Bengals should now look to Burfict to lead

With James Harrison gone, Vontaze Burfict should take up the reins of the Cincinnati defense. George Gojkovich/Getty Images

CINCINNATI -- The back-left corner of the Cincinnati Bengals' locker room was home last season to perhaps the most eclectic mix of humor, anger and nice-guy behavior that could be found in the NFL.

Right in the middle of it all was James Harrison, the enigmatic outside linebacker who had a tendency to exhibit all three characteristics at once. One moment, he's scowling about doing interviews on days other than his normal Friday routine. In the next, he's cracking jokes with his fellow defensive teammates before taking their orders for his renown protein smoothies.

To those who didn't really know him, he was a puzzling personality. To those who did, he was a leader, one that a team with budding young stars like Vontaze Burfict needed, even if for only so briefly.

Harrison was released from the Bengals on Thursday after spending one season as their "Sam" linebacker. Even though he had trouble getting on the field most of last season, his agent contends he's in peak physical condition and will be on a team's roster in 2014. Retirement doesn't appear to be in the 35 year old's plans.

As they say farewell to Harrison, the Bengals should plan their hellos to Burfict. With the veteran leaving, Burfict, who will be entering his third NFL season, should now be welcome to having full license to run Cincinnati's defense. New defensive coordinator Paul Guenther already trusts his "Will" linebacker. He might as well let Burfict know that he's trusted with more than delivering punishing hits on opposing ballcarriers. When his teammates need a jolt of confidence or a slap on the wrist, Burfict should now offer encouragement or administer the as-needed punishments.

While the Bengals have other defensive veterans whose voices shouldn't get lost, but this here is all about Burfict. A year of guidance from Harrison -- a player who not only was respected in the locker room but also one of the more feared players in the league -- gave Burfict all the lessons he needed to learn how to lead. Harrison may not have spoken much publicly, but in private, he earned the admiration of his peers.

"It was great for our coaches, players and fans to have James on our team last year," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "He's a player everyone looks up to because of his ability, his accomplishments and his drive to be the best. He helped us win a division title with his play and with the example he set."

Take Harrison's workout habits, for example. The reason he is built like a human tank and can hit like a missile is because of his preparation, fellow Bengals linebacker Vincent Rey said in December.

"One thing about James that I didn't know is that he's a very consistent man," Rey said. "If he's going to lift on Monday extra, he's going to lift every Monday extra. The entire year. Guys see that and everyone in this building already is competitive, so we see that and we try to lift extra with him.

"Sometimes we can't keep up."

About the only player who could kind of keep in lockstep with Harrison's pregame rituals was Burfict.

After Harrison started talking to his teammates about his acupuncture treatments and how beneficial he felt they were, Burfict tagged along. The younger linebacker might not take the full 300-needle load his elder counterpart does, but he's getting there.

Back in November, just when it seemed that Burfict's play on the field and his mannerisms off it were beginning to mimic Harrison's better days, Burfict was asked if he viewed himself as a younger carbon copy of his locker room neighbor.

"Sometimes he rubs off on me," Burfict said, smiling. "I take the same supplements that he does and sometimes I feel like, 'OK, I'm in his element.' I take the same energy that he does and sometimes that makes me feel crazy on the field."

Crazy Burfict is good Burfict. Last season, he led the NFL in tackles with 171. That mark also went down as the most for a Bengal in a single season since the stat was first recorded in 1976. His three sacks, one interception and two fumble recoveries -- one that he snatched out of a running back's hands and took for an untouched touchdown -- also were statistics that helped the former undrafted free agent earn his first Pro Bowl nod.

Success has started coming for Burfict, a soon-to-be elder on a rapidly changing defense. Defensive end Michael Johnson is gone. Harrison is gone. Other veterans like Adam Jones, Terence Newman and Leon Hall will be up for new contracts in the coming years. Once Burfict's deal gets restructured -- perhaps later this offseason if not the next -- he will become a key piece to the Bengals' defense and future.

That means that now is as good a time as any for him to take what he learned from Harrison and apply it.

So long, James. Hello, Vontaze.