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."

Now his eyes close as his hands make a dual sweeping motion. "As soon as I got off the block, I had both my arms out. He was right there. Then in one step, he was running full speed to the sideline. I was one step behind it. One move behind it. As soon as I looked up, he was gone. He scored on a 35-yard touchdown. I got a concussion on that play. But I remember it."

Hey, you know no one drafted you in 2012 because you weren't supposed to be able to think like this, right? "Yeah, I know." There are pages of scouting reports saying you lacked the kind of discipline it took to break down film like you just did? "Yeah, I know." So if we had come to you three years ago and asked you to do this same thing then that you did just now, would you have been able to?

"Hell no."


AS SCOUTS AND executives dig into the evaluation process, it's helpful to reassess the Vontaze Burficts of the world. Because when this year's draft concludes, with 250-plus players being picked, several thousand football experts will still have either missed several future stars, or badly underrated how their skills would translate to the NFL.

Just take a look at the 2013 All-Pro team -- Burfict, Antonio Brown, Jason Peters, Greg Hardy, Robert Mathis, Richard Sherman ... none of whom was picked in the first four rounds of the NFL draft. Throw in undrafted players Wes Welker, Arian Foster and Tony Romo and the league is littered with players who slipped through the cracks but have figured out how to slip into the Pro Bowl. So how can that happen? How can months of film study, interviews and every measurement imaginable not net every future star?

The reality is, an NFL draft pick has about a coin flip's chance of sticking in the league. Often, when sifting through reams of compiled data about more than 1,000 prospects, teams drift toward the safer pick, the guy with a really fast 40 time or gaudy numbers. At least then, the scouting department can point to gaudy athletic gifts with some degree of plausible deniability.

The Seahawks are the best example of talent evaluators who are hunting longer and harder for players like Vontaze Burfict. After the 43-8 dismantling of Denver in the Super Bowl, Sherman hobbled into the media room with a high ankle sprain, plopped down his crutches and promptly delivered a blistering case against the way the NFL seeks talent. He cited every overlooked Seahawks defensive player and where they were selected -- Sherman, fifth round in 2011; Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith, seventh round in 2011; Kam Chancellor, fifth round in 2010. He made sure to point out that none of them had the best shuttle run or Wonderlic score. But, as he likes to say, they had "All-Pro minds" that are barely tested during the run-up to the draft. "I don't believe in the draft process," Sherman said that night.

At least Burfict's plummet in the 2012 draft makes some sense. He'd started out as the Pac-10 defensive freshman of the year, lauded for his natural ball-hawking instincts. As a sophomore he was an All-American, praised for an aggressiveness that often resulted in personal fouls, but was seen by NFL evaluators as an indicator of the kind of aggression that helps one overcome a slow step or thick waist. "That's when the comparisons to Ray Lewis really started," says ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. "You heard people talking about raw ability, something they could refine once he was drafted, which everyone believed would happen very early in that 2012 draft."

But by the end of his junior season, all of the early descriptions -- raw, unrefined, explosive -- had shifted from positives to negatives. As a 6-2 would-be championship season deteriorated into a 6-7 hot mess, so did Burfict's reputation. But why?

"There are two ways these guys are evaluated," an NFL scout explained during this year's bowl season, swiping through his iPad to pull up clips and stats on Burfict from that 2011 season. Scouts attend college practices and games nearly year-round. They love to talk. But they know they will be fired in an instant if their name is attached to what they have to say. "First, there is this stuff: the hard, fast data and the film. It doesn't lie. And what it told us about him that year was that the football player was still in there. Forget the personal fouls (an NCAA-leading 22 in 37 games). A good coach can work with mean. But the second part of this process is the part that you don't see."

That would be the chatter. The gossip. The over-in-the-corner conversations that take place on the back row of press boxes high above the stadium and in the tunnels below it, starting as off-the-record whispers and ending as career-altering reports rolling off printers in the offices of the NFL's 32 general managers. In the case of Burfict, the tales of arrests and locker room helmet flings in Tempe (none of which were ever proved) started overtaking the anecdotes of his great play.

"I compare it to the stock market," says Bill Polian, former Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers GM and now ESPN analyst. "There will always be things that a CEO or a board of directors can do to dictate their company's worth on the market. But there are also things they can't control. What those traders are saying down on the floor or in the bars on Wall Street."

In football, those traders are the scouts. Those scouts talk to coaches. Those coaches have talked to one another. And everyone talks to everyone else in hotel bars and on driving ranges. In the case of underclassmen entering the draft, there are little to zero trustworthy measurables to fall back on. So it's the talk that rules. "Once that talk gets out there, it consumes the whole process," says Kiper, who dropped Burfict from a top-15 slot on his NFL Draft Big Board all the way to 95th but refused to remove him from the top 100 altogether. "I had NFL personnel guys calling me and saying, 'Are you nuts? Don't you hear what's going on with this guy?' And I did, but I just couldn't shake the video from 2011 and what we'd seen from him at his best. You had to think that player was still in there."

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."

Many a sports psychology major has written his or her dissertation on the powers of chemistry. The benefits of being surrounded by the right people, whether as a linebacker or a bean counter, have positive mental effects. But in Burfict's case, it has opened the doors to a new level of on-field awareness. He's always had the ability to see plays develop and to see lanes open and close ahead of him. But now those plays have started to slow down in his mind, not unlike Magic Johnson claiming he could see the Lakers' famous fast breaks in super slow-mo or Dale Earnhardt Sr. hinting that he could "see the air" and let it lead him into the quickest line of traffic at Daytona.

"When you are put in the right environment, paired with the right people, it allows you to take ownership of your abilities. It's what I call 'The Hinge,' " explains Rob Bell, a sports psychologist who wrote a book by the same title. Citing Josh Hamilton with the Texas Rangers and Mike Tyson with Cus D'Amato, Bell likens athletes being pushed -- but in a way that fits their personalities -- to the lubrication that opens doors to new places mentally. "You give them the right challenge and then the right motivation -- say, not being drafted -- and it kicks that door open."

The clarity and restored confidence on the other side of that door is what has allowed Burfict to narrow his focus toward fine-tuning. The college hitter has become a textbook tackling machine, combining incredible spatial awareness with off-the-charts memory skill. The "attitude problem" has become a team leader, despite being among other natural leaders. The fat kid now works out by pushing cars and spends his weekdays getting acupuncture. The teenager who lacked "football smarts" is now a one-man walking film room. And the guy who once refused to speak into any microphones is now a smiling quotesmith, bracketing every comment with "Yes sir." Funny what a second chance -- and 187 solo tackles -- can do for a man.

"I hope players look at me and see that they can do this, even if they think they've blown it or even if the system seems to be working against them," the All-Pro says, hand on the Chihuahua. "And I hope maybe the people who run the system see that there are guys out there who are more than combine stats from one day or more than some stories that someone has told them about the guy without actually meeting them. They are ... what's the word?"

Football players?

"Exactly."

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