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Why NFL’s explanation of Vontaze Burfict’s suspension still doesn’t make sense

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The Bengals linebacker did not clearly violate any rules, despite what the NFL wants you to believe.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Cincinnati Bengals
Vontaze Burfict
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict saw his suspension reduced from five games to three on Wednesday, making official that he will miss the season opener for the third year in a row.

Burfict was originally suspended for five games after a controversial hit on Kansas City fullback Anthony Sherman with 8:01 remaining in the first quarter of the Bengals’ August 19 preseason matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs. Burfict immediately noted an appeal, which was heard by former NFL receiver James Thrash on Tuesday.

Here’s an excerpt of the letter sent to Burfict to let him know the suspension was reduced from five games to three:

This is not your first offense with respect to illegal hits to defenseless players; to the contrary, this incident is consistent with your pattern of egregious safety-related violations including your hit on a defenseless player during the 2015 Wild Card game and your hit against a Baltimore tight end away from the play on January 3, 2016…When players violate the rules intended to protect player safety on a repeated basis, and particularly when the violations carry with them a significant risk of injury to an opposing player…you must be held accountable for this continuing unacceptable conduct.

While no explanation was given for the reasoning behind the reduction, the NFL justified the suspension by determining that Burfict made prohibited contact to the head or neck area of a defenceless player, and that he made forcible contact away from the flow of the play, in violation of Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7(a)(2) and Rule 12, Section 2, Article 6(g), respectively.

In its official release announcing the results of Burfict’s appeal, the NFL claims that Burfict's actions “violated Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7 (a) (2) which states that it is a foul if "a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture. (a) Players in a defenseless posture are: (2) A receiver running a pass route when the defender approaches from the side or behind. If the receiver becomes a blocker or assumes a blocking posture, he is no longer a defenseless player."

Even if we assume for the sake of argument that Sherman was in a defenseless position, that is not the end of the inquiry. The rule goes on to define conduct that is prohibited once it is determined that a player was in a defenseless posture.

That conduct includes (1) “forcibly hitting the defenseless player’s head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm, or shoulder,” (2) “lowering the head and making forcible contact with the crown or ”hairline” parts of the helmet,” and (3) “illegally launching into a defenseless opponent.”

So, even if the player is determined to be defenseless, no violation of the rule has occurred unless there has been prohibited conduct. And a close review of the video fails to reveal any prohibited conduct. Burfict does not appear to make any contact with the head or neck area of Sherman. Instead, he hits Sherman squarely in the chest with his right shoulder.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis agrees, as he told Bengals.com.

“Does Vontaze hit him from the back or from the side or does he put his shoulder into the number of the Kansas City Chiefs player,” Lewis said. “Obviously I’d have to be facing you to put my number in there. It seems pretty obvious.”

Burfict does not lower his head and make contact with the crown of his helmet, leaving only the question of whether Burfict was guilty of “illegally launching into a defenseless opponent.” The Rule goes on to state that “[i]t is an illegal launch if a player (i) leaves both feet prior to contact to spring forward and upward into his opponent, and (ii) uses any part of his helmet to initiate forcible contact against any part of his opponent’s body.”

While the video does show that Burfict left his feet when he hit Sherman, he does not “spring forward and upward into his opponent.” Instead, Burfict basically jumps straight up into the air as he makes contact with Sherman.

The league also justified its position by claiming Burfict’s actions also violated the rule prohibiting unnecessary roughness. That rule prohibits “unnecessarily running into, cutting, or throwing the body against or on a player who (1) is out of the play or (2) should not have reasonably anticipated such contact by an opponent, before or after the ball is dead.”

There are several elements to this rule. The first is whether the hit on Sherman was unnecessary, because it is clear Burfict threw his body into the fullback. Turning to the video once again, it is clear that the quarterback, Alex Smith, had already pump faked to Sherman. According to Burfict, he was aware that he did not have any help over the middle if he were to let Sherman run free. So to him, and to any other linebacker faced with the same decision, it was necessary to take Sherman out of the play completely.

Nowhere in the rules is there a definition as to what constitutes “unnecessary”. It is a phrase that is not and cannot be defined objectively, and is totally up to the discretion of the one interpreting the rule. When does it become necessary to hit someone?

In this clip of a play that occurred during the early going of the Monday night, August 21 preseason game between New Orleans and the Los Angeles Chargers, Saints’ tight end Coby Fleener comes from the side to hit Chargers’ Joe Bosa. As you can see, Bosa has his attention directed at the quarterback and clearly does not see Fleener coming.

Was that hit “unnecessary?” Bosa was charging into a double team and clearly was not a threat to get to the quarterback. Yet Fleener took him out of the play in a hit that looked very similar to the one by Burfict on Sherman.

In a legal setting, the phrase “unnecessarily” would be determined to be vague and unconstitutional because it does not give an individual a clear understanding of exactly what conduct is prohibited. But, even if the league determination that Burfict’s hit was unnecessary, it still has to determine either that Sherman was out of the play or should not have reasonably anticipated the contact.

Again turning to the video, it is not clear that Sherman is out of the play. Even though Smith had faked to him and redirected his attention downfield, he could easily have come back to the fullback had he found the tight end covered. So Sherman was certainly not out of the play at the time he was hit by Burfict.

That leaves only the question of whether Sherman should have anticipated the contact by Burfict. Anyone who has played the game or has followed it for any length of time knows that a player coming over the middle of the field on a passing play should expect to get hit. Even in today’s NFL, any player will tell you that it takes courage to go into the middle of the field like that, because you know you will be hit, and hit hard.

So, the question then becomes, what did Burfict do that was in clear violation of either one of the rules cited by the NFL? Everyone will have their opinions, but even the staunchest of Burfict detractors has to admit that it is a close call.

And shouldn’t it take more than a close call to result in the kind of penalties handed down to both Burfict and the Cincinnati Bengals, who will be without their best linebacker for three games? The financial cost to Burfict is more than most of us will make in our lifetimes. And the cost to the Bengals is incalculable.