Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has gambled on a few notable players in his 10 years with the franchise, and some of those gambles have blown up in his face. Rookie linebacker Vontaze Burfict isn't one of them. He's gone from undraftable punch line to his team's leading tackler, and he did it while hardly anybody outside Cincinnati was paying attention. He accomplished those things for one simple reason -- his head coach saw something nobody else noticed.
The lesson today involves what happens when a man willing to take sizable risks spots a player who could be a jackpot waiting to happen. Too often players are written off in the draft because of rumors, reputations and recurring doubts about size, speed and other measurables. Burfict fell right into that category. He was a talent with enough college achievements to excite pro teams and enough head-scratching mistakes to scare them away.
Many might be surprised that he has become a key element in an underrated Bengals defense. Cincinnati is looking to upset Houston in Saturday's AFC wild-card playoff game. Lewis was the only person inside the Cincinnati franchise who wanted to take a shot on Burfict. "We gave him a $1,000 signing bonus when we signed him, and that's only because I asked for that," Lewis said. "[Management] wasn't even willing to give him that much coming in."
There are many reasons Burfict has blossomed into a productive NFL player so quickly. He's clearly in much better shape than in his college days at Arizona State, and the Bengals' coaches have played to his strengths. At his best, Burfict can be explosive and instinctive, a one-man wrecking crew roaming the middle of the field. Playing alongside fellow linebacker Rey Maualuga, Burfict has used those skills to find a niche in the ultra-aggressive system run by defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
Burfict also has done something else that has been extremely important -- he has harnessed his emotions. That was always the major knock on him despite his college All-America credentials. He was a time bomb in shoulder pads, a personal foul waiting to happen when faced with the slightest provocation. In 37 college games, Burfict was hit with unsportsmanlike conduct penalties 22 times.
Burfict's NFL combine should be a training tape on how not to find a job in pro football. He ran the 40-yard dash in a time that would embarrass a left guard (5.09 seconds). He was fat, unfocused and too willing to blame a disappointing junior season on his Arizona State coaches. Lewis saw him a few weeks later at Arizona State's pro day and witnessed another indication of the kid the scouts spurned. After running another mediocre 40 time, he refused to do any more sprinting that afternoon.
Lewis could've written Burfict off right then. Instead, he paid attention to something that didn't involve stopwatches or agility drills. "He called, texted and wrote me a letter to apologize after that workout," Lewis said. "When he didn't get drafted, I told our people we had a shot at getting him to come here."
Lewis had been waiting for that shot ever since the draft process started. The coach sat in meetings with all his scouts and coaches and heard every last one bad-mouth Burfict's potential. As Lewis does every year, he told the scouts they could have their opinions. He just wanted to bring in one prospect to be his personal project. Burfict had won that honor before he ever flash-fried his draft chances.
The beauty of Lewis' vision is that it reminds us once again that the first key to finding players is conviction. For all the mounting evidence against Burfict's ever becoming anything useful in the NFL, there were other signs that Lewis noticed. Burfict wasn't a troublemaker off the field, as many people had speculated. He did have problems with his emotions, but a tough childhood in Corona, Calif., helped to explain that. In short, Lewis didn't see anything he hadn't seen before.
That's usually the catch with gambles. The comfort level comes from familiarity. The risk/reward ratio has to be easy enough to stomach and tantalizing enough to excite the person taking the chance. Lewis knew Burfict -- when focused and 15-20 pounds lighter -- had been appealing enough to warrant consideration as a first-round pick. All the coach had to do was provide a structure for the player to see the value in maximizing his ability.
So Burfict has covered kickoffs this season. He has embraced the tough love Lewis has spewed when the rookie makes a mistake. Instead of freelancing and searching for a knockout shot, Burfict has been disciplined enough to stick with his assignments. He has even proved to be a quick learner after moving from his more natural spot of middle linebacker to the outside.
When you hear Burfict talk these days, he already sounds like a changed man. In Cincinnati's season-ending win over Baltimore, he said an early altercation with Ravens running back Ray Rice fired him up for the remainder of the contest. After finishing the day with 18 tackles, Burfict told The Cincinnati Enquirer that "after [Rice] did that little cheap shot, I felt like, 'OK, let's go.' It kind of had me on fire for the rest of the game. Just channeling my emotions in the right way."
Those are the kinds of comments Burfict never would have uttered a year ago. He also would have been on the wrong end of that scuffle. But it was Rice who earned a personal foul. This is what can happen when borderline players learn a thing or two about humility. They start growing up in ways most of their critics never imagined.
As the Bengals prepare for the wild-card game in Houston, it's not likely that Burfict will generate that much buzz beforehand. Texans defensive end J.J. Watt is a front-runner for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and the Bengals' defense has more noteworthy contributors, such as Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall. A guy such as Burfict easily can get lost in the postseason hype. Rookie quarterbacks Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson also are in the playoffs, and there just isn't enough love to go around.
That's why it's important to remember Burfict today and to ponder where his career is heading. Lewis acknowledges that this wasn't one of the biggest risks he's ever taken, especially because there was no draft pick riding on it. On the other hand, it has to be one of the most gratifying. A lot of people figured Vontaze Burfict for a bum by this point. So far, he has proved to be anything but.