Rule of Law

Is Bengals' Vontaze Burfict the Face of the New NFL?

The Cincinnati Bengals play in a stadium nicknamed the “Jungle.” After the playoff collapse to the Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s not hard to imagine why considering the animal behavior we saw.

If you missed it, the Bengals gave away a lead with just over one minute to play because of out-of-control behavior by Bengals players. The behavior of the players on the field was matched by fans in the stands, who urinated on other fans sitting below them, and cheered while throwing bottles and batteries at Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as he was carted from the field with an injury.

If you follow the NFL and have paid attention to the culture of the Bengals organization over the last few years, this isn’t much of a surprise. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict is the poster child for an out-of-control culture in the Bengals organization, but he isn’t the only out-of-control Bengal. How the team and the league respond to the outrageous conduct will say a great deal about the future culture of the NFL.

Prior to Saturday’s playoff game, the two teams were on edge. In November, Burfict wildly celebrated after destroying Steelers Pro Bowl running back Le’veon Bell’s knee for the rest of the season. Burfict already had a reputation of trying to injure players by attacking their knees and ankles. For his behavior against the Steelers in November, Burfict was fined $70,000 by the NFL.

The NFL had warned both teams before Saturday’s playoff rematch, but the Bengals didn’t seem to get the message.

First, Burfict knocked Roethlisberger out of the game with a hit which drew no penalty, though video shows him driving his knee into Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulder after the quarterback is on the ground. That injured shoulder gave the Bengals the chance to come back late in the game. Others report that Burfict spat in the face of Steelers players during the game.

Then, the Bengals appeared to have the game wrapped up after Burfict intercepted a pass from Roethlisberger’s replacement, Landry Jones, late in the fourth quarter.

In one of several low-class moments, Burfict took the interception and, accompanied by Adam Jones (we’ll discuss him below), ran the whole way off the field and straight into the Bengals’ locker room tunnel. It was the sort of behavior that, in an earlier NFL, would have resulted in being sent to counseling or run out of the league.

After the Steelers recovered an improbable fumble with just over a minute left, Burfict decided to headhunt Steelers Pro Bowler Antonio Brown. Brown was knocked out, and the resulting penalty moved the ball to the 50-yard line with seconds remaining in the game. Then things really got out of control.

Adam “Pac Man” Jones attacked Steelers’ coach Joey Porter, and bumped an official in the process. This resulted in another 15-yard penalty, putting the Steelers in range for a game-winning field goal.

Jones then took to the internet to complain with a video, but deleted it minutes later (warning: foul language; see video on next page).

Pac Man’s complaint was that Steelers linebacker coach Joey Porter was on the field after Antonio Brown was knocked out. What Pac Man Jones doesn’t mention is that another Bengal, Wallace Gilberry, ran over Porter from behind. Porter was quickly encircled by Bengals before he was attacked by Jones.

Let’s get something straight. The Steelers weren’t entirely innocent of bad behavior in the game.  Flags were thrown for Pittsburgh penalties, and some flags were not thrown for other Pittsburgh penalties. But the behavior of the Bengals players was entirely off the charts. Even Bengals partisans like their former quarterback Boomer Esiason called the behavior disgraceful, and called for Bengals coach Marvin Lewis to be fired.

If Bengals fans don’t recognize the severity of the bad behavior characterizing the Bengals organization, it further demonstrates the problem in the Queen City.

On Sunday, the Bengals stood by Lewis.

Lewis is the coach who brought these problems to Cincinnati. Consider Jones, who should have been in prison instead of the NFL. Pac Man’s record of bad behavior is too long to catalog here, but it involves allegations of assaulting women, obstruction of justice, more assault, probation violations, spitting at women, shootings, and other violence. Despite this history, Coach Marvin Lewis welcomed him to the Bengals.

Under Lewis, the Bengals have been characterized by recurring bad behavior and fines imposed by the NFL for attempts to injure opposing players. The lack of character on the team is why they are now out of the playoffs.

The Bengals make the 1970s Raiders look classy — at least the Raiders confined their bad behavior to between the whistles.

Are Burfict and the others who play in the Jungle the new face of the NFL? Should we expect more headhunting and outlandish conduct after interceptions next season? When coaches like Marvin Lewis receive a vote of confidence after Saturday’s embarrassing display, it’s not good for the reputation of the NFL.