Mind games

Vontaze Burfict

VONTAZE BURFICT IS not in the room. He isn't one week away from his first trip to the Pro Bowl. He isn't stretched out on a white leather sectional couch at his girlfriend's parents' house. He doesn't have a Chihuahua asleep on his thigh. And there isn't a vacuum cleaner whirring down one hallway while a piano plinks down the other.

Okay, actually, he is here, and that is all happening. Physically. But mentally, the Bengals linebacker is far, far away from this home in North Texas.

He's asked to review some plays that have been loaded onto a laptop. But he politely says he doesn't need to see the film. Instead, his eyes fix on the floor beneath his feet and tap into the hard drive of his mind. Every play is in there. Every tackle over the past two years -- all 298 of them -- is ready for on-demand analysis. Like Professor X on the Cerebro.

First it flashes to Week 1 against the Bears. Bubble screen left to Brandon Marshall. Burfict flares from the middle as if someone had emailed him the playcall before hand. He lights up Marshall for a four-yard loss. "I'd visualized it prior to the game," he says. "I'd pictured it so many times, I knew it was coming."

Now his brain fires backward, to 2012. Week 7 against the Steelers. Mike Wallace catches a short pass that looks like a sure touchdown. It's not; Burfict miraculously appears, making a shoestring bring-down inside the 10. "In college I would have tried to hit him high and probably would have missed. Now I think with my hands. I tackle with my hands."

But then Burfict finds a sore spot for him, and an illuminating one for us. What he's about to describe, in painstaking detail, is a direct window into the ultimate unexplored part of evaluating NFL talent: the football brain.

Burfict squints and burrows into his mind. Paul Brown Stadium, on Dec. 22, 2013. He's standing on his own 30-yard line, up 42-7, in a blowout win against the Vikings. Minnesota has the ball at the end of the third quarter, a meaningless drive in a game that Cincinnati would win by four touchdowns.

It's not meaningless to Burfict. If he recalls all of his tackles in HD, then his memories of what's about to happen are in Imax. It's a missed tackle, one of only two he says he had all season. " Cordarrelle Patterson, right?" he asks.

In his head, he can visualize the entire sequence. Patterson takes the toss for a sweep to the wide side of the field, bolting for the corner. Burfict feels the play before he sees it. He blows through the line untouched. But as he arrives at Patterson, so does Vikings fullback Jerome Felton. The collision is massive, and as usual, Burfict flattens his target. Patterson is just a few feet away to the left. He's still in the backfield, having hesitated briefly waiting for the block, but he's about to take off.

As Burfict describes the scene, his hands come off the dog and start working on the ghost of Felton. "I was supposed to spin the fullback, but instead I boxed him. I figured Patterson wasn't going to cut it up because of all the linebackers bunched up in the middle. So I boxed him with the fullback and then immediately tried to get off the block."

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