After every suspension, ejection, late hit, cheap shot to the head, referee push, enemy ankle twist, edge of the whistle tackle, over-the-top trash talk, and sprint-to-the-other-end-zone-after-a-seemingly-game-clinching-interception travesty, Bengals fans are left wondering: Why exactly does the team employ Vontaze Burfict again?
And then games like Sunday take place, when Burfict led the Bengals to a 20-17 victory, and reminds those very fans that maybe, just maybe, it’s all worth it.
Burfict had one of his best games (if not the best game) of the season in Denver, keying the first Bengals win in the Mile High City since the Ford Administration. (It only felt like that long since the Bengals had won any game.) Burfict racked up a dozen tackles, all but one of them solo takedowns, and a sack, an important play that knocked Denver back into its own territory and forced a punt just before halftime. And of course, Burfict forced that crucial fourth quarter fumble on a hit to C.J. Anderson, which led to the eventual winning TD pass to A.J. Green. It goes alongside the 13-tackle (three of them for losses) performance against Buffalo as Burfict’s best outing of the season.
He did it all while playing his usual seatbelt-free style, even knocking himself out briefly after a crushing hit on a Denver running back. Given Burfict’s history with concussions and neck injuries, it was a worrisome moment. But after missing just one play, Tez was back out there, flying around the field in his inimitable style.
It’s a common sentiment around the Bengals that the defense just plays differently when Burfict is out there—and not being forced by the powers that be to cool it. The team has been torched when Burfict is in the lineup, to be sure, but the noticeable edge that Tez carries out to his linebacker spot cleary suffuses the team.
And they’ve needed it. Sunday hewed to a familiar pattern of the defense playing far longer than the offense. After reaching new lows in futility against Jacksonville and Tennessee, the offense stayed on the field a little longer in Denver, but not much. Over the last four games, in fact, the defense has played a staggering 119 more snaps than the offense, about two full games worth. As Dre Kirkpatrick showed when he stitched up and hit the wall during his long interception return, the thin air made that effort even more remarkable.
Sunday figured to be Burfict’s return to his usual stomping grounds at weakside linebacker after helming the middle spot for three games (two-and-a-half, actually, thanks to the ejection). Burfict struggled at his old college position, notably getting beat repeatedly by Colts tight end Jack Doyle for Gronk-like numbers. The weak side in the Bengals scheme is less about pass defense than search and destroy, which of course fits Burfict’s skills, and mindset, far better.
Tez had pushed defensive coordinator Paul Guenther all week to put him back at the weakside spot, according to Bengals.com, and Guenther complied. But the plans were blown up by yet another injury, this one to Vinny Rey (hamstring), and back to the middle went Burfict. This time, though, he was able to both seek out and punish ballcarriers and drop effectively into coverage. It helped that rookie Jordan Evans played effectively on the weak side, looking like a young and eager Burfict at times.
If Evans can develop into a “Burfict without the nonsense,” that would be one effective player. Tez wears you out with the ticky-tack stuff, not to mention the fact that he seemingly can’t or won’t adapt to the fact the refs are clearly looking for any excuse to punish him at this point. But what should be obvious by now is that there is no such thing as a “clean, but still violently effective” Burfict. Much like Two Face (yes, the Batman villain), Burfict is a duality that cannot be separated, the good and bad impossible to untangle and de-link.
The Bengals took a risk when they brought Burfict in as an undrafted free agent, and he has (mostly) paid off beyond their wildest dreams. Is it still worth the constant drama and occasional embarrassment that comes with rooting for the Tez-manian Devil? Games like Sunday make it hard to say no.
But ask me again after his next suspension.
Robert Weintraub is a Fulcher 2 Stay contributor and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.