For better or for worse, the Cincinnati Bengals couldn't escape controversy in 2015. Andy Dalton became the centerfold of attention in the 2015 offseason, as Bengals fans booed him at the MLB All-Star Game in Cincinnati. Later, as Dalton emerged as a potential MVP candidate, Cincinnati fans quickly stopped calling for AJ McCarron to become the starter and embraced Dalton as the Bengals' team leader.
On the first day of November, Vontaze Burfict returned to action, tallying five tackles in Cincinnati's win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, a clean tackle on Le'Veon Bell pinned Burfict as a dirty player and foreshadowed how Burfict would ultimately become one of the NFL's most controversial subjects. Steelers linebacker Vince Williams sent Burfict death threats on Twitter, and analysts debated whether Burfict's tackle, which was completely clean, was dirty or not. A month and a half later, Cincinnati's second matchup with Pittsburgh sparked even more controversy.
Vontaze Burfict quickly caught the NFL audience's attention, walking over to Pittsburgh's side of the field to confront Vince Williams, who notoriously claimed he'd "paint [Burfict] on sight" if he ever ran into the linebacker off the field. Cincinnati's controversial linebacker racked up almost $70,000 in fines in his second matchup with Pittsburgh this season for a dirty hit on Ben Roethlisberger, as well as two other infractions. In the same game, Dalton threw a bad interception on his first drive, fracturing his thumb in an attempt to tackle Stephon Tuitt on the same play.
The Bengals met the Steelers again in the playoffs, sparking even more controversy. Vontaze Burfict's controversial hit on Antonio Brown sparked an all-out media frenzy and was the catalyst leading to an unprecedented three-game suspension.
For his actions this season and during the post-season, Burfict landed at number 23 in the MMQB's revisiting of the NFL's 100 most Influential People of 2015, written by Gary Gramling. Gramling had this to say on Burfict's influence:
23. Vontaze Burfict, Linebacker, Cincinnati Bengals (Preseason: unranked)
It's a violent sport, but Burfict's actions on the field befit the term "sociopath." The NFL, unmoved by any player safety risks that don't draw the public's ire, was finally forced to act after Burfict's filthy hit on Antonio Brown late in an AFC wild card game. Burfict's actions helped sink the seasons of two teams: The Bengals, who were almost certainly going to win before Burfict went head-hunting, and the Steelers, who lost Brown for the Divisional playoff game in Denver and had a limited Ben Roethlisberger due to a shoulder injury suffered on a Burfict sack. (Ask Steelers fans if they thought that hit was clean.)
Gramling's name-calling isn't anything new, as many analysts have had plenty to say on Burfict's behavior. But calling Burfict a sociopath is absolutely uncalled for and downright ridiculous. Burfict's hits on Maxx Williams and Ben Roethlisberger may have had ill-intentions, but his hit on Antonio Brown came with questionable intentions at the very worst.
Dalton also made Gramling's list, coming in at number 43 after being ranked number 38 in the preseason. Gramling had this to say on Dalton's career-defining 2015 season:
This was the year Dalton was going to get that playoff win. He was playing his best football, and the Bengals had the best roster in football surrounding him. Instead, one bad decision that resulted in an interception, and a fluke injury on the ensuing tackle, ended his season.
Dalton's brilliant 2015 campaign was completely overshadowed by his injury, which is quite unfortunate. 2015 seemed like the Bengals' year, especially after watching the Broncos somehow win the Super Bowl with one of the worst offenses in football. That Dalton became less influential after a career year, however, is very surprising.
Perhaps Dalton's decline on the list could be attributed to Gramling's perception of Hue Jackson. After all, it seems as though the journalist valued Jackson's progress more than Dalton's in 2015. Here's Gramling's take on Jackson's tremendous 2015 season:
Jackson turned Andy Dalton from a game manager to a borderline MVP candidate. Heck, he nearly won a playoff game with AJ McCarron. And after the season, Jackson was among the hottest head-coaching candidates, with the Browns winning his services.
Jackson was certainly a great coordinator for the Bengals, but those who believe Dalton is who he is because of Jackson may be giving the Bengals offensive coordinator turned Cleveland Browns head coach too much credit. The quarterback has shown progress in every NFL season, whether under Jay Gruden or Hue Jackson. Under Ken Zampese, Dalton will likely keep progressing.
In 2015, the Bengals became one of the most polarizing teams in football. From Vontaze Burfict's questionable play to Adam Jones' false accusations of Antonio Brown, to even Andy Dalton's defending of himself from J.J. Watt's Red Ryder B.B. gun comments, Cincinnati has endured media scrutiny from August to February. But what's flying under the radar is the far more important talking point: the Cincinnati Bengals are quietly becoming one of the NFL's most dominant teams. Led by Andy Dalton on offense and Vontaze Burfict on defense, the Bengals will likely play with a chip on their shoulder in 2016.
Here's to hoping the Bengals can use the criticism as motivation to reach the Super Bowl next season.