So why did the NFL fine Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict $112,000 but not suspend him after multiple infractions last week against the Steelers?
Per a league source with knowledge of the situation, the NFL was concerned that a suspension would not hold up on appeal to Derrick Brooks or James Thrash, the independent hearing officers jointly hired and paid by the NFL and the NFL Players Association.
It’s not pride or ego that fueled the reluctance to swing and miss. As the source explained it, a suspension that is overturned on appeal creates the impression in 32 locker rooms that the league office is overreaching.
That’s not the message the league currently wants to send, and for good reason. With plenty of internal and external griping about enhanced sensitivity to roughing the passer, it wouldn’t take much to rile up players who think the league is unfairly punishing defensive players for doing their jobs.
As it stands, Burfict will (pending appeal) forfeit half of his game check for the week, based on a pair of infractions. First, he lowered his helmet to make contact with Steelers running back James Conner on a play that began with 5:17 remaining in the third quarter, and Burfict unnecessarily struck Steelers receiver Antonio Brown in the head with a forearm on a play that began with 11:19 left in the third quarter.
The letter to Burfict, which makes no mention of the alleged “you’re next!” threat to Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, makes it clear that “[f]urther offenses will result in a suspension.” That language represents a departure from the standard fine letter, which says that further offenses will result in a fine and/or a suspension.
The revision wasn’t a mistake. The league wants to put Burfict and the Bengals on full and fair notice that, if he commits another violation of the rules regarding player safety, he will be suspended. Again.
Burfict will get his next chance to comply with the rules, or otherwise, on Sunday night, when the 4-2 Bengals visit the 5-1 Chiefs.