Mind games

So how does that CEO, er, football player, stop his death by grapevine? "You have to get out in front of it, no matter how much you hate doing that stuff," Polian says. "And then you have to put up combine numbers that will erase all doubts."

Burfict did none of the above. He granted almost zero interviews during his final year at Arizona State, then he posted one of the most disastrous combine performances in recent memory, including a legendarily bad 5.08-second 40-yard dash and an admission to those who asked that yes, he had smoked marijuana.

"I handled none of that well," he acknowledges now. "The roots of the 'He's not very smart' stuff came from the fact that I didn't do interviews with the media. But I found it hypocritical that someone would write bad stuff about me and then come ask me for an interview."

He recalls the night before the combine with the same clarity that he does his tackles. He didn't sleep. He'd come in from the West Coast and was being awakened early the next morning to do workouts on live television -- the "underwear Olympics" -- and then spent the evening in interview sessions answering questions that had nothing to do with football. He knew he'd screwed up. He knew he wasn't ready. But the idea that one bad day could have such a tremendous impact on any player, not just him, was a concept he couldn't digest, then or even now, two years later. "The whole thing felt wrong. I wanted to say, 'What does this have to do with my ability to tackle someone? Why don't you guys go look at the film?' "

Marvin Lewis had looked at the film. Over and over again. While Twitter was crackling with "They should have timed Burfict with a sundial" jokes, Lewis still saw what everyone else had seen in 2010 but abandoned in 2011. As everybody else in the NFL saw a future headache, Lewis watched the tape and saw Ray Lewis-type instincts and football smarts.

"What's the saying, paralysis by analysis?" the Bengals head coach says, laughing. "I do believe that there are cases where we get so caught up in stats and in personality tests that we can lose sight of the football player. I think that happened with everyone's evaluation of Taze, and I think that happened to Taze himself. When the fire gets going, it's hard to put out. Sometimes you just need someone, one person, to take a chance."

Lewis flew to Tempe and attended Arizona State's pro day. Just three weeks after the combine, Burfict had already lost some weight, gotten his 40 time down to a 4.8, and was working to become more interview-friendly, taking on media interviews and using flash cards to prep for phone calls from front offices. After a private one-on-one chat, Lewis was sold. But even Lewis couldn't convince his personnel department to sign off on spending a pick on Burfict. Instead, the Bengals made him a priority undrafted free agent, and that's where Burfict signed within hours of the draft's conclusion. "Numbers and psychology are important, but in the end coaching and chemistry still matter," Lewis says. "When we got Taze in a film room with Zim and [linebackers coach] Paul Guenther, and then we surrounded him with pros like James Harrison and Rey Maualuga, the impact was instant."

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