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How Vontaze Burfict’s hit on Antonio Brown and the ensuing drama changed NFL history

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Looking back one year later, the Vontaze Burfict controversy defined the Bengals’ team for all of 2016 following his hit on Antonio Brown.

Wild Card Round - Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals

One year ago today, on January 9, 2016, Vontaze Burfict laid a hit on Antonio Brown.

I remember it like it were yesterday, and I’d guess 99 percent of Bengals fans can say the same. Brown, covered by Chris Lewis-Harris, came across the middle, attempting to haul in a pass on an intermediate crossing route, only to meet Burfict’s shoulder. Brown was knocked out cold on the hit.

Debating whether Burfict’s hit on Brown was dirty isn’t the point of this story. Hoards of NFL fans and analysts went back and forth on the issue ad nauseam for the next several months, and ultimately, fans’ perceptions of Burfict won’t change no matter how much evidence is presented and no matter what he says or does — the linebacker was only penalized twice in 2016, once for defensive holding and only once for unnecessary roughness. Despite this, fans refuse to acknowledge the steps he’s taken to change his reputation, even grouping him with Adam Jones when the latter was arrested following the 2016 season.

Rather, this story aims to examine how one play changed the narrative of one of the most controversial games in NFL history, shattering Burfict’s reputation and changing the landscape of not only the 2016 playoffs but also the 2016 season, the Bengals as a team and even Cincinnati as a city. Here’s how it all went down.

The Hit

On tape, Burfict’s hit doesn’t appear to be over-the-top, though at worst, it could’ve easily warranted a penalty for unnecessary roughness or hitting a defenseless receiver. And for what it’s worth, the hit did in fact draw a flag for unnecessary roughness.

That being said, the hit — all media stories, post-game reporting and other variables aside — wasn’t all that bad. That’s not to say it wasn’t unfortunate Brown was on the receiving end of a concussion, but the hit in itself wasn’t inherently dirty — just as Burfict’s tackling of Le’Veon Bell a few months earlier wasn’t.

People took the slow-motion Burfict angles and ran with them as though the linebacker was trying to murder Brown. However, those accusations were simply false. There’s a case to be made the hit was unnecessary, late and/or illegal, but the claims that Burfict targeted Brown’s head were simply untrue. For proof, I’ll hit you right back with a Burfict angle of my own:

In the angle above, it becomes obvious Brown braces himself for an upcoming blow, appearing to begin an attempt at taking the fetal position, which our bodies naturally do when they anticipate danger. It almost appeared as though Brown was trying to duck into the hit, but let me dispel that notion right now. Adam Jones’ accusation of Brown faking a concussion and fans who claimed the receiver “ducked into the hit” were both wrong in these cases. It was simply an unfortunate circumstance where the receiver saw the hit coming, the linebacker attempted to pull up and, unfortunately, enough contact was still made to result in a concussion. The “Burfict could’ve legitimately killed Brown if he wanted to” argument was a bit overplayed, but it’s a solid one at the very least. Burfict did not launch himself into Brown. If he had tried to, Burfict would’ve either flattened Brown out even worse than he did, or he would’ve missed the wideout completely. This brings me to my next point:

The false “helmet-to-helmet” narrative

via SB Nation
via Yahoo! Sports
via ESPN

The collision between Burfict and Brown was brutal, though neither player’s helmet happened to make contact with that of the other. Both angles of the hit shown above clearly display that, yet reporters made claims that the hit was a helmet-to-helmet shot. The third image displayed above was an excerpt from a recent column by ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, in December 2016 — nearly a year after the play. People are still misremembering what actually happened due to the dramatic aftermath.

The “Pacman Effect”

Anytime Jones’ name comes up in the news, people immediately overreact. And while the overreaction isn’t warranted for anyone — even Jones, who has a lengthy track record — it’s understandable. People are eager to criticize others, especially guys who already have a bad reputation. That’s why NFL fans were so quick to rush to judgment on Jones’ most recent arrest and why Bengals fans, myself included, immediately criticized Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter when he was also arrested a few days later.

With that in mind, Jones’ questionable-at-best attempt to stand up for Burfict by confronting an official (and drawing a penalty), then claiming Brown was faking a concussion, not only was frustrating but also added fuel to media’s fire, blowing the hit even further out of proportion. That only reminded NFL fans of the once-relevant Bengals stereotype as a team that employed players with extensive off-field track records. That hasn’t been the case as of late, but with Jones stealing the spotlight, NFL fans outside of Cincinnati didn’t think twice before casting the label back at the Bengals.

Jim Nantz and Phil Simms

I really wish I had the time and resources to go back and transcribe the original broadcast, though the process of going back and actually listening to the game again would be brutal anyways. Nantz and Simms were the first ones to cast stones, providing a one-sided commentary on the Bengals’ failures, as well as pinning the loss on Burfict, which was completely unjustified (I’ll get to that later). They called Ryan Shazier’s hit on Giovani Bernard “unfortunate,” not even questioning whether there was helmet-to-helmet contact (which there was, though at the time it was technically legal) and questioned Burfict’s legal sack three plays after it happened. Bomani Jones put the sentiment I felt at the time perfectly, so I’ll rehash these tweets just for the sake of giving credit where it’s due. (If you’re interested, there are a lot of good replies to Jones’ first tweet, which you can access by clicking the date and time of the tweet.)

Ultimately, Nantz and Simms framed the loss as a meltdown by Burfict and Jones, blaming Marvin Lewis for a lack of perceived discipline from the team. To be fair, I can give them that for the late Jeremy Hill fumble and Jones’ penalty, but calling Burfict’s hit one that lacked discipline was outright untrue. The linebacker got caught in a difficult situation and unfortunately, cost his team a penalty — however, it was Jones’ penalty which secured a makeable field goal attempt for Steelers kicker Chris Boswell. And it was Hill’s fumble which initially lost the game anyways. There were a lot of reasons the Bengals lost, but Nantz and Simms made it out as though Burfict’s hit on Brown was the the final nail in Cincinnati’s coffin. Speaking of...

Pinning the loss on Burfict

Nantz and Simms’ commentary quickly led NFL fans to pin the Bengals’ Wild Card loss on Burfict, which was unfair to say the least. At the most, Burfict’s hit on Brown was one of several variables which contributed to an unlikely loss. In my personal opinion, the hit wasn’t even a factor. After all, if it wasn’t for Burfict, AJ McCarron would’ve been slammed under the bus right alongside Andy Dalton.

Here’s Burfict’s impressive stat line from the Bengals’ most recent playoff game: six total tackles (five solo), one sack (for a loss of 12 yards), two quarterback hits, two tackles for loss, a pass defense, a forced fumble and an interception. The linebacker kept his team in the game with a historic performance, yet he was framed as the bad guy in Cincinnati’s ultimate failure. Granted, the linebacker’s running off the field in celebration of his interception prior to Hill’s fumble (which should’ve been penalized for excessive celebration) looks pretty bad in hindsight, knowing the Bengals lost. But still, it shouldn’t have mattered. After all, the Bengals were one Hill fumble away from breaking a historic playoff losing streak. This game was not on Burfict.

The Suspension

Burfict’s suspension was unprecedented. I’ve written about it and made this point ad nauseam since the news broke. But like it or not, a vaguely-worded suspension, prompted by a controversial hit and a players’ prior reputation, changes the way people see an individual in the NFL. It’s just the way things are. With the suspension, Burfict was immediately placed under a virtual microscope; that became evident when the linebacker made a couple of controversial plays in New England.

The first of those plays saw Burfict dive toward Martellus Bennett from behind in a play in which he appeared to try and take out the tight end’s knees. Upon further examination, it becomes clear Tom Brady — a guy Patriots fans and several people around the NFL regard as the greatest quarterback of all-time — pump-faked in Bennett’s direction, just after he’d thrown the ball to the tight end on the same route two or three times on that drive and previous drives. Burfict could’ve aimed higher on the lunge, but fans’ claims that he dove at Bennett for no apparent reason were untrue. He thought the ball was coming Bennett’s way, but, it did not.

The second controversial moment occurred when the linebacker appeared to stomp on LeGarrette Blount following a pile-up. ESPN’s Mike Reiss found footage on the All-22 and framed his tweet as though there was definitive evidence Burfict stomped on Blount, though there isn’t any clear video evidence:

And when David DeCastro appeared to stomp on Burfict, and I framed my own Tweet of the video in virtually the exact same wording as that of Reiss, Burfict still didn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

Neither clip shows a dooming angle of a definitive stomp. And yet, when I tweeted the DeCastro video out, people responded with “Burfict deserved it,” “there’s no clear stomp” and statements of similar substance. Burfict no longer receives the benefit of the doubt, and the national overreaction to his hit on Brown was the catalyst which created the linebacker’s current reality.

Conclusion

Burfict is one of the most controversial players in the NFL. That’s just the nature of his reputation, and it’s not going to change anytime soon. However, if anyone has been watching closely, it’s become more and more clear the linebacker is taking the necessary steps to changing his game. He’s been a vocal leader on the Bengals, he’s helped opponents up after tackles, he’s broken up (and even prevented) fights and he’s been playing out of his mind in the process. Burfict has had his moment or two, but the Bengals’ star ‘backer has generally been much better this season, both between whistles and after the whistle. And though commentators don’t want to give him credit for it — cameras pan to Burfict anytime anything happens after the whistle — it’s been noticeable to people who have been watching closely.

Burfict’s reputation probably won’t change for a while, but if he continues playing like he’s been playing, it eventually will. The hit on Brown was a frustrating one, as it left the Bengals without their star linebacker to start the 2016 season in a year where Burfict likely would’ve been elected to the Pro Bowl without the three-game ban.

Still, progress has been made to the point where many plays, like the one shown below, don’t always end in controversy or even penalties, for that matter — even if they happen to appear near-identical to Burfict’s hit on Brown.

2016 was a frustrating year for Bengals fans, from the team’s fifth consecutive playoff one-and-done in January, to the controversy surrounding Burfict, to a disappointing season in itself. But Burfict’s transformation, both in his playmaking and taking steps to mitigate a tarnished reputation, has been one of the few bright spots since the Bengals’ devastating playoff loss in Paul Brown Stadium, one year ago today.