Burfict problematic, not the problem in NFL’s roughness epidemic



Cincinnati Bengals linebacker, Vontaze Burfict (55) hit and concussed Pittsburgh Steelers' receiver Antonio Brown in Sunday's post-season game. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun/MCT)

By Dan Sostek / Sports Editor

Vontaze Burfict and Adam “Pacman” Jones signed, sealed and delivered a playoff victory to the Pittsburgh Steelers Saturday.

Thanks to the two Cincinnati Bengals’ defenders’ personal foul calls against them on an incomplete pass that saw Burfict drill star Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown in the head, Pittsburgh gained 30 yards without a completion. Steelers’ kicker Chris Boswell then converted a 35-yard field goal to advance to the AFC Divisional Round.

Despite the victory, Steelers fans, players and media alike called out Burfict for his hazardous hit. The NFL has responded to the backlash by suspending Burfict for the first three games of 2016 for “repeated violations of safety-related playing rules.” He will appeal the penalty.

Still this suspension won’t fix the problem of overly-violent plays in football, and that’s because the problem is systemic, not individual.

Burfict has a history of overly aggressive and dangerous tackling. He’s a linebacker with no consideration for opposing players’ health. He even answered every question at a media availability earlier in the week with, “I hate Pittsburgh.”

But Steelers fans’ critiques of Burfict would resonate more if they weren’t wearing the jerseys and cheering the names of similar players.

This isn’t a Cincinnati Bengals problem. This is a league-wide, institutional problem, and simply labeling Burfict as a “dirty player” isn’t going to fix anything.

The Steelers employ James Harrison, a linebacker who is the among the most-fined NFL players of all-time thanks to his vicious and uncompromising tenacity on defense. In 2010 alone, he received a total of $120,000 in fines over incidents ranging from flipping Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young to spearing then-Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Harrison, who played with Burfict in Cincinnati in 2013, defended Burfict’s hit, one that gave his teammate Brown a concussion.

“By rule, as they told me when I went down to New York, that is a penalty,” Harrison said postgame on NFL Network. “Personally, I don’t think it is because I don’t think you can get out of the way fast enough.”

Whether fans like it or not, this mindset pervades the league. Football is a fast game, and defensive players like Burfict and Harrison have decided that the risk of fines or penalties isn’t worth slowing down on plays or diminishing intensity.

This isn’t to say that that mindset is acceptable or right. It is to say that lambasting Burfict as a lone wolf and the only defensive player who is this callous, is ignoring the problem. If Vontaze Burfict didn’t play in the NFL, there would still be just as many concussions, just as many torn ACLs and just as many unnecessary roughness penalties.

Instead of looking at the Bengals’ linebacker, we should look at how we police these hits.

The increased flags are a good start. There has been outcry throughout the season that referees have been too penalty happy, throwing yellow onto the field whenever a hard hit occurs. This, however, is a necessary precaution.

Some worry that this will strip football of its physicality. Firstly, it won’t — this is the NFL and physicality is inevitable. Secondly, even if that was a possibility, it would be a fair trade-off for the removal of brutality and would not negatively diminish interest in the sport. Casual fans watch games to see Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger complete long passes, not to see linebackers take the heads off opponents.

But actions need to go further than flags. Instead of spending millions of dollars litigating against players allegedly tampering with the air pressure in footballs, the league could invest more into educating players about the dangers of the sport — an effective method, as shown by players’ reactions to the new film “Concussion.”

Some teams have already done this themselves. The Seattle Seahawks’ head coach Pete Carroll began using instructional rugby videos to teach safer tackling, discouraging the use of the head.

“Our tackling system features shoulder tackling and a renewed emphasis on taking the head out of tackling,” Carroll said. “We’ve found our style to be successful in the NFL and in college, and we believe it can be employed at all levels.”

Carroll isn’t blowing smoke. His elite Seattle defense shows this is possible. But the NFL needs to implement it more. Sure, the NFL sends out memos every season reminding teams how to hit. But those preseason reminders and thousand-dollar fines on multimillionaires clearly haven’t carried much weight. They need to do more than suspending players, and continue to ramp up emphasis on safety.

So yes, Vontaze Burfict is part of the problem. So is James Harrison. So are Adam Jones and Ndamukong Suh. But they aren’t the reason the problem exists. The problem is institutional. And unlike on the field, the NFL needs to tackle the problem headfirst.

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