His short-hand name the coaches used for him that first spring of 2012, particularly linebackers coach Paul Guenther, was “The Devil.”
As in, “Did you see the read The Devil made today?” Or, “The Devil just blew that play up.” Or, “The Devil is a special kind player.”
“The Devil,’ was a play on the nickname of Vontaze Burfict’s alma mater. The Sun Devils of Arizona State. It also aptly described Burfict’s career in Tempe, which went on a shockingly quick spiral that spun him out of the first round of the NFL Draft into the netherworld of rookie free agency. And it also probably characterized what ear the Bengals were listening to when head coach Marvin Lewis decided to take a chance on a player that came out with more baggage than plays in 2011.
“I love the kid. I really do,” Guenther said after Friday’s practice, now the Bengals defensive coordinator in large part because of his work with prospects like Burfict.
“I’ll have very few guys I’ll coach like him in my career,” Guenther said. “I realize that.”
So it’s probably fitting that not only does Burfict return to Arizona for Sunday’s third preseason game (8 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 5) against the Cardinals as a Pro Bowl player whose No. 55 leads the jersey sales in the Bengals Pro Shop but also during the most significant week of his pro career outside of him being named to Hawaii.
ESPN.com and later NFL.com, the web sites where agents and players announce deals, reported Wednesday that the Bengals had reached a four-year, $20 million extension giving Burfict $16 million over the next two years. At the end of business Friday the Bengals still hadn’t announced the extension, an errand they do only when the contract is signed. He has also missed the last three days of practice with what is being described as a virus. Asked after practice Friday if Burfict has contract-itis, Lewis laughed.
“I don't know,” he said. “I don't know if they tried to give him a signing bonus in nickels or what. Raining down.”
No one is tougher than Burfict. He plays the most punishing position in the NFL’s No. 3 defense and has yet to miss a game. He led the NFL in tackles last year and that included that gut check weekend he flew to San Diego in a boot on a Friday, was waved off on a Saturday night and left on a Sunday with a win and 13 tackles.
So if this were a real game in the desert he’d play. And he may play anyway because that’s what he does. And Lewis said he expects a deal at some point.
“I would have guessed we'd expect to sign,” Lewis said. “Obviously the agent believes he has a deal. We didn't release it.”
The trip back to Tempe is a lesson in platitudes and homilies. Go in with an open mind. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t make up your mind until you’ve walked in my shoes. All that stuff that is supposed to be hackneyed and cliché but is very real.
“I told him, ‘I don’t care what happened at Arizona State,’” Guenther said. “Everybody is in different situations. I didn’t know who he was listening to at Arizona State, or who affected him. Other players, coaches, the team. I don’t know. All I know is here is a guy with talent who is obviously very smart. If we can put him in the right environment, maybe he can be the player we’re hoping he can be.
“When he got here I told him, ‘Be where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be, do whatever I tell you and I’m going to teach you the defense from the ground up,’” Guenther said. “To this day, he’s done everything I’ve asked.”
Lewis didn’t close his mind, either, when the rest of the league apparently did after Burfict’s disastrous scouting combine, where he clocked the slowest 40-yard dash of the linebackers. Lewis made one of the most fortuitous trips in Bengals history to Burfict’s pro day in Tempe, where he upbraided him for not running the 40-yard dash. He also gave him his card and told him to call if needed.
The kid didn’t forget and called after the draft. Lewis didn’t forget how hard Burfict cheered on his teammates during the pro day and how respected former NFL players like the Bengals’ own Levi Jones were around Burfict giving him advice.
“I didn’t know if I left a real good impression that day,” Lewis said. “I was disappointed in him, frankly. But I did observe the fact that he showed some of the leadership qualities that he had that day, and the fact that he was really supportive of his teammates. He did OK in the workout, he just didn’t want to run again. That was the disappointing thing. I think you are what you are and whatever you run in the 40, that’s what you run. But that’s not what all that makes up football. That’s just one small component of football.
“Levi Jones was trying to help him, Adam Archuleta was trying to help him. There were other guys there who had been experienced NFL players and who had good careers that obviously saw something in him that was worthwhile for them to even confer with me on him about it. They saw something. So I guess that also spoke to giving him an opportunity.”
After Burfict signed and before he arrived, Guenther and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer sat down to watch tape. After about three plays they were shaking their heads. Appalled. The undisciplined 16 personal fouls in 26 games and the extra 10-15 pounds jumped off the tape. They wondered if he’d make it to training camp.
“Zim wasn’t all in favor of taking him with the stories we heard about him,” Guenther said. “His play was up and down. There were traits, but he lacked consistency. There were the personal fouls and all that stuff. The play wasn’t as good when I went back one more year to look at him when he was lighter. By going back and looking at the earlier tape, you could see he was that much faster, a much more streamlined guy. You’re thinking, ‘Wow, this guy is a difference maker if he loses some weight.”
Now instead of in the 260s, he’s in the 240s, maybe 250. He was light enough in that first practice of 2012 to get Lewis thinking back to seven years earlier when he walked off the field of Odell Thurman’s first NFL practice and he told Bengals president Mike Brown he had seen only one NFL linebacker better and that was the hallowed Ray Lewis.
“It just reminded me of another guy that I was around and I said he was very special and he’s continued to grow that way as a player,” Marvin Lewis said. “And we were fortunate to have for one year, Odell, who was very blessed and gifted who had reminded me of Ray immediately as well. What Vontaze did in those early practices is he showed his suddenness.”
And now, suddenly, Guenther is running the defense and saying about Burfict, “I lean on him a lot.” It has got to the point where they are watching tape and Guenther doesn’t even ask the question, but Burfict gives him the answer.
(How about that 81st and final play against Green Bay last year with Aaron Rodgers staring at fourth down near the red zone in the final minute needing a touchdown to win? It was Burfict who talked Zimmer into changing his call and staying in regular instead of a blitz and getting Michael Johnson’s tipped pass to end it.)
“I told the linebackers in our room, knowledge is power. Guys will respect you if you understand what to do and how to do it,” Guenther said. “Just not your position, the whole scheme. He’s smart enough and he can absorb it and remember it.”
An open mind. A clean slate. The Devil has got some underdog in him.
“He’s a bulldog,” Guenther said. “He’ll bite your butt, believe me.
“I love the kid.”