Vontaze Burfict is in the midst of one of the more remarkable rookie seasons in Bengals history and what it comes down to is the simple act of caring.
"He knows I care," head coach Marvin Lewis said this week during the Bengals bye. "And I know he has enough ability to be as good as the best players at linebacker in the National Football League. He's got that kind of personality, he's got that kind of mental capacity, he's got that kind of passion. He's got that kind of leadership ability. He's got all the things you want to have."
Burfict cares, too. Deeply. He cares so much that he walked away from the late shots and verbal taunts of Steelers guard Willie Colon at the height of Sunday night's latest AFC North bloodletting against Pittsburgh.
What had been the working number during the draft season? While at Arizona State, one scouting report had him with 16 personal fouls in 26 games.
"I couldn't let that get into my head because it was a critical time in the game," Burfict said. "My teammates are more important to me than reacting to that foolish stuff he's doing. He was saying a whole bunch of stuff about the Arizona days. It was going in one ear and out the other. My teammates have my back if it gets out of hand, and it kind of got out of hand at that point because he was on the floor trying to do whatever he was trying to do to me.
"He kept trying to take me down so I thought I'd like, bait him into a personal foul, whatever, but I guess the ref felt like the whistle wasn't blown. It's whatever. Move on to the next play."
Lewis has been in enough of these that he could smell it. The emotions of a division scrum have melted the coolest and biggest of men. Remember the fabled Ray Lewis (a name that is a big part of this story) himself ripping the helmet off of Chad Johnson to give the Bengals new life in the last minute of a winning drive during the '09 sweep?
After this rather chippy exchange on second down, Lewis called Burfict over to the sidelines to take a breather on third down.
"It's the first time he experienced an opponent trying to get under his skin that way," Lewis said. "It's a learning experience. He can't let them get in your head with stuff outside of football."
So Lewis had a quick chat while third down commenced.
"He just told me to catch my breath; just chill out for a little bit," Burfict said. "Next play, third down, we get off the field. Here we go."
And Burfict went on to miss only one other snap while logging the team's season-high 16 tackles, his fourth straight game of double-digit tackles. While he's still waiting to get involved in his first NFL turnover, he's made his presence felt in five straight starts at WILL backer, a position he never played until he came off the bench in the second game of the season.
Since the Sweet 16 came on NBC, it's no longer a secret he's one of the best-kept secrets of the NFL season.
"The world is not too big for him," Lewis said. "We know that."
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
The clamor locally has been for a nickname. Linebackers coach Paul Guenther has called Burfict "The Devil" right from the get-go because Arizona State is the Sun Devils. "Tasmanian Devil" has been floated. Except Zimmer gave that name to defensive tackle Geno Atkins at the 2010 rookie minicamp.
So maybe, "Tezmanian Devil?"
"I can live with that," he said.
So the nickname seems to be like his game: a work in progress that has been very fun to watch.
"I'm competitive. Every snap I play my hardest. I think every linebacker should have that chip on his shoulder, but now it's just controlling it and play until the whistle blows," he said.
Profootballfocus.com, a web site that grades all players, has Burfict ranked right in the middle at No. 13 overall for all 4-3 outside backers that have played at least 50 percent of the snaps. Undrafted and unloved, Burfict is ranked ahead of a first-rounder in Sean Weatherspoon and a trio of second-rounders in Akeem Ayers, Justin Durant and Bryan Scott.
He's also rated 13th against the rush (a slot ahead of Bears Pro Bowler Lance Briggs), 17th covering the pass and 11th rushing the passer.
"The biggest adjustment I would say is runs to me," Burfict said about his move outside from middle backer. "Force plays. Just getting to the ball, make the tackle, and read the assignment. It is all about being a leader."
Burfict says it's the first time since Centennial High School that he had 16 tackles. But he's thinking about the ones he didn't make.
"They said I had an amazing game but they don't see film like I do," Burfict said. "I'm always my worst critic where I could say I could have made more tackles or intercepted a pass. I could have made more plays. Like I said we lost so it's kind of like I could have made more tackles."
Getting an answer from Lewis on how Burfict is playing is far from as precise. But it's about as far as he'll ever go.
"The only story about Tez is how he got here," Lewis said. "What he's done here is exactly what you would expect from a starting NFL backer since he's been here."
Burfict got his first NFL start a day before his 22nd birthday and he considers it a gift. How he had the worst NFL scouting combine in history when he turned off every NFL team by showing up overweight, overwrought and under-disciplined is now safely embedded in league lore.
How Lewis reached out to him at Arizona State during his pro day and Burfict's ensuing phone call a few weeks before the draft to the head coach's cell is now right there in Bengals legend with a Dave Lapham fireside tale.
How Burfict remembers Lewis calling him in the seventh round and telling him the Bengals didn't have a seventh-round pick but if he signed as a free agent they would treat him like a draft pick is now as famous a draft room story as Bob Bratkowski calling old friend Dennis Erickson about T.J. Houshmandzadeh in a long-ago seventh round.
Funny how it works. Erickson was Burfict's college coach.
"I never really thought about that," Burfict said when asked if he ever thought he'd play so well and so much heading into the bye.
"I was just trying to make my way on the team, learning the playbook, being a leader, getting in good with my teammates because I'm pretty sure they thought that I was the same guy people (thought I was). I just wanted them to know I'm not that type of person. I'm a great guy and a great person off the field."
He's got that right. One player on offense said Wednesday, "He works hard, he plays hard, and he's a really good player. He doesn't have the attitude at all that he was supposed to have."
Fact is, Burfict has never been in trouble off the field and Cincinnati has been no different than Corona, Calif., or Tempe, Ariz. He's not going home this bye weekend. Burfict and his girlfriend are hanging here, as usual, with their two dogs and a cat. If a dinner date ensues during the bye, it probably won't be at a club, but more like at Jeff Ruby's or The Olive Garden.
No, the big knock against Burfict had always been his temper, an inability to harness his emotions. And his inability to play with consistent technique. He could give the big pop, the big play. But when Guenther and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer saw the tape of his last season at Arizona State, they weren't sure he'd get to training camp he looked so bad.
"The thing I think is most impressive is that I asked him to come in here with a blank slate," Guenther said. "I told him no bad habits, clear your mind of anything you learned before, and do what I tell you. And he has. He has such good instincts. He knows the rules and he knows our scheme, but you almost don't want to hamstring a guy like that because he is so instinctive."
Guenther had prepared Burfict for that Colon moment. He didn't know when it was coming, but Guenther told Burfict to be ready for it because any scouting report worth its weight (and height) would include Burfict's emotional college past.
"He's a smart guy. We talked about it. He's a marked man when it comes to that stuff," Guenther said. "You can't do it here."
Burfict has also had some help from his vets. He says tight end Jermaine Gresham is always talking to him and teases him, Burfict says, in a way that challenges him. He calls cornerback Adam Jones, "Big Bro."
As in, if Jones sees Burfict about to lose it on the field, he'll say, "Hey, this is your Big Bro. Calm down. Listen to me."
Both Burfict and Jones have a past. He says Jones has sat down with him and asked him about it all.
"He's pretty much teaching me what to do and what not do," Burfict said. "Because he's been there. He's been like my big brother."
It all goes back to caring. Burfict thinks he's been spurred by a team where "we all push each other." This is what he had in mind during the draft. Other teams, like the Browns and Eagles, called. But he had one team in mind. One player in mind.
"I watched Marvin Lewis when he worked with Ray Lewis. He was a great coach for him and I followed him looking to be the same as Ray Lewis," Burfict said.
Burfict laughed when asked if he feels like a seventh-round draft pick. The pick the Bengals didn't have. But he wants nothing to do with it. It's easier to keep that linebacker's chip the way it all came down.
"No, I'm a free agent. Undrafted. I'm going to take it like that," he said. "It just gives me the courage to go out every day, wake up every morning, just to come here and just be thankful that I'm here."