LONDON – Raiders middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict was ejected from Sunday's game in Indianapolis for lowering his helmet to deliver an illegal hit on Colts tight end Jack Doyle.
It was a clear violation and flagged appropriately. The NFL's officiating review board took another look at it on replay, and didn't like it one bit. Burfict was ejected from that game, leaving the Raiders to carry on without their field general and team captain.
"It was a penalty," head coach Jon Gruden said. "He went in there with his head down, it was called and unfortunately for us, it was an ejection."
They'd better get used to playing without Burfict. The NFL suspended him the rest of the season without pay on Monday for the illegal hit, a swift and powerful statement against the physical linebacker with a bad reputation.
He will appeal this decision, sources say, sending the case to a neutral arbitrator for a final ruling.
Burfict has been suspended in each of the last three seasons. He missed four games last year for a PED violation, but was unavailable four games each in 2016 and 2017 for violent, illegal hits. He has also been fined several times for such play.
Burfict certainly toes the line between aggressive and dirty play, and that played a part in this punishment.
"For your actions, you were penalized and disqualified from the game," NFL VP of policy and rules administration Jon Runyan wrote in a letter to Burfict. "Following each of you previous rule violations, you were warned by me and each of the jointly-appointed appeal officers that future violations would result in escalated accountability measures. However, you have continued to flagrantly abuse rules designated to protect yourself and your opponents from uncessary risk."
The NFL reviewed the hit, which seemed unnecessarily violent, and harshly punished a player who continues to play his brand of football.
Doyle wasn't fazed by the blow, but that doesn't alter the play's legality.
"I just got tackled," Doyle said. "I'm sure it looked worse than it was. I didn't really feel anything from it. My helmet protected me."
The Raiders rebounded well after losing Burfict. Tahir Whitehead took over a middle linebacker and as the defensive signal caller, jobs he also held last year. He improved his scheme knowledge since, but…defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has said he can't call his entire defense, which can be complex and requires an expert field general making appropriate calls and checks.
Losing Burfict's on-field leadership would negatively impact the Raiders defense. He's a solid run player and tone setter in the front seven, and playing the entire season without him hurts the product and thins the position group significantly. Marquel Lee is on injured reserve, leaving Whitehead, Nicholas Morrow, Kyle Wilber and some new kids to man the position. The Raiders will have to beef up that position group, possibly bringing Jason Cabinda back. He is currently on the Lions practice squad.
Burfict has steadfastly played his own way, even in the face of great financial cost. He has lost tons with fines and suspensions without pay.
Shortly after signing with the Raiders, Burfict was asked directly on a conference call if he was a dirty player. His response:
"I'm not a dirty player," Burfict said on March 19. "I play a physical position, which is middle linebacker, outside linebacker. That's physical. I can't go in there playing patty-cake. If I go out there playing patty-cake, then I'm going to be getting run over. I have 300-pound linemen, 300-plus pound linemen coming at me, trying to block me. If I play soft, then I'm not doing my job. I could see if I played quarterback or kicker or punter, then yeah you can be, I wouldn't say soft, but you know what I'm saying. I play a physical position to where I have to put my jockstrap on right, put my shoes on right, put my cleats on right and come out ready to play physical."