Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict is facing a 3-game suspension for a hit on Kansas City Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman. Sherman was running a route out of the backfield when Burfict launched and appeared to initiate contact with Sherman’s head or neck (video).
Although there was no flag on the play, this is one of the first examples of a receiver getting defenseless player protection while in his route. Over the offseason the owners passed a rule to add language to the players in a defenseless player provision. The new language states that a player is in a defenseless posture when, “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.” Even though Burfict strikes Sherman in the front of his body, Sherman did not have the opportunity to see him coming and was unable to brace for or attempt to avoid contact, a key interpretation of existing defenseless-player provisions in the rule. Therefore, Burfict can’t initiate contact (1) to the head or neck area of the receiver, (2) by using the crown or hairline of his helmet, or (3) by launching at Sherman.
While the hit itself may be borderline due to the video not being totally conclusive, Burfict had plenty of opportunity to make a better hit to the NFL’s desired target area and to avoid launching. Since the type of hit that Burfict made is very unnecessary, players will likely not get the benefit of the doubt.
Even with Burfict’s history with dangerous hits and suspensions, the 3-game suspension may seem harsh. If the entire 5-game punishment was upheld it would have matched Albert Haynesworth’s 2006 suspension for the longest suspension for an on-field transgression in league history. Burfict is also the first player to have a second multigame suspension for game infractions.
Though Burfict’s past certainly has upped the ante in terms of the length of the suspension, this could be a preview of what NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent characterizes as an emphasis to take unnecessary violent hits out of the game through ejections and suspensions for players who violate those rules. It remains to be seen exactly how strict the NFL will be with “egregious hits,” as Vincent put it, going forward.
NFL statement on the 3-game suspension
Burfict’s actions violated Rule 12, Section 2, Article 7 (a) (2) which states that it is a foul if “a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture. (a) Players in a defenseless posture are: (2) 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.”
His actions also violated Rule 12, Section 2, Article 6, (g), which prohibits “unnecessarily running, diving into, cutting, or throwing the body against or on a player who (1) is out of the play or (2) should not have reasonably anticipated such contact by an opponent, before or after the ball is dead;”
In the letter notifying Burfict of his suspension, [NFL vice president of football operations Jon] Runyan wrote:
This is not your first offense with respect to illegal hits to defenseless players; to the contrary, this incident is consistent with your pattern of egregious safety-related violations including your hit on a defenseless player during the 2015 Wild Card game and your hit against a Baltimore tight end away from the play on January 3, 2016. … When players violate the rules intended to protect player safety on a repeated basis, and particularly when the violations carry with them a significant risk of injury to an opposing player … you must be held accountable for this continuing unacceptable conduct.
Multigame suspensions of NFL players for game infractions
|Albert Haynesworth||TEN||2005||5 games||stepping on face of prone, helmetless player (ejected)|
|Vontaze Burfict||CIN||2017*||3 games†||blindside block/unnecessary roughness with prior suspendable infractions (no penalty)|
|Vontaze Burfict||CIN||2015**||3 games||multiple infractions of defenseless player hits (no penalty)|
|Brandon Meriweather||WAS||2014*||2 games||defenseless player hit, multiple prior illegal hits‡|
|Ndamukong Suh||DET||2011||2 games||stomped on prone player (ejected)|
|Charles Martin||GB||1986||2 games||slamming quarterback long after pass thrown (ejected)|
|*preseason. **postseason, served in 2016.†reduced from 5 games on appeal. ‡a prior suspension was reduced from 2 games to 1 on appeal.
Sources: So You Think You Know Football?, Football Zebras research