The Cincinnati Bengals' game against Washington in last week’s preseason game was disappointing, but not because the team lost. After all, it’s the preseason. No, what was disappointing—devastating in fact—was that soon after the game we heard that the NFL would suspend Vontaze Burfict for five regular season games. This, for a hit against Anthony Sherman of the Kansas City Chiefs, a team the Bengals had played a week before. Recently, after an appeal, that sentence was reduced to three games. Three games!?!?! Considering the energy that man brings to the field, that’s like having just one wheel put in a boot because you parked in the red zone at Whole Foods. One wheel in a boot means that this Tesla can’t move. And without Burfict, the Bengals are hardly the Bengals.
I have said many times before that Burfict might very well be the Bengals’ finest defensive player. But my opinion—it means nothing. You know who I think agrees with me and is also ticked off about the NFL’s scapegoating of Burfict? That’s right, head coach Marvin Lewis. And I’m going to translate a portion of his press conference on August 29th (before the result of the appeal) that proves it. Why “translate,” you ask? Because Marvin Lewis, or “ML,” as I call him, sees himself as the Riddler and the press as Commissioner Roger Goodell. Riddle me this, coach...
Q: Do you think with the possible Vontaze Burfict suspension, was there a misinterpretation of what the rule is supposed to be?
ML: “[Bengals Director of Communications] Emily Parker put out a statement on that, so I’m not going to voice my own opinions in here.”
Q: When the competition committee refers to enforcement away from the play, did they mean further away from the play?
ML: “There you go [laughs]. You guys come up here and sit and I’ll sit down there and ask you the questions, and you can tell how ridiculous it is [laughs].”
Q: There are a lot of people that are confused about how, if you’re allowed to re-route a receiver five yards away from the play, what is “away from the play?”
ML: “Particularly on the same parallel line as the tight end and the fullback are, and that’s the thing. The tight end, when the quarterback sets his feet and pumps (the ball), he (and) the fullback are on the same parallel line. Sometimes in interpretation, things get lost, and hopefully Vontaze will prevail in this.”
Q: Isn’t it a big thing that the ball is still in the quarterback’s hand?
ML: “All of that would seem to make sense, if we understood football from the perimeter point of view. If everybody understands how linebackers and secondary people play football, that would all make sense.”
Q: Do you feel like the league is trying to make an example of Vontaze Burfict in this situation?
ML: “Again, I’m not going to [answer that]. It was a good try [laughs].”
Q: What if that had that been a block by the offensive player? Does it matter how you hit them? Is the NFL looking at that?
ML: “The interpretation, as you said — is it away from the play, 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? Obviously, he’d have to be facing [the player] to put his [shoulder into the uniform number] there. That seems pretty obvious.”
Q: So is it fair to say that Vontaze doesn’t need to change his style of play?
ML: “I think Vontaze has changed quite a bit. He has changed tremendously. He’s changed a lot.
Let’s set aside my adversarial relationship with you losers for a second. We can all agree on one thing. The NFL has decided to sacrifice one player, my beloved Vontaze, on the altar of the head-injury controversy. They don’t care about the truth. They can’t HANDLE the truth. And that goes from the top on down, from Jon Runyan "the Funyun” (NFL VP of Football Operations) to the minions of clone-like broadcasters who ooh and aah when Vontaze just does his job right. And you all agree with me.
Have you ever had a child whom you loved more than your other children? Come on. We all do. You have to understand that Burfict is that favorite child for ML. He’s aggressive. No BS. Tough as nails. Burfict’s a linebacker, and Lewis himself was once a linebacker and built his career on a tough-as-steel-wool defense epitomized by Burfict. Most important, there’s the redemption story that ML loves and truly believes in. Burfict has his issues, but he wrestled them and defeated them.
We learned about this relationship between ML and Burfict from columnist Jeffri Chadiha, who described the way ML came to Burfict’s house when he skipped practice in April of 2015 and gave him a very dad-like lecture. NFL coaches don’t do that. We learned that, according to Rey Maualuga, “Vontaze can say to Marvin [things] that nobody else would say.” And that’s because they have a “special connection.” ML keeps a text message that Burfict sent him, promising the coach that he would improve, and uses that text message against him, just like a father would. Why? Because, Lewis has said, “Guys like [Burfict] are the main reasons why we get into coaching in the first place--to change lives. And at the end of the day, I'll always believe he's worth it.” And yet, even after all this, Burfict still lost $502,941 of his base salary last season due to suspension and fines—so he might be getting better, but the schoolyard monitor doesn’t seem to be noticing.
ML’s definition of football is that it’s a tough-man’s sport minus the whines. He famously complained that concussions “linger longer” now, implying he’s dealing with millennial crybaby media Twitter nerds who won’t let his boys play. By the way, the lingering concussion diagnosis that so upset Lewis? ML's beloved Vontaze was out for much of the 2014 season and again in 2016 because of concussions.
It’s not football for Lewis without Burfict. ML has made it clear if the whiners have their way, football will become a game where we blow feathers to one another down the field, whispering words of encouragement. In other words, soccer.
The question about football and brain injuries has become serious, so serious that an entire way of life (playing and watching one of the last great gladiator sports) has come into question. Ed Cunningham, an ESPN football analyst, just retired because "I just don’t think the game is safe for the brain.” Will Smith starred in a movie about it. PBS did something too, but I’m sure anyone saw that.
The NFL is worried, and Burfict has become their scapegoat. And isn’t he a perfect one? He’s unhinged, energetic, kinda seems a little cray-cray, and—let’s face it—he’s a Bengal. Were he a Patriot or a Packer, or (gasp) even a Steeler, hundreds of thousands of disgruntled fans would hold signs outside of Runyan the Funyun's office. But he’s a Bengals player, so we put our face in our chili and move on with our lives.
So, is football really as detrimental to the brain as people say? Let me put it like this. I’ve been watching it now for almost 40 years, and I’m as sharp as a Honjo Masamune sword. Give me Burfict, or give me soccer.