The NFL got what it wanted. And what it ultimately got was the end, as a practical matter, of linebacker Vontaze Burfict‘s career.
Right or wrong (and most will say “right”), the 12-game suspension for his latest violation of on-field safety rules will make most if not all teams shy away from Burfict in 2020. The reasoning is simple: With another illegal hit of any kind, Burfict once again will be banned for the balance of the season in which it happens.
And it’s very easy to deliver an illegal hit, even without any malicious intent. Whether it’s a blow to the head or neck of a defenseless player, roughing the passer, or lowering the helmet to initiate contact with an opponent, illegal hits happen all the time. Who would entrust months of preparation and a 53-man roster spot to a guy who is one mistake away from being gone for the season?
It’s nevertheless amazing that hearing officer Derrick Brooks upheld the 12-game banishment. The league’s disciplinary process for on-field violations is supposed to be progressive, and gradual. Burfict had never been suspended more than three games at one time for illegal hits. To rocket from three to 12 is unprecedented; indeed, the longest suspension any player has previously served (five games) arose from a post-whistle criminal assault in the form of a cleat to the forehead.
But Brooks, an “independent” hearing officer, nevertheless affirmed the suspension. As mentioned in connection with the Antonio Brown helmet grievance, the fact that an independent decision-maker must periodically be reappointed by both the league and the union requires the decision-maker to be sensitive to the reality that, in some situations, one side will desire a specific outcome much more strongly than the other. In this case, the NFL didn’t impose 12 games to send a message, as a source with knowledge of the situation previously explained it to PFT; the league badly wanted him off the field for the rest of the year. The NFL Players Association quite likely didn’t have the same zeal to reduce the suspension, especially since Burfict’s unsafe tactics undermine the health and safety of other union members.
While it can’t be ruled out that a team like the Raiders would bring Burfict back next year as an act of defiance, it would be stupid to do so. Chances are that Burfict will apply another illegal hit. Chances are that, when he does, he’ll be gone for the rest of the year all over again.