Bengals rookie WILL backer Vontaze Burfict says he had the worst Christmas of his life this past Tuesday.
By the time he landed with another game-high 12 tackles from Sunday's playoff-clincher in Pittsburgh, his girlfriend had left to visit her family out West, but not before leaving a spread of Christmas cookies and snacks. Still, he was just hanging around with the dogs and food by his lonesome watching football.
"The worst part of it was when I called home and my mom said, 'The family's all here and we're eating gumbo,' '' Burfict recalled this week. "Man, I wished I was there. But I've got duties to take care of. Family is always going to be there."
It's going to get better for Burfict. Since he's got a nine-tackle gap on middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, he figures to win the team tackling title at the end of Sunday's 1 p.m. season finale at Paul Brown Stadium against the Ravens and become the first rookie since middle linebacker Odell Thurman in 2005 to lead the club. Then before he makes his first postseason start in next week's Wild Card game at the tender age of 22, Burfict is expected to get some votes for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, a concept so unthinkable back in May that after defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and linebackers coach Paul Guenther watched his Arizona State film they didn't know how he'd make it to training camp, never mind the playoffs as an undrafted gamble.
"He's had a great year, but he's not going to get it," says Gil Brandt, NFL.com's scoutmaster. "I've got to go with middle linebackers like (Bobby) Wagner in Seattle or (Luke) Kuechly in Carolina. Wagner started every game for a playoff team and he's calling the signals. But you'd have to say Burfict has really played himself into one of the top rookies."
Peter King of Sports Illustrated, one of the 50 voters for the Associated Press awards, is highly impressed with Burfict and says he should be in the conversation but puts him in the tier below Wagner, Kuechly and Packers cornerback Casey Hayward. Another voter, Alex Marvez of FoxSports.com, is happy Burfict has turned his career around, but he says it is Kuechly and no one else given the sheer numbers.
"So a kid from Cincinnati is still going to get it," Marvez says of Kuechly, a St. Xavier High School product.
"You have to think about (Burfict)," King says. "He's the unsung guy with Derek Wolfe, Denver's defensive lineman and a guy from (University of) Cincinnati. In another year, Burfict or Wolfe could have won it. There are going to be guys with more tackles and more sacks than Burfict, so it's hard to give it to him. But I saw him make all those tackles (16) early in the season against Pittsburgh and thinking this guy has turned into a player. Over the last half of the season, he's bulled his way into the category and has become a factor. If he's not one of the top two or three guys, he's very close to it."
That's OK because Burfict says he wouldn't vote for himself for rookie of the year despite his 151 tackles, according to the Bengals coaches.
(It depends who you ask and what coaches and which eras you're talking about when it comes to tackles. NFL.com has Maualuga 23rd in the NFL and Burfict 25th in tackles with 109. Pro Football Focus has Burfict 15th among outside linebackers with 93 total tackles.
Burfict's 151 and Maualuga's 142 dwarf the best of head coach Marvin Lewis's 10 seasons, which had previously belonged to middle linebacker Dhani Jones's 125 in 2010. And it ties the holy grail of 151 registered by Cincinnati's Tim Krumrie when he was the best nose tackle in the game in 1988.)
"I think I played pretty well this year learning the playbook," Burfict said. "But I think as I get more into the playbook and more into my career, I'll play even better. I want to improve on my film study. Get better at film study. Get better at knowing the personnel. Things that will allow me to play faster."
Playing faster would help with turnovers. Burfict is looking for his first NFL interception and forced fumble. NFL.com has Kuechly with an NFL-leading 151 tackles and Wagner with 130, good for eighth place. Neither has a forced fumble, but Kuechly has two interceptions and Wagner three.
But if Burfict were voting, he'd go with Rams cornerback Janoris Jenkins, a second-round pick who has returned three of his four interceptions for TDs. It's probably no coincidence that Jenkins, like Burfict, dropped in the draft with intangible issues that are only comparable in the sense that they whisked both out of the first round.
Plus, both are under the radar rookies in small markets.
Burfict fell all the way out of the draft while Jenkins only fell a few slots. It makes the Story of Tez that much more compelling.
"They'd never give it to a guy that wasn't drafted," he said.
But it's looking up. New Year's promises to be more upbeat.
"My girlfriend says she's bringing back more presents," Burfict said. "So that's nice."