Linebacker Vontaze Burfict is exactly what every NFL team wanted from a middle linebacker about 40 or 50 years ago. Players like Dick Butkus and Jack Lambert had reputations as mean and scary enforcers who didn’t just make tackles, but attempted to set the tone for anybody who dared to go to the middle of the field.
Highlight reels showed clothesline tackles, helmet-to-helmet hits, and boasted about the rough and tough linebackers of lore.
But the best linebackers of football today are those who can channel the aggression and violence of the game without crossing the line. That’s something that Burfict has struggled with.
In seven NFL seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, Burfict racked up over $4.5 million in career fines and forfeited pay. In March 2019, after unsuccessful attempts to trade Burfict, the Bengals released the linebacker. He was only a free agent for a day, which is surprising — largely because his play has dropped off, but also because of his reckless play.
The Raiders signed him to a one-year deal and in Oakland he quickly ingratiated himself and became a team captain. It lasted just four games before an egregious hit earned him a suspension for the final 12 games of the 2019 season. The punishment was upheld after an appeal by Burfict.
That suspension was the result to a lengthy history of dangerous play that lost Burfict any semblance of the benefit of the doubt.
What incident resulted in Burfict’s 2019 suspension?
His most recent infraction got him ejected from a Week 4 game against the Colts and cost him the rest of the 2019 season. He dove headfirst into tight end Jack Doyle, colliding with a huge helmet-to-helmet hit.
Vontaze Burfict was ejected via replay for lowering the helmet to initiate contact pic.twitter.com/Tp3sukvneh— Fᴏᴏᴛʙᴀʟʟ Zᴇʙʀᴀs (@footballzebras) September 29, 2019
The NFL vice president of football operations John Runyan cited Burfict’s history as the reason for handing down the longest suspension in league history for an in-game offense.
Vontaze Burfict suspended for remainder of 2019 season for violations of unnecessary roughness rules. pic.twitter.com/oSMl2iSRNW— Michael Signora (@NFLfootballinfo) September 30, 2019
The previous record for a suspension for dangerous play was Albert Haynesworth’s five-week suspension for stomping the head of offensive lineman Andre Gurode. The discipline for Burfict is unprecedented, but it’s not unexpected given his propensity for over-the-line conduct.
Vontaze Burfict has always been a dangerous football player
There’s nothing new about Burfict’s play; it earned him a reputation all the way back in high school.
Corona Centennial High School (2005-2009)
The top two recruits in the state of California on just about everyone’s rankings for the class of 2009 were Burfict and Mater Dei quarterback Matt Barkley. The pair of five-star prospects met for games against each other as both juniors and seniors, and it certainly appeared as though Burfict aimed to hit Barkley in the knees in one of those games.
Years later, Barkley held a grudge over Burfict’s play in high school and accused him of attempting to injure him.
"He's a dirty player," Barkley told the Los Angeles Times before the two were set to meet in a game in college. "His switch is always on. And it's not a good switch."
Burfict’s targeting of Barkley especially raised eyebrows because both players were committed to USC. The linebacker later made a last second switch to Arizona State on National Signing Day.
Arizona State University (2009-2012)
Burfict quickly developed a reputation for being a destroyer of worlds at ASU. In his first college game, Burfict demolished Idaho State quarterback Russell Hill, and a couple of weeks later, he made a pair of huge stops against No. 21 Georgia late in the game.
The second stop was an impressive dive over the line of scrimmage on fourth down that came right after Burfict shoved the ref and almost gave up a free first down:
Burfict finished the year with Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors, but he quickly developed a reputation for personal fouls. By midseason, he was already told to rein it in after drawing three personal fouls in an October game against Washington.
"He got carried away," ASU coach Dennis Erickson told the Arizona Republic. "That's how he is, but he's got to control it. I love his intensity. I don't want to slow his intensity down because it's contagious for the rest of the players, for the fans and for everybody involved in the program. But he's got to be smart, and I know he will."
He never got around to being smart. Burfict kept on crushing opposing players and drawing personal fouls every step of the way. Even in practice, Burfict was a problem.
“There were more practice fights in Vontaze’s years than I’ve seen in (current coach) Todd Graham’s entire four years at ASU,” Chris Karpman of Sun Devil Source told the Press Enterprise in January. “I think in the first week after he’d been cleared academically as a freshman, he was in a fight every day of practice that following week.”
Sporting News dubbed Burfict “The Meanest Man in College Football” in 2011, but Erickson was forced to bench the linebacker a few times — sometimes unsuccessfully.
“I know one thing,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley told Sporting News. “Somebody is taking a blow every play (Burfict is) on the field.”
Burfict entered the 2012 NFL Draft after his junior season, finishing his collegiate career with 22 personal fouls in 37 games with the Sun Devils.
Cincinnati Bengals (2012-2016)
Despite first-team All-American honors as a sophomore in 2010, Burfict’s declining play as a junior, concerns about his lack of discipline, a failed drug test at the NFL Combine, and poor testing times all combined to boot him from the 2012 NFL draft entirely.
“I watched three tapes and really didn’t like him as a football player,” NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said a week before the draft. “I think he’s a nondraftable kid. For me, he’s a free agent.”
The Bengals scooped up Burfict as a free agent, and it immediately paid off with the rookie starting 14 games and leading the team in tackles with 127. The Bengals finished No. 6 in total defense but allowed 2.4 more yards per play when Burfict was off the field. Yet, he managed to go the whole year without a fine.
He earned a $20 million extension in 2014, but Burfict reverted to his former self, racking up personal fouls and fines that have since come to define his play, despite the fact that he’s one of the NFL’s better linebackers.
Sept. 22, 2013
Burfict got his first fine in the NFL for hitting Green Bay Packers tight end Ryan Taylor in a not so nice place.
Taylor was penalized during the game, but the NFL gave Burfict a $10,000 fine after replays showed what made Taylor so mad in the first place.
Burfict also received a $21,000 fine in the same game for a hit on James Jones that drew a flag because the Packers receiver was deemed defenseless.
Burfict made up for it later in the game when he told Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to change a play call on the final drive of the game.
"He wanted to call one play and I said, 'Coach, that's not going to work,' Burfict told Bengals.com. “Let's just go base and hopefully we get [Aaron] Rodgers to start scrambling and we plaster their guys and it worked."
Rodgers threw a pass on fourth down that was tipped by Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, sealing a 34-30 win for the Bengals.
Oct. 13, 2013
Oct. 27, 2013
Burfict earned another $21,000 fine about a month later when he speared New York Jets wide receiver Stephen Hill with his helmet. It upped his 2013 fine total to $59,875 — a huge chunk of his modest $480,000 base salary in the second year of his undrafted contract.
Oct. 12, 2014
Both Newton and Olsen dealt with ankle injuries earlier in the season, and Olsen argued that Burfict should be suspended for his actions.
"In instances like that that are so clearly premeditated, that he had in his mind that if he had those opportunities that he was going to try to attack guys' legs, but guys who are coming off ankle problems specifically, there's no room for it," Olsen told the Charlotte Observer.
"Guys like that don't learn from that stuff. He's been fined 100 times for head-hunting and he did it to (Panthers receiver) Kelvin (Benjamin) again."
Benjamin suffered a concussion on the final play from scrimmage for the Panthers when Burfict hit him, but the tackle did not draw a flag.
Nov. 1, 2015
Burfict’s bad blood with the Steelers really boiled over in a Week 8 game between two teams jockeying for a playoff position. The linebacker made a tackle on running back Le’Veon Bell that forced him to have season-ending knee surgery, and players on the Steelers — including offensive lineman Ramon Foster — said that Burfict celebrated the injury.
"If you're on the field with him, you know what I mean by that," Foster said, via Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "They'll play it off; he'll act dumb about it. But you don't run across the field hyped, celebrating, jumping up and down when a guy goes down like that."
After the game, Burfict insisted he didn’t celebrate the injury and said he’s friends with Bell off the field.
Dec. 13, 2015
At the next meeting between the teams, Burfict and James Harrison got after each other in pregame warm-ups, but that was just the beginning of the feud between the teams.
Burfict earned fines for three separate plays — two unnecessary roughness penalties and a hit low on Roethlisberger — totaling $69,454. The hit on Roethlisberger drew the most attention as it appeared the linebacker made an effort to dive at the quarterback’s knees, although Burfict said he was pushed.
"He said ‘I got pushed into you, my bad,'" Roethlisberger told 93.7 The Fan two days later. "I turned my phone on afterwards and one of the texts I got from a former player and a friend of mine says, ‘How is this not a fine or a penalty by Burfict?' and he showed me the clip of it. And since then I have seen the clip, and I don't buy that he was pushed. You know, I think that he definitely was diving in low and going for my legs."
The play did not draw a flag, but it was still one of the three plays that resulted in a huge fine for Burfict.
Jan. 9, 2016
Years of Burfict being a stellar linebacker, but also a player seemingly out for blood, culminated in a single game that seemed to be a microcosm of his entire football life.
First, Burfict injured Roethlisberger on a perfectly legal sack that forced the quarterback to be carted off the field. He eventually returned to the game, despite suffering a shoulder injury that seemed to clearly hinder his play.
Then Burfict appeared to seal the game for the Bengals by intercepting a pass from Landry Jones with 1:36 remaining, seemingly icing the team’s 16-15 lead.
But the Bengals fumbled the ball right back to the Steelers, and Roethlisberger re-entered the game with the chance to set up a game-winning field goal. Pittsburgh eventually got that field goal, and it was due to a vicious, head-hunting hit delivered by Burfict on Antonio Brown that drew a 15-yard penalty.
A 15-yard penalty was given to Adam “Pacman” Jones in the chaos that followed, and the Steelers hit a chip shot to win. Burfict was suspended three games for the hit that concussed Brown and knocked him out of the Steelers’ next playoff game.
With Roethlisberger dealing with a shoulder injury and Brown out of action, the Steelers lost 23-16 to the Denver Broncos.
Oct. 16, 2016
After sitting out the first three games of the 2016 season, Burfict’s first fine of the year came in the third game when he was docked $75,000 for stomping on New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount.
Fresh off a suspension for a reckless play, the hefty fine made sense given the linebacker’s history. But it also seemed odd that it wouldn’t draw another suspension for a player clearly on a short leash.
It also bears questioning if another player would have been punished, as replay seemed to show no stomp happened at all.
Nov. 20, 2016
His next regular season fine came after he flipped double fingers to the Buffalo crowd in a Week 11 loss to the Bills.
Burfict was fined $12,154 for the middle fingers, upping his mammoth career total.
In training camp, Burfict started a brawl with his own team when he tackled running back Gio Bernard by diving at his knees. Bernard had just resumed practicing again after recovering from his ACL tear the year before.
In Cincinnati’s second preseason game, Burfict took down Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman with a big hit while he was running a passing route. The league has a new rule against just such a move this season, and Burfict was suspended five games, but had the punishment reduced to three games after an appeal.
Burfict was ejected from a game against the Titans for contact with an official. Cameras never showed what the interaction was that got him tossed, but it came after a questionable late hit call that frustrated the linebacker.
He walked off the field holding up the money sign a la Johnny Manziel. Burfict wasn’t fined for the incident.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Burfict received a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance enhancing drug policy. In April, he lost an appeal of the punishment and the suspension was upheld.
Oct. 14, 2018
After his return from suspension, it took Burfict just two games to get back into trouble. Three different tackles made by Burfict against the Steelers came under review by the NFL, including an elbow to the helmet of Antonio Brown — reminiscent of the hit in January 2016 that created controversy.
He didn’t receive another suspension for the hit, but he did get a $112,000 fine — the largest of his career.
Sept. 29, 2019
Burfict played three clean games for the Raiders before getting in trouble again for a violent helmet-to-helmet collision with Colts tight end Jack Doyle. It resulted in a suspension for the remainder of the 2019 season (12 games). Burfict was reinstated in the 2020 offseason and will be eligible to sign with a team during free agency.
In his eight seasons in the NFL, and even long before that, Vontaze Burfict has toed the line between violent linebacker and out-of-control player with malicious intent.
His history as a repeat offender in the NFL already resulted in a suspension and has upped his fine totals to far beyond the numbers of the average NFL player. No other player is in jeopardy of serious ramifications for a single personal foul, but Burfict has reached that point.
Maybe in another era, Burfict’s disregard for the well-being of his opponents would have been revered. But it has meant trouble more often than not for the linebacker during his career.