Some people never learn.
Vontaze Burfict is facing another NFL suspension. At first glance, you may wonder what the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker could have possibly done to warrant a five-game benching — and loss of more than $1.1 million in salary — after a seemingly casual collision with Kansas City Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman.
On the NFL's mayhem meter, Burfict’s hit during an Aug. 19 preseason contest was a love tap. There was no flag, and Sherman hasn’t missed any time since.
So what’s the big deal?
Burfict, of all people, should know better — especially by now. He lowered his shoulder to upend a defenseless player running a crossing route. Worse, it occurred away from the action. On replay, it does appear Burfict hit Sherman in the chest rather than the head. But rules enforcer Jon Runyan, with the benefit of hi-def freeze frames, is surely hyper-vigilant after the league tightened protection for defenseless receivers last spring. Burfict, the league concluded, violated rules on two levels — hitting Sherman away from the flow of the play and hitting him high.
In any event, with Sherman uninjured, five games seems a bit outrageous ... for most players.
Yet in this case, the ban, occurring months after the NFL warned it would issue longer suspensions for flagrant fouls, is undoubtedly imposed on the Burfict Scale. Repeat offenders get longer suspensions. That’s NFL justice for you.
The last time Burfict was suspended, it was for three games at the start of last season as punishment for an absolutely horrifying cheap shot to the head of Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown that essentially cost the Bengals a victory in the 2015 playoffs while also crippling the Steelers' chances the following week.
With fines totaling $805,400 during his first five NFL seasons, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer, Burfict’s track record has essentially erased the benefit of the doubt. The NFL would look silly by giving him anything less than the three games assessed for the hit on Brown, even though the blow on Sherman wasn't nearly as egregious. However Burfict has been warned repeatedly by a league trying to convince the world that it's concerned about player safety amid increasing awareness of risks associated with head trauma.
Burfict, whose appeal hearing is slated for Tuesday, told the Bengals' website he believed the hit on Sherman was legal as it occurred near the line of scrimmage, well within the 5-yard zone for contact between defenders and receivers. The Bengals are supporting him, maintaining that the hit came when Burfict was squared up and face-to-face with Sherman.
Mike Pereira, previously the NFL’s officiating director and now a rules analyst for Fox, isn’t buying that argument. He points out that face-to-face is typically a tight end coming off the line to encounter a linebacker, whereas Burfict was in coverage before hitting Sherman from the side.
“It was so ugly,” Pereira told USA TODAY Sports when asked about the play. “It’s so clearly a cheap shot and a foul.
"When I saw it, I felt the intent was one thing: To hurt the guy.”
There can be gray area in determining intent in the heat of game action. Maybe Burfict didn’t aim to hurt Sherman but wanted to send a message about running routes over the middle.
No matter. That’s way out of bounds, too.
“The 5-yard zone does not give you liberty to go after somebody and go high like that,” Pereira said. “You can’t block anybody in the back in the 5-yard zone, either.”
The NFL has gone to great lengths to get messages across to players about curbing flagrant hits. It has progressed from fines to bigger fines, from suspensions to bigger suspensions. The odds were fat that Burfict, with his reputation as a hothead and cheap shot artist dating back to his Arizona State days, would be the first to draw the stiffer penalties the league warned about.
None of the perceived deterrents, nor behind-the-scenes conversations with coach Marvin Lewis, have apparently taken root. Maybe this time, the message sinks in deeper. It’s one thing to lose a key defender due to an injury, but much worse to lose him over a boneheaded play.
Too bad for the Bengals and Lewis, who continues to support an often spectacular talent. Burfict's playmaking skill was on display Sunday at FedEx Field, when he slipped over to intercept a pass from Washington's Kirk Cousins and raced 62 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.
If only Burfict could outrun his past so easily.
Follow NFL columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell
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