Vontaze Burfict says his hit was legal. The NFL strongly believes otherwise. Who’s right?

Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict is in trouble for a hit on Anthony Sherman of the Chiefs, but not this hit. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict maintains his hit on Kansas City Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman during a recent preseason game was perfectly legal, and his team is backing him in that contention. But in the NFL’s view, the hit checked every box for what type of hit should warrant stringent disciplinary action. To that end, it suspended Burfict, as a repeat offender, for five regular season games.

During the offseason, the NFL’s rule-making competition committee put a directive into effect mandating an increased emphasis on ejections and suspensions being given to players guilty of certain illegal hits in games. The measure was enacted as a point of officiating emphasis, meaning no ratification vote by the owners of the 32 NFL teams was required. The directive is aimed at illegal hits so egregious that they should bring swift and meaningful action, whether the offender has a history of illegal hits.

According to a person familiar with the NFL’s deliberations, the league believes that Burfict’s suspension is warranted under the new directive. It also believes that Burfict’s suspension would have been warranted even without the new measure given it was an illegal hit, in the NFL’s view, delivered by a player with a long history of on-field infractions. Discipline also might have been warranted based merely on the unnecessary roughness of the hit, in the league’s view. So, to the NFL, it was a straightforward decision and a relatively easy call.

Burfict is appealing the penalty, and the Bengals are offering public support.

“The Bengals are aware of the NFL’s letter to Vontaze regarding a play in last weekend’s game,” a written statement issued by the team said. “The film shows that the hit was legal, that Vontaze engaged his opponent from the front, and that contact was shoulder-to-chest. The Club will support Vontaze in the appeal process.”

Burfict also says the hit is legal.

“The rules say you can eliminate a receiver within five yards of the line of scrimmage as long as you don’t hit him in the head, and I don’t think I hit him in the head,” he told the Bengals’ website.

Burfict was not penalized during the game for the hit on Sherman, but that does not preclude the league from imposing discipline after reviewing the hit.

Sherman was cutting across the field while running a pass pattern. That makes him a defenseless player under NFL rules, and he cannot be hit in the head or neck area. Nor can the defender launch himself at a defenseless player or lower his head to deliver a blow with the crown of the helmet. Under the rules, a receiver running a pattern is a defenseless player “when the defender approaches from the side or behind” even when the football is thrown elsewhere and the receiver in question is not in the process of making a catch.

The ball was not thrown to Sherman. That does not affect his defenseless player status under the rules; Sherman still is protected by them. But given that Sherman was not involved in the play, it brings unnecessary roughness into the equation. The rules prohibit “unnecessarily running, diving into, cutting, or throwing the body against or on a player who is out of the play or should not have reasonably anticipated such contact by an opponent, before or after the ball is dead.”

The replay appears to show Burfict using his shoulder to hit Sherman primarily in the chest. It is not clear from the video publicly available if there also is contact to Sherman’s head or neck area. But the NFL determined that such contact took place, according to those familiar with the league’s review.

There are a few things worth noting. Under the rules protecting defenseless players, it does not matter where the primary point of contact is. Even if Burfict hit Sherman initially and primarily in the chest, he cannot also make contact to the head or neck. Also, it doesn’t matter what Burfict intended, under the rules. All that matters is what happened.

Burfict is a repeat offender. He was suspended for the first three games of last season for a series of violations of player safety rules, including a hit on Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown during the AFC playoffs at the conclusion of the 2015 season. According to ESPN, which first reported Burfict’s pending suspension, Burfict has been fined nearly $800,000 during his NFL career and penalized 16 times for unnecessary roughness.

Burfict’s hit clearly was dangerous and probably unnecessary, given Sherman’s distance from where the pass was thrown. Whether it was illegal under the defenseless player rules is a separate matter, and that is what is at question. All of this comes against the backdrop of the sport dealing with concussion issues and attempting to get certain types of hits out of the game.

Burfict’s appeal will be heard by James Thrash or Derrick Brooks. They are the sport’s appeals officers for discipline imposed for illegal hits, chosen and paid jointly by the league and the NFL Players Association.

“I’m crossing my fingers and hoping for the best,” Burfict said, according to the Bengals’ website. “I feel like I’ve let down my teammates, but I also feel like I’ve done a good job with this. I only had one personal foul last year. We feel like this was a legal hit. I hit him in the shoulder. I hit hard, so it may have looked like I hit him in the head, but it was the shoulder. I helped him up and he said he was good and I asked if he was good on the next series and he said, ‘Yeah, that was a legal hit.’ ”

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