Vontaze Burfict went from unloved and undrafted in 2012 to become the first Bengals linebacker in nearly 40 years to make the Pro Bowl when the list of 2013 players in the new format was released Friday night while wide receiver A.J. Green did the expected and made it three-for-three in Pro Bowl appearances since he came into the NFL in 2011. Andrew Whitworth, who moved to left guard from left tackle earlier this month, was voted a third alternate at tackle and Andy Dalton a seventh alternate at quarterback. But that's not as far down the list since for the first time this year the Pro Bowl won't pit the AFC vs. the NFC.
Players were selected without regard to conference in voting by fans, coaches and players. Players are assigned to the first-ever Pro Bowl Draft on NFL Network on Wednesday, Jan. 22 at 8 p.m. Team Rice and Team Sanders, headed by Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders, serve as team captains and head the draft selection process for each team. The game is set for Sunday, Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu on NBC, Cincinnati's Channel 5.
"It's a great honor for both our guys, and it's especially great for Vontaze," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said in a news release. "Everyone knows what an exceptional player A.J. continues to be, and we kind of expect him to be in the game, but it's very gratifying to see Vontaze recognized for the fine season he's had."
It was a fitting comment on a day Burfict waxed poetically about his relationship with Lewis, which he characterized as "father-son." When Burfict got off the phone after Lewis informed him of the honor Friday afternoon, the rugged second-year linebacker who has rarely come off the field while playing more than 90 percent of the plays and has led the NFL in tackles from almost wire to wire this season, had tears in his eyes.
"I got in through the back door. I worked so hard. I came in undrafted. I've had to come and work ever since I've been in here," said Burfict, anticipating congratulatory calls from defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and linebackers coach Paul Guenther. "I've learned so much about the NFL and learned so much about the game. Coach Zimmer and Paul Guenther stay on my back and just get me ready for each game and I've got a lot of praise to my coaches and teammates."
Even a scant few hours before the call, Lewis was still coaching Burfict hard. He told the media that Burfict, credited with 188 tackles so far, has to take better care of his body, citing frustration as the reason Burfict sustained a concussion last Sunday that took him out of practice until Friday.
Burfict admitted when he made the roster last season after falling out of the first round for a variety of reasons it was more emotional than Friday.
"The roster was the biggest one for me. Just coming in undrafted, fighting for a spot," Burfict said. "That one brought a little more tears to my eyes because I had people saying bad things about me when I was coming out to the NFL. A lot of people thought I was a bad guy. I just had to come in and stay focused and stay straight away."
Burfict, 23, had a tough last season at Arizona State, where he had 16 personal fouls in 26 games during a career he earned a rep for undisciplined play. That was followed by an even tougher scouting combine, where he reportedly turned off several teams with his interviews before running the slowest time of the linebackers. He then came face-to-face with Lewis at his pro day in Arizona.
"After the Pro Day, I don't know why I went up to Marvin and told him that I wouldn't be able to go today but he got me motivated to go," Burfict said. "He told me 'boy, you better put your cleats on and get ready to go.' I felt a little pressure from him but afterwards my agent kept in contact with Marvin and we continued to hit it home. He's had my back and I have his back 100 percent when I take the field.
"It's great because they could have listened to what other people were saying and not allowed me to be a Bengal but they said to forget that and bring the kid in and that kind of relationship me and Marvin have – focus on what is going on inside the stadium and not out of it. Don't focus on the negativity and get better each day."
Burfict said a few weeks ago that football was a team game and the Pro Bowl meant nothing to him, but on Friday he was clearly moved to be the first Bengals linebacker to make the Pro Bowl since 1976, when Jim LeClair earned his one trip as a Bengal. The only other Bengals backer in the club's all-star history is Bill Bergey, selected for the 1969 American Football League All-Star game as a rookie.
Unlike Green, who was always one of the top two vote-getters among fans, Burfict moved from 10th to seventh in the last update. It also helped that early in the process the Bengals switched him from outside backer to inside backer on the ballot and not lumping him with the speed rushers. But it was the coaches and players, each granted with a third of the weight, that earned the berth.
"That's amazing. I'm on a great team and in order for me to make the Pro Bowl I have to make standout plays because I have great teammates that make plays also," Burfict said. "It's also amazing that the people I play with voted me in. It gives me a lot of praise, but I can't get too big of a head. I have to stay straight on and keep doing my job."
Burfict was also amazed only two Bengals made it from a team that many believe is the most balanced in the AFC. But 2-13 and 7-8 Pittsburgh also had two like the AFC North champs. The Baltimore team the Bengals play Sunday that has yet to qualify for the playoffs has four.
"For real? That's crazy. That's crazy," Burfict said when told it was just him and Green. "But things fall like that. I feel like there are way more people on our offense and defense that showcased their ability every Sunday. But there's also a lot of other great athletes in the NFL. It's great to at least hear my name announced tonight. I'm still focused on the season. We're at our last game and then going into the playoffs, so after that I'll think about the Pro Bowl. Right now I'm just focused on trying to get to the Super Bowl."
Burfict led the Bengals in tackles by a wide margin as a rookie last year, and this year his lead is even greater. In statistics compiled by the coaching staff, he has 188 tackles, 85 more than second-place Rey Maualuga (103). His solo tackle total of 128 is more than twice the total of Maualuga (second with 61).
Burfict also leads the Bengals front seven in passes defensed (10), ranked third on the team. He's tied for the team lead in tackles-for-loss on rushing plays (seven), and he has three sacks, an interception, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He scored a touchdown on a forced fumble and return on Nov. 17 in the win over Cleveland.
Entering Sunday's regular season finale against Baltimore, Green, 25, has 94 receptions for 1,365 yards and 10 touchdowns. With 76 receiving yards against the Ravens, he would surpass Chad Johnson's club record of 1,440 yards in a season, set in 2007. Green has set Bengals records this season for most 100-yard receiving games (six) and most consecutive 100-yard receiving games with five.