Vontaze Burfict: The Science of Tackling and the Repercussions

Vontaze Burfict’s 2014 season was marred by injuries, namely concussions. Amid research and professional opinions, Burfict will need to alter his mentality – and his tackling mechanics – if he wants to spend more time on the field than on the bench moving forward.

 

He’s the Cincinnati Bengals’ diamond in the rough. A hard hitter, and, at times, a magnet for controversy, Vontaze Burfict has nonetheless surpassed expectations as Cincinnati’s inside linebacker. In fact, he’s become the keystone for the defense.

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Statistically, his value to the team is illustrated by his 127 combined tackles in his rookie year, during which he started 14 out of 16 games. The Bengals defense, as a whole, allowed 2.4 less yards per play when Burfict was on the field. He concluded the 2013 season with 171 tackles, again leading the team, per Cincy Jungle (SB Nation).

And when in 2014 he spent most of the season in a state of injury flux, the Bengals defense lost arguably its best player, and with it, its identity.

Now, with Burfict recovering from concussion issues and microfracture surgery on his knee, the goal has become – rather, it shouldbecome making sure that their best linebacker doesn’t miss any more time than he has to in the approaching seasons. In other words, keep the guy from pounding a dent in his head the size of a baseball.

Let’s forget the knee surgery. That, in itself, is a very serious matter. But, alas, it is an issue that is far more difficult to protect against. On the other hand, there are ways to limit the risk for concussions that we can focus on as we learn more about the dangerous head injuries.

By the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of a concussion is “a stunning, damaging, or shattering effect from a hard blow, especially a jarring injury of the brain resulting in disturbance of cerebral function.” We may take several things from this.

First, the words ‘stunning,’ ‘damaging,’ and ‘shattering’ don’t necessarily emanate the most positive of connotations. Second, the key word here is “brain.” A concussion isn’t dangerous merely because of surface damage – the skull is quite the impressive defense in this case. No, a concussion is deadly because it affects the brain in a way that researchers, neurologists, and doctors everywhere are still trying to understand.

And professional athletes deal with the risk of suffering one every time they take the field. None more so than NFL players.

It’s a situation that involves more questions than answers. Ultimately, the Bengals defensive coaches and athletic trainers need to find a way to cut into the chance of Burfict suffering another head injury. If he continues to play the way that he has in his first two years in the league, he may end up spending more time on the sideline than on the field. And studies done by the Center for Disease Control, among others, show that athletes’ post-football lives have been seriously affected by concussions.

It’s the second concussion that matters the most, says former Miami Dolphins offensive lineman John Bock. “The second concussion has a 50% fatality rate, so that’s the hit that causes problems.” He also noted that the morbidity rate is 100%, further indicating the danger of a repeat concussion. Now that his playing days are over, Bock does work with concussion testing in Broward County, Florida (Broward Health).

In addressing concussion issues in current athletes, Bock had a interesting perspective. “Leading with your shoulder, in my opinion, leads to more whiplash for your head,” he said. He argued that the G-force generated through shoulder hits that spin your head around on impact are what cause most head injuries. “If you believe in leading with your face, that puts you on the edge, but it collapses the alignment of your neck.”

When asked about dealing with the risk of concussion injuries, former Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers linebacker Quintus McDonald identified it as an issue very important to him. In fact, as I spoke with him, he was waiting at a chiropractor’s office for his weekly appointment.

“I grew up in an era where we we taught to lead with our head and bring the hands. It wasn’t until my 4th year in the NFL when the coaches at San Francisco wanted me to play at a much lighter weight than my days in Indianapolis,” said McDonald.

“Mentally I became satisfied with making tackles for no gain after contact versus trying to put a player out with every tackle. I can’t begin to tell you how many plays I played with little to no vision, because of my mentality.”

Perhaps the Cincinnati coaches need to take a page out of the old 49ers’ coaching book. On second thought, maybe they ought to just borrow the whole thing, considering the stubbornness that Burfict has displayed in his aggressive tackling mechanics.

Like McDonald, Burfict needs to alter his mentality in how he approaches a tackle. Learning vision and how to pace his season will prove a great benefit in determining both the longevity of his career and his health afterwards.

Burfict draws some intriguing parallels to Adrian Ross, former Cincinnati Bengals linebacker from 1998-2003. Both were undrafted free agents at the same position. Ross told me that he spoke with Burfict when the latter was coming out of college.

“I told him there is a time and a place to express your anger,” he explained. “I like his talent and his aggressiveness. It’s exactly what the Bengals needed. He is a very talented player. I have seen a lot of growth from Vontaze thus far, and I expect to see more.”

If Burfict’s talent is the price, hopefully his aggressiveness doesn’t become the cost.

Let us know what you think!