There may come a time when the NFL will have no choice but to throw the book at Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, a player who has earned every bit of his reputation for dirty and unnecessary extracurricular play. Monday, however, was not that moment, and the NFL was right to opt against a suspension for Burfict's minor contact with an official during the Bengals' 24-20 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.
The NFL rule book calls for an ejection if a player shoves, pushes or strikes an official "in an offensive, disrespectful or unsportsmanlike manner." Video of the incident shows that Burfict pushed back against the arm of down judge Jeff Bergman, as Bergman tried to end a pushing match between Burfict and Titans tackle Taylor Lewan.
The ensuing ejection cost Burfict more than half of the game. He is also in line to be fined $30,387, the NFL's minimum fine for a first offense for contact with an official. Consider it a half-game suspension, much like the Bengals' A.J. Green received for his fight with Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey in Week 9.
We might be having a different conversation if Burfict had used enough force to send Bergman tumbling or even off balance. In reality, it was an instinctive swat at a moment of heightened emotion.
To be clear, there should be a red line toward any physical gestures toward officials. The NFL must make clear that it is never remotely acceptable to threaten (or punish) officials for their calls. But the league has maintained that line here. It ejected a player and will issue a substantial fine for a swat.
If you think Burfict should be punished at an escalating scale, I would argue that he was. Many officials would have given another player, one who hadn't been suspended twice and fined more than $300,000 in his six-year career, the benefit of the doubt. You had to really squint at a field-level camera angle to see the contact at all.
This isn't to absolve Burfict at all. The discipline here fits. And when Burfict does something really bad, I think you can rest assured the NFL will be waiting with its hammer.