Being a team without any recent postseason success that’s also located in a relatively small market, the Bengals being brought up in the national media isn’t as common as seeing talking heads on ESPN or NFL Network converse about the Cowboys, Patriots or the Steelers. Everyone knows this.
Despite having two elite players in A.J. Green and Geno Atkins, Bengals players are often kept out of general football discourse. All of them, except for one man of course.
Vontaze Burfict is arguably the primary reason why anyone outside of Cincinnati talks about the Bengals, mainly due to his on-the-field antics. So when head coach Marvin Lewis was asked about Burfict’s recent struggles on the field, he had just one response worth anything resembling substance.
Video of the exchange between Marvin Lewis and @JamesRapien, and the follow-up I asked after the initial question:— Jeremy Rauch (@FOX19Jeremy) October 24, 2018
"I don't want to talk about Vontaze. It's not relevant." @fox19 #Bengals pic.twitter.com/KO7XwzZboj
“He’s not played as well as he’s played in the past.” said Lewis.
And then he retorted with the furthest thing from the truth when asked to expand upon what he’s seen from him.
“I don’t want to talk about Vontaze. It’s not relevant.”
Hold up a minute.
The player that was supposed to elevate the defense upon returning from his latest suspension has struggled mightily while also racking up even more fines, and the topic isn’t relevant?
One more question was asked regarding if his play needed to get better and Lewis had enough.
“You can keep asking the questions, but does someone else have one? Because I’m not going to answer that one.
The exchange eerily resembled this:
It’s absurd to hear the head coach of an NFL team say that one of his best players performing so poorly isn’t a worthy discussion. Until you think about it for a second and realize it’s not absurd at all.
Burfict has no shortage of critics, if you poll most NFL fans they’ll probably tell you he should be kicked out of the league. But Burfict’s biggest advocate is Lewis, and has been since he signed with the team as an undrafted free agent back in 2012.
It could just be that Lewis is well aware that Burfict has indeed been terrible since he’s returned to the field and he doesn’t feel the need to expand upon it more. But the level of standoffishness Lewis expressed when pressed about the situation tells that he’s almost deliberately avoiding the subject for a purpose.
If Lewis starts openly criticizing Burfict’s play beyond “he hasn’t been playing well”, it can be used against him the next time Burfict does something that could get him in more trouble with the league. The NFL has issued a warning to Burfict that he will be suspended the next time he commits actions similar to what he did against the Steelers in Week 6. Lewis couldn’t have appreciated that message from the league office, so the subject of Burfict probably isn’t a great one in the first place for him at the moment.
But again, if Lewis shows malcontent for what Burfict is putting on the field, then Burfict’s most well-known supporter can become a tool for his critics. This makes Burfict all the more relevant, because he’s so damn intoxicating and impactful.
And through the years, there’s no doubt that when he plays well, the impact is noticeable. We don’t know if the microscope looking down on him now has caused him to not function on all cylinders, but we do know is that he’s not making the Bengals defense better in any way. And when the expectations for after his return were as high as they were, it’s a discourse worth creating, regardless of what Lewis says.
So yes, Lewis is covering for one of his guys. He’s not ignoring how bad he’s been in the three games he’s played, but he’s not being truthful, which isn’t exactly groundbreaking in the world of coach speak. But all this does is make Burfict even more relevant than he is now, despite the utter irrelevancy in his play this season.