CINCINNATI — New coach. Not the same as the old coach.
Zac Taylor's first big move to show that "New Dey" is not just a catchy phrase - and that he will not be another Marvin Lewis - came Monday with the release of troubled linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
“As we continue to build our roster for the 2019 season, we felt it best to give both the team and Vontaze a fresh start,” Taylor said in a statement released by the team. “Vontaze has been a good player here — the team appreciates that, and I know a lot of fans appreciate that — but our focus is on the future. Our goal is to build a successful team for the upcoming season, and we felt that making this change now was best for everyone.”
It sure is. Some fans would say the Bengals are doing what they should have done before Burfict and Adam Pacman Jones committed their stupid, last-minute penalties that cost them a playoff victory over the Steelers and closed the window on their chances of winning a Super Bowl in the A.J. Green-Andy Dalton era.
Vontaze Burfict released...some great seasons but I fear in history of the #Bengals he may be the biggest “what coulda been” stories...phenomenal instincts & understanding of defense concepts unmatched...but he couldn’t adjust his style of play and play fell off greatly last year
— Rocky Boiman (@ROCKYBOIMAN50) March 18, 2019
But Lewis wouldn't - or couldn't - keep those guys in line and wouldn't criticize them even in the locker room after the worst loss in Bengals' history (Super Bowls excluded). Instead he left that to Dalton and Andrew Whitworth. That was the day Lewis lost the locker room. That was the day the team went into a spiral that finally led to Lewis' firing last January.
It's hard to say what Burfict's release represents more - a no-more-nonsense approach or the reality that injuries have take a toll on the 28-year-old linebacker. According to media reports, the Bengals have been trying to trade him but couldn't find any takers.
But give Taylor credit. His statement is right about two things. Burfict was one of the best players on the team - one of the best in Bengals' history. A ferocious tackler that put fear in opponents. He just couldn't control himself, as evidenced by so many suspensions and fines resulting from illegal hits, fights and penalties.
And it is time to move on. It was time three years ago.
In Vontaze Burfict’s 7 years on the Bengals he’s forked over $4.6 Million in fines pic.twitter.com/Ih3y51p8vJ
— Flacco 2020 (@GowLiez) March 18, 2019
It's not fair to lump Burfict and Jones together like a couple of hoodlums. While Jones had the NFL's longest arrest sheet, Burfict's "crimes" happened on the field. He took so many personal foul penalties in college that no team drafted him. But Lewis wanted him, believing he could rehabilitate him, so the Bengals gave him a chance.
Burfict rewarded Lewis by leading the team in tackles his first two years and leading the league in his second season (2013) and making the Pro Bowl. He didn't stop making stupid penalties, but they weren't so egregious.
After a 2014 season mostly lost to injuries, Burfict came back in 2015 with fire and more penalties. After the Bengals-Steelers game that December, the NFL fined Burfict $69,454 for three separate infractions - roughing the passer, a facemask and unnecessary roughness.
Looking back, it should have been a warning of what would come in that playoff game, when Burfict took a high, cheap shot at Steelers receiver Antonio Brown and drew a penalty, and a protesting Jones would get another flag for making contact with an official, putting the Steelers in range to kick the winning field goal on the final play.
It was all the more frustrating because Burfict (and Jones, for that matter) had just made key plays to put the Bengals in position to get their first playoff victory since the 1990 AFC Wild Card Game. Jones' 24-yard punt return gave the Bengals a short field for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:50 to go, and Burfict's interception with 1:36 left seemed to seal the victory.
But highest highs and lowest lows are what you got with Burfict and Jones. The Bengals could have cut both of them on the spot, but they didn't and re-signed them instead.
ESPN reported Monday that the Bengals are "on the hook for $1.8 million in dead money in 2018 after cutting Burfict but that figure would drop to $903,000 if they designate him a post-June 1 cut."
But the "dead money" is not really what they're on the hook for. Think of all the heartbroken, disgusted fans the Bengals lost since that playoff meltdown. Think of the players who threw up their hands and walked away. Think of the empty seats at Paul Brown Stadium the past three years.
By waiting three years too long to get rid of Burfict (at least they dumped Jones a year ago), they're on the hook for losing many millions in revenue and possibly a generation of fans.
That's a lot to put on Taylor's shoulders, but that's what he's walked into. At least he took the right first step.