft, the linebacker has been completely off-the-radar when it comes to off-the-field issues. When presented this fact, Patriots fans quickly changed their definitions of “off-field” issues:

This was rich, coming from a fan of a team which drafted and employed Aaron Hernandez. Then again, judging by the average age of most “lifelong” Pats fans, I wouldn’t be surprised if this guy doesn’t even know who Hernandez is.

Final takeaway: fans see what they want to see.

Look no further in the disparity between the retweets on Reiss’ posts for example number one. When the media pushes a storyline (and for the record, I don’t think Reiss was trying to do so), people eat it up. That’s why his tweet showing Brady’s pump-fake got thousands fewer retweets than the one showing a play in which he appeared to stomp on a beloved, innocent Patriots player (who tried poking Williams in the eyes and once punched an opponent in the face during a post-game handshake line). Bomani Jones masterfully put this concept into words with this tweet immediately following the Bengals’ Wild Card loss in January:

And while people didn’t parrot the announcers word-for-word on Sunday, they certainly took a few things away from Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts. The pair mentioned Burfict several times any time any altercation occurred, even when he wasn’t involved. They referred to Jones as “Pacman” as soon as things started getting chippy after calling him “Adam” for the first three quarters. The camera crew’s constant panning to Burfict didn’t help much, either.

Fans constantly reminded anyone who didn’t want to bury Burfict on Twitter that he “knocked the Bengals out of the playoffs,” called him a “thug,” said he should be arrested and claimed their favorite teams wouldn’t even consider giving him a shot if he were to become available. (As we saw with Greg Hardy in Dallas, nearly anyone gets a second chance.)

And again, it was hard not to think about the fact that people constantly bring up the same things about Burfict whenever they begin to question his “integrity for the game.” Here’s what they all love to say:

“I saw him play in college and he was so dirty.”

“Burfict twisted Cam Newton and Greg Olsen’s ankles.”

It’s like robots are the ones composing these tweets — I think you get the picture. Other things that get mentioned: he’s “dirty,” he’d get arrested for doing what he does on the field if he were in public (news flash: the dude is a person and goes in public every single day of his life).

It’s funny — the most egregious play of the linebacker’s entire NFL career is the one play which doesn’t ever get talked about: his unprovoked hit on Ravens tight end Maxx Williams in Week 17 last season. This just goes to show how the media has completely altered Burfict’s public perception. Any time Burfict ’s name comes into discussion, people immediately go to the talking points and start calling him names. Of course the linebacker has played a part in his media perception, but his play on its own would not have come close to creating the persona and negative aura which currently surround the player without the media’s bombardment of his questionable plays any time he’s near the ball.

Many other players, such as Ndamukong Suh, James Harrison, Mike Mitchell, Aqib Talib and even former Patriot Brandon Meriweather have gotten away with just as many questionable plays in their respective careers — some which were very similar to those of Burfict’s, or even worse at times — with far less consequences (Harrison excluded). As someone who enjoys watching the Bengals, the media’s coverage of the linebacker has become massively tiring.

At this point, all we can do is hope the linebacker doesn’t get suspended and wish for the best.