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NFL’s reaction to Vontaze Burfict feels forced

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The NFL announced Vontaze Burfict could serve a five-game suspension to start the 2017 season. Aside from his chaotic history, we’re not sure what the real infraction is.

Cincinnati Bengals v Cleveland Browns Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

With 11:30 remaining in the second quarter, Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins flipped a harmless pass toward running back Chris Thompson. It was an easy route that should have resulted with an almost-certain five-yard gain to pick up the first down. Like a predator in the Serengeti, Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict recognized and jumped the route, returning the interception 62 yards for a touchdown. Burfict leapt into the stands and celebrated among jeering Redskins fans with outstretched arms, acting like a conductor, or a politician acknowledging his constituents during a late-election rally.

I’m not entirely sure what he was doing.

Cincinnati lost the meaningless exhibition (from a score/win/loss perspective) and fans eventually turned their attention elsewhere, to a highly-anticipated Game of Thrones finale, or MTV’s Video Music Awards, or whatever else deserved their attention on Sunday night.

It wasn't until Adam Schefter dropped the bombshell at 10:58 p.m. ET on Sunday night, tweeting that Burfict is “facing a five-game suspension for an illegal hit against a Chiefs FB Anthony Sherman this month.”

Cincinnati responded with a stern defense of their superstar linebacker. “The Bengals are aware of the NFL’s letter to Vontaze regarding a play in last weekend’s game," the Bengals said in a statement. "The film shows that the hit was legal, that Vontaze engaged his opponent from the front, and that contact was shoulder-to-chest. The Club will support Vontaze in the appeal process.”

Burfict offered his own thoughts, expressing regret but also passive confusion.

I feel like I’ve let down my teammates, but I also feel like I’ve done a good job with this. I only had one personal foul last year. We feel like this was a legal hit. I hit him in the shoulder. I hit hard, so it may have looked like I hit him in the head, but it was the shoulder. I helped him up and he said he was good and I asked if he was good on the next series and he said, ‘Yeah, that was a legal hit.’

History is clearly playing an oversized role in the league's disproportionate discipline of Burfict, who has been fined numerous times (for ankle twists, cup checks, illegal hits) and served a three-game suspension after a brutal shot on Antonio Brown during the 2015 playoffs. If the recent five-game suspension holds, it will be the harshest penalty Burfict has received yet.

Vontaze Burfict Fine & Suspension History

DATE SUSPENSION FORFEITED REASON
DATE SUSPENSION FORFEITED REASON
10.27.2017 -- $12,154 Kicking Roosevelt Nix
8.28.2017 Three-game suspension (after appeal) $1,770,975 Illegal hit against Anthony Sherman
11.25.2016 -- $12,154 Unsportsmanlike conduct
10.19.2016 -- $75,000 Unsportsmanlike conduct
4.1.2016 Three-game suspension $502,941 Hit on a defenseless receiver (Antonio Brown)
1.11.2016 -- $50,000 Late hit
12.18.2016 -- $69,454 Multiple unsportsmanlike conducts
10.15.2014 -- $25,000 Ankle-twist on Cam Newton and Greg Olsen
11.1.2013 -- $21,000 Spearing
9.27.2013 -- $21,000 Hit on a defenseless receiver (James Jones)
9.27.2013 -- $10,000 Striking player in the groin
Total Six games $2,569,678 --

While we'd like to raise the bannerman in Burfict's defense regarding the league’s harsh discipline, I can’t. Burfict has spent a majority of his NFL career enabling this opinion to fester, causing the league to escalate its reactions. It's entirely possible Burfict could face a year-long suspension jn the future if the league feels obligated to respond next time.

Where the question lies is the hit itself. Was it illegal?

Vontaze Burfict against the Kansas City Chiefs
Vontaze Burfict against the Kansas City Chiefs (Part II)

No matter the angle you view, this appears to be a legitimate hit; it applies the shoulder and the fullback wasn't taken out by a spear nor a shot to the head.

Could the argument be Burfict's shot was on a defenseless receiver? There are several rules protecting players in a defenseless position, according to Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7, titled "Players in a Defenseless Posture". The best argument here is one rule that defines a defenseless player: "A receiver running a pass route when the defender approaches from the side or behind.” Yet, the application of this scenario is a stretch. Burfict’s helmet is aligned in front of Anthony Sherman; at what point is the technicality too technical?

There is also this provision: "hitting the defenseless player’s head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm, or shoulder, even if the initial contact is lower than the player’s neck, and regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him."

Launching could be argued, especially the point about initial contact.

It’ll be interesting to see how the appeals process plays out. Cincinnati is staunchly defending its player, while the league’s reaction could be viewed as extreme overzealousness to punish a player for his name, not the act. Is the NFL just trying to make an example of Burfict? Maybe. And in some regards, Burfict has earned this. However, the league's reaction to this specific hit seems contrived.