In Vontaze Burfict, NFL picks on its scariest yet safest target

The NFL suspended Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict five games following a questionable hit in the preseason that was reduced to three games. David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

If the NFL is using a fall guy to drive home the importance of a new officiating emphasis, it certainly picked the safest one. While some analysts and fans have taken issue with the length of the latest suspension handed down to Vontaze Burfict, few would argue that he isn’t a player who has needed to be reined in.

Burfict was suspended for the first three games of the 2016 season following an illegal head shot on Steelers receiver Antonio Brown during the previous season’s playoffs. Brown was concussed and missed the following week’s game, in which Pittsburgh was eliminated by Denver. When issuing the suspension, the NFL stressed that the three-game suspension wasn’t for the Brown hit alone. Rather, the league cited “repeated” violations of player safety rules, including four instances of Burfict being fined for illegal hits in the 2015 season alone.

According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Burfict has been fined $805,400 in his first five seasons in the NFL. Not all of that is for dangerous hits, of course, but the majority of it is. Burfict’s reputation as a player who frequently commits needless fouls didn’t simply materialize in the pros. It was well-established when he was a college player and even to some extent in high school.

It’s worth noting that, with his latest suspension-inducing foul, Burfict wasn’t flagged on the play and Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman wasn’t injured, though neither of those facts necessarily absolve him of wrongdoing. The NFL reviews all preseason plays and reserves the right to enact punishment even if none is handed down on the field. The problem is there isn’t clear evidence that Burfict intentionally made an illegal hit, and there may be reason to believe it wasn’t illegal at all under the new standard.

Pushing the discipline for a violent infraction on Burfict from three to five games seems like a natural progression. The circumstances, however, suggest the NFL is being unfair. The hit that Burfict put on Sherman isn’t even conclusively illegal, at least by the language put forth by the NFL this year.

The new rule for 2017, 12.2.7(a)2, states defenseless player status is granted to:

A receiver running a pass route when the defender approaches from the side or behind. If the receiver becomes a blocker or assumes a blocking posture, he is no longer a defenseless player.

As the replay shows, Burfict does hit Sherman from the side, though not in the neck or head area, and not leading with the crown of his helmet. There is the matter of Sherman chipping a pass rusher as he comes off the line of scrimmage. Does that make him a blocker on the play, thereby removing his defenseless player protection? It’s an iffy standard, with split-second decisions being made in real time by defenders covering quick offensive talent. The NFL can argue that the punishment is fair because the hit came on a receiver who was out of the play, but the ball had just been released by the quarterback before Burfict hit Sherman.

Burfict is arguing that the hit came within five yards of the line of scrimmage, which is true, and that the players were squared up on each other upon impact, which is not. Even if the hit is technically illegal, it doesn’t appear that Burfict came in with malicious intent given that he avoided contact with the neck or head. And enforcing a five-game suspension for an infraction that was just passed months before, committed in a preseason game, is worthy of debate. Technicalities suit the NFL because they provide impossible standards to enforce in an environment that is by nature violent.

On Tuesday, Burfict conducted a phone hearing with NFL appeals officer, and former Eagles receiver, James Thrash. Given the inexact nature this case coupled the baggage of Burfict’s ignominious reputation, it would not have been surprising if the suspension was upheld. However, it was reduced from five games back down to three, continuing to muddle the situation.

By issuing such a harsh punishment for a not-particularly egregious violation of a brand-new rule, the NFL is once again putting all the onus on players to make safe a sport that will never be 100 percent safe in its current incarnation. In doing so, the league is further muddying a sport that fans increasingly complain has labyrinthine complexity in its rule book. Player safety is important, and yet when every foul requires weeks of debate to sort out, the spectacle itself will hardly be worth following.

Mike Tunison is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va. and the former editor of Kissing Suzy Kolber. You can follow him at @xmasape on Twitter.

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