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COLUMN: Nobody's Burfict. Give Vontaze a break

Why isn't anyone pointing at Shazier?
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Posted at 2:50 PM, Jan 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-12 11:39:03-04

CINCINNATI -- I totally get why people want Vontaze Burfict's head.

He made a very intentional, dangerous hit on Saturday. He was punished for it and, if you only paid attention for the last 10 or 15 minutes of the game, it looks like it cost the Bengals their best chance at the playoffs in a few decades.

Losing in that way is worse than any playoffs dry spell the Bengals could run up; it looked like an ironic but tragic end to a crucial game, possibly plagued by the linebacker's hubris.

But you clearly didn't watch the entire game -- or the season, for that matter -- if you think Vontaze Burfict's pride is the problem.

Burfict's job is to be vicious. I don't mean to hand out concussions, but he's almost perpetually straddling a very thin line.

Think about his job: sack, tackle, knock down and take out the beloved offensive superstars on the opposing team. (I say "beloved" because more than a few columns this weekend dissing Burfict made a point to mention that he took the Steelers' starting quarterback and star receiver out of the game. Is it somehow more heinous that he tackled these high-profile players when they had the ball? Should he have hit the second-string players instead?)

Burfict was doing his job. And really well. A huge, game-changing sack and an interception. That's a hell of a game for any defensive player.

That's why I think it's sort of unfair for Bengals fans, even occasional spectators, to crucify Burfict. There's a good chance a lot of those same people sticking up their nose cheered when they saw Big Ben taken down in that unbelievable breakaway free shot.

It's hypocritical -- at least a little -- to demand that Burfict, or any player, play with ruthless inhibition but wave your finger the second an official, sportscaster or coach utters the c-word. Concussion.

And sure, there are rules. Players can't go hog wild in the name of defensive ferocity. (Shout-out to Dick Butkus and Iron Mike Singletary!)

But by the end of the game, certain actions taken by coaches and ignored by referees made it pretty clear that rules were only loosely relevant.

At the risk of sounding rather like "he started it," I think it's totally out of line for anyone to label Burfict as malicious or an "arch-villian," as one Pittsburgh sports column called him. His offenses -- which still deserve punishment -- were no more suspect than the preceding ones that went unnoticed.

If you paid attention to the game's most intense moments, you noticed that Burfict's "head hunting" mission began and escalated mirroring the progression of shady, unpunished activity from Steelers players and coaches.

1. Coach Mike Munchak got into a sideline shoving match with Reggie Nelson after he ran out of bound near the Steelers bench. He even pulled Nelson's hair. Thankfully, this was called.

2. Adam PacMan Jones is punished for pushing a referee on a bad call. Joey Porter essentially baited him into a penalty that lost the game. Now ESPN is saying Porter will likely be fined for his role in sending Jones on a tirade, resulting in the team's loss and plenty of photos of PacMan weeping on the bench. If you watch the video (below), Burfict actually holds Jones back, trying to end the scuffle.

3. This was the tipping point, it seemed to me. Giovanni Bernard was knocked out by a clear helmet-to-helmet hit by Ryan Shazier. This hit looked similar to a hard hit by Reggie Nelson earlier in the game which penalized the Bengals for hitting a "defenseless player." Shazier wasn't called for the hit; he went back to the Steelers sideline and celebrated evading a clearly deserved penalty. At that point, Burfict was pacing the sideline. 

If you check the moments -- called "idiotic" in the same Pittsburgh column mentioned above -- that made Burfict the bad guy of the game, the emotional buildup couldn't be clearer. The part that upset me the most, watching the game, was that the trigger that angered Burfict every time was seeing his teammates pushed around.

I'm not going to build up Burfict and call him a "guardian angel" or anything like that. But I do think it's worth noting that his emotionally-charged hits weren't completely in vain or malice; they were brought on by a dangerous hit to  Bernard (and the celebration that followed) and a Steelers coach pulling Nelson's hair. These weren't his last-ditch efforts to steal the show. He was standing up for his brothers in orange and stripes.

I don't want to excuse the dangerousness of Burfict's hits. They could have caused some serious damage. (Worth noting, though, a Steelers beat reporter said Brown is "fine" and will "should be able to play against the Broncos.") But Burfict's hits were only a few of the many during that game. I just can't seem to understand why he's the only player being persecuted for them.

I don't think he should get off scot-free. Make an example of Burfict, sure, but he wasn't the sole bad guy on showcase during this game. He didn't show a blatant disregard for safety and then relish in the damage he caused -- that was Shazier.

I think before the NFL decides to suspend Burfict, Roger Goodell needs to take a long, hard look at Saturday's game. Were his actions the most vicious on the field? Should anyone else -- not only players -- be held accountable for creating and perpetuating a dangerous gametime atmosphere?

And to the fans -- and foes -- who credit Burfict with losing the game...that's just silly. The Bengals didn't have the game "in the bag" until Burfict hit Brown. The Bengals didn't have a prayer, though, until Burfict caught that interception in the fourth quarter.

And I think Bengals fans should think twice about calling Burfict a liability -- or pretending to be morally superior to anyone else who wants to keep him on the roster.

One reader emailed me saying "Burfict should be in jail for felonious assault." Really? If causing serious damage and harm to other people as part of a sanctioned/worshipped sport is an act so depraved that you believe it should be punishable by law, the entire premise of football probably disgusts you.

Burfict plays fast and loose. That's not preferable and it's going to be a problem. I hate that it takes the spotlight away from the Bengals' exemplary players who make plays in a clean way (tipping my hat to A.J. Green, Andy Dalton, Mohamed Sanu, Carlos Dunlap and Domata Peko -- just off the top of my head).

But if you want a linebacker on the Bengals squad who makes plays, fiercely defends his brothers and plays for the good of the team (not to hear his own name), then look no further than Vontaze Burfict. From my point of view, he's about as good as it gets.