The NFL on Monday suspended Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict for the first three games of the 2016 season for “repeated violations of safety-related playing rules.”
Burfict’s most recent violation came with 18 seconds left in Saturday night’s 18-16 loss to Pittsburgh in an AFC Wild-Card game when he drew a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty for making forcible contact to the head of Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown.
The announcement came just a few hours after coach Marvin Lewis said in his season-ending press conference that he didn’t think Burfict crossed the line this season.
“Unfortunately, he can’t have that kind of blow with the guy that’s receiving the pass, but it didn’t go over the edge for the course of the season,” Lewis said. “He’s had three penalties this season for unnecessary roughness. Let’s not take things out of context, and understand it. Let’s judge the body of work.”
The NFL made it clear the suspension was for Burfict’s “body of work” and not just the hit on the Brown.
Burfict has been fined four times this season, including twice on plays that were not penalized. The first was in the Dec. 13 game against Pittsburgh when he dove low at quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s legs. Burfict was fined for three plays in that game – the other two, unnecessary roughness and a facemask, were penalized – totaling $69,454.
In the season finale against Baltimore, he drew a $50,000 fine for a late hit on Ravens tight end Maxx Williams, which was not penalized.
The NFL has not yet announced if Burfict will receive a fine for the hit on Brown, but the three-game suspension alone will cost him $502,941 in salary.
“Unfortunately, we earned some reputations, and we have to eliminate that by continuing to play well within the rules, the way he plays,” Lewis said. “He plays very well within the rules, and we have to keep doing that.”
Under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, Burfict has three days to appeal the suspension.
The NFL said in a statement that the conduct of other players and coaches in the game is being reviewed for potential discipline.
There were 18 penalties, seven of which were of the 15-yard variety, including one on Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Mike Munchak for pulling the hair of Bengals safety Reggie Nelson on the Pittsburgh sideline.
The final two penalties were on Burfict and, seconds later, Bengals cornerback Adam Jones, totaling 30 yards to put the Steelers in position for the winning field goal with 14 seconds remaining.
“Both players couldn’t be more heartbroken, literally to tears,” Lewis said. “That’s the first step, to realize ‘I’m wrong.’ When you play linebacker and (cornerback), you’re at the tip of the spear in the NFL now (in terms of being judged for hits). It’s a changing game, and unfortunately we had a guy (Shawn Williams) draw a penalty that was likely not a penalty in the game. Some things happened on the other side that were closer to penalties that weren’t called. Everybody reacted to that, unfortunately.”
Lewis said he made discipline a point of emphasis at the beginning of the season but admitted he needs to re-evaluate how he delivers the message.
“I have to find a better way, I know that,” he said. “I have to find a better way to get it across.”