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Is NFL using a double standard with Mike Mitchell and Vontaze Burfict?

The NFL fined Mike Mitchell for something Vontaze Burfict would have been suspended for.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Kansas City Chiefs
Mike Mitchell
Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Pittsburgh Steelers safety Mike Mitchell was fined a total of $57,735 for two hits that occurred in the Steelers’ win over the Kansas City Chiefs last week.

Mitchell was reportedly fined $9,115 for his late hit on Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback Alex Smith. His helmet-to-helmet hit on Chiefs’ running back Charcandrick West, which put West out with an apparent concussion, did not draw a penalty, but it certainly drew a hefty fine. Mitchell will find his paycheck shorted by $48,620 for the hit on West.

Mitchell hit Smith from behind at the knees at least a full second after he had released a pass in what Smith regarded as a dirty play.

"I felt like it was extremely late," Smith said Tuesday. "I felt there was nothing done there to avoid contact. It was really low from the backside. I thought it was about as flagrant as it gets when it comes to a low hit on the quarterback."

Of course, Mitchell had a different take and has appealed the fine.

"I felt myself tripping," Mitchell said. "I felt myself being pushed. I felt myself losing balance. I was aware of the rule. If you watch the tape, I'm trying to turn my body while I'm falling. Alex is backpedaling into me. I wasn't even going in the direction of Alex. He actually is throwing and fading away. There are a lot of things that go into the play that make it an accident.

"I wasn't trying to take Smith's knees out."

The question that many people want answered is why Mitchell was not suspended for the play rather than merely being assessed fines. He is a repeat offender, having been fined twice before for unnecessary roughness.

In 2015, Mitchell was fined $23,000 for a hit on Tyler Eifert that put the Bengals’ tight end out of the game with a concussion. Then, in 2016, he was fined $8,681 for a hit on San Diego Chargers’ tight end Antonio Gates.

Meanwhile, Vontaze Burfict received a five-game suspension, which was later reduced to three games, for a block on Kansas City Chiefs’ fullback Anthony Sherman during the preseason that did not even draw a flag. Why didn’t Mitchell get suspended for a block that seemed so much more egregious?

While Mitchell has a reputation in some corners as a dirty player, his record in the league does not necessarily bear that out. His hit on Smith is the only unnecessary roughness penalty called on Mitchell this year. Last year’s hit on Gates was one of two flags he received for unnecessary roughness that season.

Mitchell’s hit on Eifert in 2015 was the only penalty for unnecessary roughness he received all year. He had one unnecessary roughness call in 2014 and one in 2013, while with the Carolina Panthers.

Mitchell was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the second round of the 2008 NFL Draft, and he had no penalties called against him in his first two years in the league. His first flag for unnecessary roughness did not come until the 2013 season.

While Burfict has worked hard to improve his image of late, things did not start off that way. In 2013, in his second year in the league, Burfict led the NFL in tackles with 171, and was the only Bengals’ defensive player selected to the Pro Bowl. He also became the first Bengals’ linebacker to make the Pro Bowl since Jim LeClair in 1976.

Burfict was also one of the most penalized players in the NFL that season. He was flagged 13 times to lead the team in infractions, and received eight whistles for unnecessary roughness. Burfict only received one penalty for unnecessary roughness in 2014, and that number jumped to three during the 2015 regular season. Of course, no one will ever forget the one he received in the Wild Card Playoff game against the Steelers with time running down.

In 2016, Burfict had only two penalties called against him the entire season, one of which was for unnecessary roughness. He has been flagged only once in the two games he has played so far this season, and that was a questionable call for roughing the passer.

And, while this marks the third time that Mitchell has been fined in his NFL career, Burfict has received fines and/or suspensions on 10 different occasions.

It all began on September 22, 2013, when he was fined $10,000 for hitting Green Bay Packers’ tight end Ryan Taylor below the belt. He also received a $21,000 fine in that same game for a hit on James Jones.

That same year, Burfict was fined $7,875 for a facemask penalty on Buffalo Bills’ running back Fred Jackson, along with a $21,000 fine for spearing New York Jets’ receiver Stephen Hill.

In 2014, Burfict received a $25,000 fine for twisting the ankles of both quarterback Cam Newton and tight end Greg Olsen of the Carolina Panthers. In 2015, he received a total of $69,454 in fines for three separate incidents that occurred during the December 13th meeting with the Steelers – two unnecessary roughness penalties and one low hit on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Then, Burfict was suspended for the first three games of the 2016 season for a hit to the head of Steelers’ receiver Antonio Brown during the Wild Card showdown. He was fined $75,000 in his third game back in the 2016 season for stomping on New England Patriots’ running back LeGarrette Blount, and another $12,154 in a Week 11 loss to the Bills after flipping double middle fingers to the Buffalo crowd. Finally, earlier this year he was suspended for the hit on Sherman.

Some will argue that it is all a matter of perception. Burfict is being fined on such a frequent basis because the league has made him a target. The officials scrutinize his play more than any other. And there may very well be some truth to that.

But the fact remains that, as bad as Mitchell may be in the eyes of many, he has kept himself relatively clean in the eyes of the officials. The fine of nearly $50,000 for the hit on West is well above the recommended first-time fine for unnecessary roughness, which is just less than $24,500 this year, and was clearly increased because of his prior history.

Mitchell may complain that the exact amount of his fine was arbitrary, but the players have given the league the ability to make just such an arbitrary finding in the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement.

At this point, a suspension was probably not called for, and any comparison to Burfict and his troubles with the league is probably unwarranted.